Philanthropic Leadership—an Oxymoron?

May 3, 2010

This is a topic that I’ve been wrestling with for a long time and especially since the party ended 18 months ago. My interest in these posts is not about leadership of the philanthropic sector itself—as important as that is—but about leadership by philanthropists and social investors in service of a goal that usually takes lots of actors to achieve and lots more money than any one philanthropist has to offer. And about leadership in uncertain times, when all we know for certain is that things have and will continue to change in a big way. In this context, how can individual, family, corporate, community, or institutional donors take on truly effective leadership roles in navigating through the stress and using this as an opportunity to develop bold, new, nonintuitive solutions to critical problems? And what are those leadership roles? There are some who would argue that the presumption of foundation leadership is tripe and hubris and not the right role for philanthropy at all (Bill Schambra, I think of you here). I would counter that it is not only fitting, but essential, especially during these volatile—dare we say game-changing—times. And that these times demand leadership in many guises and generated by individuals at the top, middle, and sideways of their organizations and communities.
It’s a slam dunk to acknowledge the leadership role taken by the Gates Foundation in improving global health through higher vaccination rates. In my home town, we can appreciate the pivotal role played by the Boston Foundation in growing the charter school movement in ways that didn’t always win them the applause of key stakeholders. But what about the quiet leadership role taken on by one family member of a TPI client to persuade her family—over time and through running many different experiments—that a strategy focused on the unpopular and distasteful plight of incarcerated mothers and their kids was worthwhile? Or the mid-level corporate philanthropy staff member who stuck her neck out to propose a radically different approach to solving the youth violence prevention problem in the headquarters city by collaborating with other companies, foundations, and the government?
Over the coming entries, I will address some of the leadership challenges and achievements faced by different philanthropic actors, including family members, corporate staff, and women. I will explore different frames for leadership, from adaptive to transformative. And throughout, I hope to engage in a conversation with readers about questions such as the following:

  • What are the ingredients of effective leadership in today’s stressed and uncertain philanthropic/economic climate?
  • What are the opportunities of effective philanthropic leadership?
  • What behaviors, attitudes, and practices can an individual embrace in pursuit of positive and productive change?

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