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July 22, 2010

The Manchester Bidwell Corporation uses arts, education, and job training to transform communities and improve people’s lives. Based on its success in its hometown of Pittsburgh, the organization has opened new arts and technology training centers in Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, and San Francisco—and it is actively looking for other replication sites.

Ask Manchester Bidwell’s founder and MacArthur Genius Award winner Bill Strickland about the secret of “going to scale” with a successful program like his, and he’ll tell you it’s all about the people.
“You need to invest in leaders, not programs,” Strickland told participants at GEO’s National Conference this spring.  “Programs come and go; philanthropy should focus more on the people running them and what they need to succeed.”

This is great advice for the Friends of Buffett and Gates (FOBGs) who are considering their request for stepped-up philanthropy on the part of the nation’s billionaires. While it’s always tempting to want to invest in big ideas and new programs to tackle this or that social problem, it’s also important to remember that those ideas and programs are only as good as the people behind them.

Investing in leaders transforms what grantmakers do; it transforms what grantmakers are. If philanthropy follows the Strickland approach, then foundations would operate very differently than they traditionally have. Grantmakers become talent scouts. They become developers and nurturers of standout nonprofit leaders. And instead of focusing on maintaining accountability over leaders and their organizations as they do their work, foundations view them as trusted partners. They believe in the leadership of an organization, they give the organization what its leaders say they need to succeed, and then they get out of the way so the organization can do its work.

In my first post in this series, I wrote about adaptive capacity as a core characteristic of innovative organizations. Adaptive capacity can come from a lot of things (including, as I wrote in that post, the availability of flexible resources). But you can’t have adaptive capacity without adaptive leaders—people who are capable of identifying and taking advantage of new opportunities or redesigning organizational strategies in response to changing conditions on the ground.

Running an effective nonprofit is hard work. It takes talent. And foundations, whether large or small, can take any number of steps to make sure nonprofits have the talent they need. General operating support, when provided in sufficient quantities, can allow an organization to offer competitive salaries so that qualified and capable leaders will be more likely to join and stay. And grantmakers can provide nonprofits with dedicated resources for leadership development (including executive coaching, training and more), so they invest in their current and future leaders as a matter of course—rather than deferring these investments because other priorities have to always come first.

GEO has looked carefully at philanthropic investments in leadership that can successfully build organizational performance. You can find what we have learned here.

Jim Collins famously observed that leaders of companies that go from “good to great” always start by getting “the right people on the bus.” I hope the FOBGs (and all of us in philanthropy) will keep this in mind as we continue down the road to addressing the enormous challenges facing our communities. Get the right people on the bus, support them while they’re there, and give them what they need to succeed. It’s an approach that’s working for Bill Strickland. Think it will work for you?

Kathleen Enright