Making the Argument for Leadership Development

By    Dec 3, 2013

Linda Wood, Senior Director of the Haas Leadership Initiative at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, recently wrote an interesting post on The CEP Blog of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, “The Leadership Development Disconnect.” Working both in the field of leadership development and on program evaluation, I was encouraged to see these important issues highlighted. Much of my experience is consistent with the author’s.

In the post, Wood states:

“…not enough funders are investing in strengthening the leadership of their grantees. And second, many of those who do may not be providing the kind of support that nonprofit leaders want and need… In stark contrast to the corporate sector, most grantmakers do not view leadership development as an essential investment that pays off over the long run. They see such support as a “nice-to-have,” even a luxury.”

I am always pleased to see funders supporting professional development: generally advocating for it, funding it directly for their grantees or funding organizations that provide it for the field (as a provider of leadership development for the arts and culture sector, National Arts Strategies falls in this final category). I also hear arts and culture leaders articulate the value of professional development opportunities, for themselves and their teams: 77% of NAS Business of Arts and Culture alumni found the content in our leadership development programs highly relevant to their work.

Just as we are well served when we rely on the judgment of those leading the organizations we invest in regarding resource allocation generally (by funding general operating support as much as possible), I couldn’t agree more that leaders must be free to develop their own courses of professional development.

My experience has been somewhat different than the author’s in that I haven’t seen the majority of funders view leadership development for nonprofit executives as a luxury good, either in the arts and culture field or the nonprofit sector more broadly. Witness the efforts of organizations such as Independent Sector and the emergence of organizations such as The Center for Effective Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.

It is a challenge to point to definitive causal linkages between investment in leadership development and organizational performance gains given the universe of other factors that affect organizational performance. However, Wood points out, there is considerable evidence supporting the gains on such investment, not least from the very leaders funders are investing in. She points to evaluation data of the Haas, Jr. Fund’s Flexible Leadership Awards (FLA) grantees who have demonstrated tangible gains in many areas, including leadership capacity. An analysis of NAS evaluation data on arts and culture executives revealed similar experiences: 97% of organizations took action following participation in our leadership development programs and 88% experienced organizational change.

There is another kind of disconnect related to leadership development. I hear executives identify leadership development as critical to personal and organizational success as well as talent recruitment and retention, firsthand from nonprofit leaders NAS has worked with over the last ten years and in research such as the 2011 Daring to Lead study. However, leadership development budgets (where they exist) are among the first items to be cut in a downturn: precisely when, it can be argued, this investment is most critical.

I applaud Linda Wood for posing the question of what barriers exist to a greater appreciation by grantmakers of the impact professional development has on the performance of nonprofit leaders and their organizations and what more funders can do to support their grantees’ professional development needs without being prescriptive. There is of course a responsibility for nonprofit leaders who value professional development to advocate for it, ensuring funders and other stakeholders are aware it is a lever for increasing organizational performance and therefore, mission achievement. Finally, those of us who work to provide effective and relevant professional development opportunities must strive to continue to improve the evaluation of our programs’ impact, giving both leaders and funders common language and data to judge the return on this critical investment.