Leadership, Not Authority, is Needed in Philanthropy

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Jim Coutre of The Philanthropic Initiative.

By Jim Coutre

image Back in Boston, we’ve be submerged in conversations around leadership in philanthropy ­ mainly top down kind of stuff ­ talking with the people out front, the CEO’s and corporate leaders who define culture within an organization, the funders who leverage their visibility to rally others. So it is with no surprise that I found myself viewing everything here at GEO through the lens of leadership.

Sure there are the formal sessions on leading in challenging times and creating a culture for effectiveness (I have to type fast so I can get to that one on time) but what I’ve found most exciting and inspiring are the small examples I’m stumbling across of leadership being expressed not just in grand ways from the top down, but in small ways from every level within grantmaking organizations and from their communities.

Jeff Edmondson from Strive, a partnership of postsecondary, K-12, business and nonprofit organizations in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky aimed at supporting every child from cradle to career, told us in his session about a wake up call their group received, not from an executive director or superintendant, but from the local coroner who stood up in front of the coalition of funders and said “We¹re program rich and system poor. Starting more programs isn’t going to keep kids from showing up on my table.” A demand for systems change. I love it.

And in an informal conversation last night at the August Wilson Center (which might have actually saved me from some line dancing) I talked with a foundation program officer who was outraged when she found out that Recovery and Reinvestment money in Maine was going to one community for IT upgrades while going to another for basic sanitation. She was irate. “How can we let these gaps grow so big? How can we accept these disparities?” She is not going to. She is also not going to wait for a new strategic plan to come down from her board before reallocating her efforts to bring the force of her grantmaking and relationships to address these disparities.

Just two small examples. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing game changing.

Inspiring none the less and reminders of a) why I like coming to GEO, b) the power of leadership even if its not “to scale” and that c) we need to understand the difference between authority and leadership and do everything we can to create a culture within all of our organizations and networks where leadership is not only nurtured and encouraged, but is the expectation ­ at every level. As Bill Strickland told us at breakfast this morning, environment and expectations define performance.

What have you heard? What unexpected acts of leadership have you run across?

I¹d love to shine the spotlight on other small but inspiring examples. Yes to recognize those who deserve recognition, but also for the benefit of everyone who isn’t here in Pittsburg and thus missing those informal ah-ha moments that happen when so many wonderful and hard working people come together.