They stand at the center of their organizations. But nonprofit executive directors often place their own professional growth at the periphery of efforts to build organizational capacity. How can the development of leader and organization go hand in hand?
For one answer to this question, consider The James Irvine Foundation's new [Fund for Leadership Advancement.](grantmaking/our-programs/specialinitiatives/fundforleadershipadvancement) Seeking to boost the leadership capacities of executive directors of selected grantees, the Fund helps nonprofit leaders advance mission-critical changes in their organizations. The focus is on an executive's individual development — but in the context of overall organizational growth. Eight grantees were funded in the first round, and two more rounds of funding are planned for 2006.
"We want to get the board more involved in fundraising and strategic planning," says Joseph Marshall, Director of the Omega Boys Club. "And I want to develop my ability to communicate Omega's vision and engage more constituents in our movement."
Irvine is focusing the leadership program on executive directors who are poised to take their organization to the next stage in its growth or respond to significant new opportunities on the near horizon. In other words, the organizational moment is key.
"Timing is so important," says Martha Campbell, Irvine's Vice President for Programs. "We're discovering that our support can make the greatest difference when the organization is going through an inflection point in its evolution. The Fund focuses on organizations that are seizing new opportunities. How can the leader maximize that moment in the organization's life?"
Shelley Hoss, President of the Orange County Community Foundation,) is also using Fund support to exercise more externally-focused leadership. Whereas the Orange County Community Foundation will accomplish this purpose through refocusing its strategic management team and internal systems, the Omega Boys Club will focus on expanding and strengthening its board of directors and improving its use of strategic communications. "We want to get the board more involved in fundraising and strategic planning," says Marshall. "And I want to develop my ability to communicate Omega's vision and engage more constituents in our movement. We think we have a new way to help young people, and we need to do a better job of communicating it to those who deal with young people in California."
For Carol Gelatt, who provides technical assistance to participants and who has worked in the field of executive leadership for twenty years, working on the Fund for Leadership Advancement has been a reminder of "how important it is to look at the entire leadership system. You can't attend to their development in isolation but in the context of the leadership system, including the board and the senior management team. The executive director is the hub of the wheel, but it's not just that person alone."
If one focus is the executive's role in the organization's system, another is that role in the organization's evolution.
Different moments in an organization's life require different kinds of leadership, according to Gelatt. "At each stage of its evolution — the start-up stage, the growth stage, the reinvention stage — an organization needs different kinds of leadership competencies," she says. "So you work with leaders to continually assess an organization's needs and strengths and ask whether their competencies are aligned with those needs and strengths."
For example, several of the executives participating in the program have recently led an organizational turnaround, getting their organization back on track after a period of crisis and spearheading significant shifts in direction, staffing, and size. "What that often means," Gelatt says, "is a need for the executive to shift their focus from a crisis mentality and internal orientation to a more strategic, outwardly oriented approach. You don't just do that overnight. It takes attention and energy to go from the internal to the external. There are direct implications for their priorities, how they spend their day, how they engage their management team and board of directors."
Leaders tend to have a firm grasp on the drivers of change in their organizations, such as changing needs of clients, new funding realities, or program opportunities, according to Gelatt. Less defined, she says, is their sense of what might make a difference in their own professional development. "Executive directors put their energies into the needs of the organization and their staff, and they often spend less time on themselves and their development," Gelatt says. "They get caught up in day-to-day needs. This is a wonderful opportunity for them to step back."
With its focus on customized support in the context of organizational change, the Fund for Leadership Advancement differs from typical leadership development programs. Most of these provide a more isolated form of training in which executives focus on their individual skill development but aren't supported to make sense of that development within their institution. The Fund approaches leadership development as a critical strategy for strengthening organizations, according to Irvine's Campbell. "We see the executive director as the key leverage point for organizational change."