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The Case for Leadership Development: Lessons from a Regional Model

Post date: 
August 4th, 2015
Article Type: 
AGM Blog Post

The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”  Warren Bennis, Pioneer in the field of Leadership Studies

Organizations working on substantive issues for the benefit of the larger community rely on solid and visionary leadership. While many may have innate qualities that make them suitable to lead, it is cultivation of these abilities through strong mentorship and access to rich experience and opportunity that can transform those with raw talent into great leaders. Nowhere is this more vital than in the world of philanthropy, where our people and organizations are charged with leading communities to seek change that is so necessary to develop a robust and equitable society.  While philanthropy has a veritable abundance of motivated and effective leadership, the field, as a whole, has been largely monoracial; without the input of various perspectives and experiences, it becomes difficult to recognize the real needs of the community or to understand which solutions are workable ore equitable. Any institution that makes decisions from a demographically monolithic mindset will, by definition, be trying to remove barriers while operating behind its own.  The documented dearth of people of color within the ranks of foundation leadership is particularly troubling for this reason, yet a recent leadership development program sought to shift the balance towards a more inclusive and diverse philanthropic community.

For eight years, I served as the director of the Diversity Fellowship program created by Associated Grant Makers (AGM) and later moved to Proteus Fund. A feasibility study conducted in 2005 determined that local foundations had significant interest in creating and supporting a pipeline program to help hire more people of color into the field of philanthropy, but weren’t sure how to design a hiring process that authentically attracted candidates of color to the philanthropic sector. Those interviewed indicated a need for expanded outreach to produce a larger and more diverse pool of candidates, but weren’t sure what to do beyond this activity. The staff and board at AGM decided it wasn’t enough to focus simply on the expansion of the candidate pool. Rather, to ensure candidates the best opportunity to secure leadership positions in philanthropy, the Fellowship would need to provide a comprehensive foundation curriculum that cultivated a deep understanding of the sector, enough time for Fellows to develop content expertise, professional development training, connections and mentorship with established colleagues, executive coaching and assistance with job searches.

The Proteus Fund took over stewardship of the Fellowship in September 2010 with its’ board’s belief that the program aligned with the foundation’s commitment to diversity and racial equity. With a commitment of time, resources and larger foundation partner support, it was intended the Fellowship could evolve beyond a stand-alone human resources program, and could expand to offer tools for the regional sector to dig deeper on issues of inclusion and equity.  The Fellowship was intended to have both practical and far-reaching impacts to establish an excellent pipeline training and development program that provided mutual benefit to candidates of color interested in entering the field and foundations seeking qualified candidates; and to provide the New England philanthropic region with the knowledge and capacity to commit to long-term systemic diversity, inclusion and equity.

The Fellowship successfully opened the doors for almost 30 professionals of color who otherwise may never have found an entry point. They have entered the field better trained in all facets of the nuts and bolts of philanthropy than most who have entered through a general hiring process.

Associated Grant Makers and Proteus Fund confirmed with two independently conducted “Lessons Learned” reports that, yes, leadership development is important to individuals; but also benefits institutions sector-wide. The Fellowship did not create wholesale institutional systemic change, but over eight years put the issues of diversity, greater representation and equity at the forefront for some, while helping to further others who were already walking this road. On a more practical level, the Fellowship provided an effective example of what it looks like and means to invest in future and current employees to diversify our institutions, and this may ultimately represent a pathway to long-term, systemic change.

The Fellowship also provided a model for collaborative leadership; one foundation serving as the steward, but engaging the participating foundations to agree on candidates, placement and support for the Fellows in every aspect of their professional development and their eventual job search. Each of these important exercises and points of integration allowed for and modeled collaboration, field-building and commitment to leadership. In the end, shared values, interest and needs took precedence over individual institutional desires.

An immediate goal for this leadership development program had been to see 75% of the Fellows in the field immediately after their completion of the Fellowship and after five years.  These benchmarks have been met, and about one quarter of the Fellows are currently progressing at a very high-level within their foundations. Others agree they are well on their way to greater philanthropic leadership in the next five years. In addition, the Fellows indicate a strong commitment to mentorship and assisting others in the field. They know what it means to be on the outside looking in and are determined to be a resource to new and emerging colleagues of all backgrounds.

Regardless of the model utilized, the reality is that well-designed and executed leadership training takes a great deal of commitment. Most people are working so hard they barely look up to give themselves time for reflection. Though its focus was on people of color, the Diversity Fellowship recognized, that, in fact many colleagues independent of race, ethnicity or gender were struggling in the field because they lacked appropriate education and training important for doing their job. 


Understanding this need of the larger sector led the Proteus Fund with the initial encouragement of partners at the Boston Foundation, to extend some of its learning beyond the Fellows. Beginning with the first class of Proteus Fund Fellows in 2011, learning was opened to staff of foundations providing funding for the Fellowship, because it was understood that leadership development was a need across the sector and everyone could benefit. This led to collaborations with trainers and vendors to create expanded programming that grew exponentially each year.

Most fellowships operate internally at a foundation with one or two participants and many have no focus or intentionality around diversifying the field and creating a pipeline to greater opportunity. The Diversity Fellowship sought to make an impact at all levels. This was most evident in 2010 when the Proteus Fund initiated a community-wide process that invited all stakeholders to participate in the creation of the program’s first Theory of Change; this with an insistence on ambitious initial, intermediate and long-term goals. The program did not have the time to meet every goal, but with the larger philanthropic community’s encouragement and investment, it met many of those related to the individual Fellows.

The Proteus Fund Diversity Fellowship ended after a final offering of trainings in spring 2015. Though there was continued interest, foundations were faced with competing funding needs, and many preferred to utilize the Fellowship as a general human resources tool. In the end, this inability to commit early on in the host site foundation recruitment process, as well as very little chance for multi-year funding, made it increasingly more difficult to appropriately plan and stabilize the Fellowship.  Some sites were small and over time became concerned about their ability to provide high quality supervision and mentorship, while others were worried the Fellowship still had not yet found a sustainable business/financial model that increased the number of host sites and decreased reliance on a small handful of large funders. An incredible amount of effort went into recruiting past and new foundation partners. Some cited internal planning, the inability to focus on bringing in a new person or a worry that using funding to hire a Fellow for a year made it impossible to hire a full-time person. Some found the program Fellowship grant well within reason to cover salary, program fees and trainers, given the excellence of the candidates and the high quality design and management of the Fellowship, but nonetheless unaffordable even when offered the opportunity to split the cost and time of the Fellow with another foundation to lower cost.

In the end, for a Fellowship program to be sustained, it may be optimal to design a Fellowship model that is more continuous and embedded within an organization. A local corporate funder may provide an example of what greater success might look like for future programs. This funder was scheduled to join as a new partner beginning in 2015-2016 with multi-year funding provided from the outset. The funder thought the model piloted at the Barr Foundation with the selected Fellow staying on for two years and in the second year becoming a senior Fellow, was the most useful for learning and long-term sustainability for all partners. They saw value in the Fellow’s long-term learning and as an institution to have more time with the Fellow on their team. The funder further evidenced their commitment by partnering with their human resources department. The slot would officially become the “Proteus Fund Diversity Fellowship” position and would welcome a new Fellow every other year in the same department for long-term institutional thinking, learning and systemic change.

The philanthropic sector continues to grow and evolve even as the needs to be addressed grow more significant and urgent.  Investment in leadership development and tools to make the knowledge around the staff and board room table more representative and better prepared will become even more critically important. The move from simple charity to transforming systems and creating reform demand institutional leaders that have been thoughtfully trained. We hope the lessons learned from the Diversity Fellowship will continue to be shared and create ongoing value.

Tammy Dowley-Blackman is the founding director of the Diversity Fellowship.
She is currently the Vice President at CFLeads.

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