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Investing in Leadership Development: One Executive’s Experience

September 30, 2015

From the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities:

When the Communty Foundation of Louisville was offered 1 million by a private donor, it did not take President and CEO Susan Barry long to decide what to do with the generous gift.

She recommended the donor set aside half in a permanent endowment to support his most beloved organizations and contribute $250,000 to the Community Foundation’s Fund for Louisville to support a competitive grants program for capacity building. A quarter of the funding remained—and Barry had unique plans for it. “I wanted to set up a leadership development program with the final $250,000,” she says.

Barry believes that strong leaders make for strong organizations, and that good leadership comes from an opportunity to learn and develop. The Alden Fellows program was created with the specific goal of developing up-and-coming nonprofit CEOs.

“It’s from personal experience that I think leadership development is so important. I was a German Marshall Fund fellow, funded by the Mott Foundation, to study in Europe and an honorary fellow for the York Federal Fellows program,” says Barry. “Stakeholders want nonprofits to be as excellent as possible, and I think leadership is key to that.”

The Alden Fellows Advisory Committee nominates and interviews local leaders for the program. As part of the process, the nominees are asked to submit a proposal detailing a project that would use the fellowship’s $5,000 stipend for professional development. Barry encourages fellows to pursue experiences that otherwise might be perceived as unconventional, including trips abroad.

“Most of the fellows have never heard of anything like this. They keep thinking there’s got to be some catch. They can’t believe someone would invest in them, and they think I’m giving them money to go to a conference,” says Barry “But I don’t want them to go to a conference; I want them to do something that will really take them to another level as an executive director or a CEO of an organization—I want this to be extraordinary.”

DSC_2313Pam Darnall was one of the new executives selected as an inaugural Alden Fellow who was asked to think outside of the box. She was appointed president and CEO of Alliance for Strong Families and Communities member Family & Children’s Place in Louisville, Kentucky in 2014.

Darnall decided to travel to and study other organizations so she could better understand new strategies for long-term sustainability initiatives. After tapping into the Alliance’s executive network, she made plans to visit Children’s Aid and Family Services in Paramus, New Jersey; Lad Lake in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Alpert Jewish Family and Children’s Service in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“I spent nearly a day and a half with each of the three CEOs, covering issues including boards, fundraising and development initiatives, strategic planning, staff productivity, partnerships with other organizations, and social enterprise. I even got to spend time with the leadership teams and specific executives,” says Darnall. “Without the Alden Fellowship stipend, I never would have had the opportunity to do any of this.”

Like Barry, Darnall believes leadership development is critical to the effectiveness and influence of human-serving organizations. She notes that often employees who excel in specialized roles are placed into supervisory or leadership positions with little coaching or training about the broader leadership skills the roles will require. When these staff struggle in the new roles, however, it ultimately impacts organizational efficiency and achieving strategic goals.

“If we do a better job of recruiting and developing our staff and trying to retain them, we’ll have better outcomes. Part of retention is allowing opportunities for real, genuine leadership development,” says Darnall. “Some say, ‘What if we help develop them and they leave?’ and I say, ‘Well what if we don’t and they stay? What if we’re not developing them and they hang around forever?’”

One milestone in Darnall’s own career development plan was her completion of the Alliance’s Executive Leadership Institute (ELI), a certificate program for emerging senior leaders in nonprofit human-serving organizations that is co-sponsored by the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work and Ross School of Business.

“Looking back, the Executive Leadership Institute really was a great way to begin creating a foundational knowledge base for what leadership requires. It pushed participants to think about how leadership applies to where you are in your community, in your life, and in the mission for which you’re working,” says Darnall.

As part of ELI, students complete individual projects. Darnall created a leadership development structure for Family & Children’s Place, which, in turn, prepared her for the self-directed project she would pursue as an Alden Fellow.

The importance of earmarking time and funds for leadership development cannot be stressed enough. According to the Foundation Center, between 1992 and 2011, overall foundation giving toward leadership development was less than one percent. The lack of dedicated funding often leaves executives putting other organizational needs above their own.

“Many leaders don’t think about themselves or aren’t comfortable making a case for their own leadership development,” says Barry. “I think leaders are so focused on the bottom line, making sure that the organization runs well and is sustainable, that they don’t consider their own development.”

Both Barry and Darnall, recognizing the importance of leadership development, are committed to ensuring that future leaders have opportunities for professional growth and understand its necessity within nonprofit leadership.

“Those who are in direct service positions or lower manager positions will be the leaders of the agency in the future, and if we don’t figure out ways to help them develop their leadership skillsets, then we’re doing them a disservice,” adds Darnall. “We’re doing organizations and missions a disservice, too—let alone a disservice to our communities.”