Leader at white board Photo by Lydia Daniller

Flexible Leadership Awards: An Update

“It’s not just about the ED,” and other lessons learned

In April 2010, the FLA program shares some of its insights and lessons to date.

One organization prepared itself for the departure of a longtime executive director, with the board and staff working together to carve out future goals and a plan for continued success.

Another provided one-on-one coaching to its executive director so that they could work more productively as a team and manage the growth of their programs.

Another expanded and strengthened its senior leadership ranks so the executive director could spend less time managing day-to-day operations and more time building a national movement for change.

What these organizations have in common is their participation in the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund’s Flexible Leadership Awards (FLA) program. Currently in its third year, the program has proved a rich learning laboratory for the Fund as we strive to answer the question, “What is the best way to help nonprofit organizations strengthen their leadership so they can achieve ever-improving results for the communities they serve?”

Investing in Leadership

The Haas, Jr. Fund is not alone in seeking answers to this question. Today, a growing number of foundation and nonprofit leaders are speaking out about the value and the importance of investing in stronger leadership for the sector. The reason: stronger leadership will lead to improved performance for nonprofits—and, in turn, greater impact on issues from education to civil rights.

But foundations still are not providing the leadership development resources that nonprofits need. One of the main reasons for the lack of investment is uncertainty about how to do it right. Given the potential costs involved in this intensive form of support, many foundations want clearer roadmaps and tested models that show the impact and the effectiveness of this work.

As the Haas, Jr. Fund set out to explore how we could do a better job strengthening the leadership of our grantees, we faced many of the same concerns—and the same uncertainty about what would work. At the same time, however, we were determined to experiment with new approaches to developing nonprofit leadership—approaches that moved beyond episodic interventions or one-time trainings to deeper, longer-term engagements. We were determined to find out more about what types of leadership support could best help nonprofits achieve their goals.

After a review of successful leadership development approaches in both nonprofit and corporate settings, we created a program that provides high-level, customized support based on an organization’s unique situation. The FLA program engages executive directors, senior staff and board members of selected nonprofits to think expansively about where their organizations want to go, what kind of leadership they need to get there, and how to make sure staff and board leaders have the skills and the support that will help them succeed.

By providing nonprofits with dedicated resources to hire coaches and enlist other forms of customized support, the FLA program is based on an understanding that one-size-fits-all approaches to leadership development don’t work. Nonprofits need tailored, flexible support that allows them to identify the leadership investments that will help them meet today’s challenges while strengthening their organizations for tomorrow.

Reflections on What Works

As the FLA program enters its third year, we cannot say we have an itemized list of “lessons learned” about investing in nonprofit leadership. However, we do believe we have a deeper appreciation of some of the crucial building blocks of effective leadership support. The following are some initial reflections from this work:

Organizational outcomes matter.

The objective of this work isn’t solely to develop individual leaders but to develop leaders in ways that enhance their organization's’ ability to achieve strategic goals. Most of the organizations participating in the FLA program have launched intensive planning efforts to build consensus among board and staff leaders about the vision and direction of their organizations. Working with plan consultants funded by the program, these organizations have coupled their strategy-setting work with determined efforts to ensure that their leaders are up to the tasks ahead.

  • Consultant Greg Hodge worked with the leadership of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth to chart a new vision for the San Francisco organization. Among the outcomes of the process: a ramped-up focus on community organizing; and new strategies for sharing direction-setting for the organization between the board and an active and involved membership. “The FLA process slowed us down from campaign mode and laid an authentic foundation to do work in new ways and maintain the integrity of who we are,” said a Coleman Advocates staff member.

Coaching counts.

One-on-one coaching goes beyond skills training to provide nonprofit leaders with fresh insights into the nature of their jobs and with strategies for meeting day-to-day challenges in their work. Nonprofit leaders regularly cite coaching as the most valuable form of assistance that the FLA program provides.

  • Coaching has been one of the core components of the work of the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC). EBAYC engaged coaches to work with senior staff members. According to the organization’s executive director, David Kakishiba, “Coaching supported staff to find precious time for planning and reflection in our work and helped us to think through major changes to the organization. As an example, for the first time, we now have a board that includes youth and community members directly served by EBAYC.”

Transitions are moments of opportunity, not crises to endure.

The departure of a longtime executive director often is viewed as a time of enormous risk and challenge for an organization. But it is also a time of opportunity. Several participants in the FLA program have used the Haas, Jr. Fund’s support to lay the groundwork for successful leadership transitions—reaching consensus on future priorities for their organizations, clarifying the leadership roles of the board and senior staff, and designing and implementing a successful search.

  • Facing the departure of its longtime executive director, Girls Inc. of Alameda County used its FLA grant to facilitate agreement among the organization’s board and staff leaders on a new strategic focus for the future. As a result of the planning process, Girls Inc. had a much better idea of the qualities to look for in a new executive director. Coaching for the outgoing and incoming leaders helped both ensure a smooth handover. Associate Executive Director, Judy Glenn, told the Oakland Tribune that the coaching, mentoring and other assistance made possible by the Haas, Jr. Fund award was “crucial” to the success of the transition. When asked how Girls Inc. would have fared without the FLA support, she replied, “It would have been pretty scary.”

It’s not just about the ED.

The FLA program emphasizes team-based approaches to leadership development that reach beyond the executive director. The goal: to engage board and staff leaders in a shared effort to identify key challenges facing their organizations and to develop leadership plans to meet them.

  • The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) is using its FLA grant to develop the leadership capacity it needs to manage the organization’s remarkable growth and allow the executive director to play a stronger external leadership role in the gay and lesbian movement. Among the focal points for NCLR’s work: building a senior team, including key leadership roles in communications and fundraising, “The staff we have brought on are outstanding and have formed a professional leadership team,” said NCLR board member Akaya Windwood. “They have helped us grow from an ad hoc, nimble grassroots organization to the next level of professionalism that we now need.”

Working with the 15 organizations enrolled in the FLA program’s inaugural class, the Haas, Jr. Fund has been reminded again and again of one lesson that stands out above the others: leading these organizations is tough. The executive director position calls for leaders to play a wide variety of often-contradictory roles—from visionary and figurehead to team-builder, issue expert and hands-on manager. An important challenge for foundations and others who are intent on helping nonprofits succeed is to surround these executives with the resources and the customized support they need to better understand their roles and how to manage the strains and contradictions built into them.

Equally important, foundations can play a crucial role in creating opportunities for organizations, their leaders, and the consultants and coaches who work with them to share what they are learning about how best to strengthen nonprofit leadership. Participants report that the peer-learning opportunities offered by the FLA have generated valuable insights and inspiration, while opening doors to colleagues facing similar challenges and frustrations.

The Support Nonprofits Need

Nonprofit organizations need to understand that it really is OK to invest in themselves. Using the flexible resources provided by the Haas, Jr. Fund, our FLA grantees are strengthening their boards and senior leadership teams, launching thoughtful strategic planning work, engaging coaches for board and staff leaders, and taking other steps to support their leaders as they work to boost the impact of their organizations.

This kind of work should not be a luxury for a few organizations. Rather, investing in leadership in ways that deliver results for organizations and movements should be standard operating procedure in a sector with such formidable responsibilities as improving communities and protecting and advancing people’s basic rights.

The Haas, Jr. Fund looks forward to continuing to share what we are learning as this work goes forward. And we are eager to hear the experiences of others and what they are learning in this important arena.