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Less Than One Percent

Why leadership development should be a core part of grantmaking

In this SSIR article, Fund president Ira Hirschfield talks about how investing in leadership is critical to accelerating philanthropic impact.

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This blog was originally published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website as part of the Talent Matters series. View the entire series, including the collection curated by Linda Wood featuring additional foundation perspectives on investing in leadership development.

Less than 1 percent. That’s the portion of overall foundation giving that went to leadership development between 1992 and 2011.

Foundations ask a great deal of the organizations we support—to strengthen community, meet urgent needs for services, solve complex environmental problems, influence public policy, and build and sustain movements for change. In short, we hope grantees will deliver transformational results for the people and places they serve. So it’s striking how seldom we back that up with funds to help organizations develop and strengthen the ability of their leaders to meet those high expectations.

People are not born with everything it takes to manage and motivate a team, build coalitions, and lead change—and are certainly not born knowing how to be good board members. These are skills that current and future leaders develop as they are doing actual work. Leaders who have the opportunity to reflect on their strategies and hone their skills make better choices, develop innovative solutions and forge stronger collaborations.

This is what leadership development is about—and to the extent that foundations decide it is important and fund it, then we and our grantees will be better positioned to achieve our goals for impact.

The private sector allocates billions of dollars to leadership development because they know that skilled leaders are a powerful investment. In light of the social sector’s relatively small investment, I think it’s worth asking whether we are capitalizing leadership effectively.

At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we view investment in leadership as a core strategy to accelerate our foundation’s impact. An important question we ask ourselves is: What kind of leadership is needed at the individual, organizational, or network level to achieve our program priorities, and how can we invest in that?

For example, to advance the foundation’s goal of establishing gay marriage rights, we allocate substantial funding specifically to strengthening the leadership capacity of individuals and organizations central to the movement. We also partner with the Arcus Foundation and Gill Foundation to bring more diversity to the LBGT movement, supporting an initiative to help talented people of color advance into senior leadership roles—the Pipeline Project.

Given limited grantmaking resources and competing priorities, it’s reasonable to probe the added value of investing in leadership. Evaluation is one way to address this; for example, we did a formal evaluation of our Flexible Leadership Awards that showed how the program boosted impact.

It’s also important to hear what grantee leaders themselves have to say to funders on the matter. Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, explains: “It’s like adding protein powder to your other grants. If you want your other grants to be successful—if you want your grantees to do the best job in meeting their deliverables and moving the ball forward in their movements—you have to invest in leadership development.”

Over the next three months of the Talent Matters blog series, you will hear perspectives from six foundation leaders who agree with Rea Carey. They will share why they support leadership development and show how these investments advance their foundations’ broader programmatic priorities.

These leaders come from a diverse array of foundations in terms of size, region, and funding priorities. Some are focused on strengthening leadership in nonprofit organizations, some are investing in public sector leadership, and some are building leadership at the network or movement level.

While each foundation’s approach to investing in leadership is distinctive, they share attributes that our experience suggests are important. Chief among these are that leadership is best cultivated over time and that support is tailored to specific priorities and needs; in other words, this is not about a foundation coming in and telling grantees what to do. Nor is it simply about sending executive directors to single training sessions. Rather, it is about helping build leadership at the multiple levels needed to support broader goals.

Here are some of people you will be hearing from in the weeks ahead:

  • Donna Stark, vice president, Talent and Leadership Development of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, will discuss how important it is for leadership development to begin with the end in mind—to clearly define a “result” toward which individuals and groups working on social change can direct their leadership energy;
  • Surina Khan, incoming chief executive officer of the Women's Foundation of California, will spotlight efforts to expand the diversity of leaders in a field, in this case how funders are working to increase the representation of women leaders in public policy;
  • Pamela Shifman, executive director of the NoVo Foundation, will highlight the importance of understanding and supporting a movement’s specific leadership needs, and will share NoVo’s approach to strengthening leadership in the movement to end violence against girls and women;
  • Jim Canales, president of the Barr Foundation, will offer a set of principles to guide foundations who want to maximize the effectiveness of their investment in leadership development as a core strategy to achieve broader goals; and
  • Daniel Lee, executive director at Levi Strauss Foundation, will share some reflections and ideas for how to demonstrate the value proposition of investing in leadership to foundation board members.

I hope their reflections will inspire more of us to explore what lies behind philanthropy’s chronic underinvestment in leadership and see new possibilities. Investing in leadership doesn’t just deliver higher performance; it can also deliver a better, more equitable world.


Ira S. Hirschfield is president and a trustee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund (@haasjrfund), a San Francisco foundation committed to advancing and protecting fundamental rights and opportunities for all people. He has served on many boards, including the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy and Guidestar.