March 1, 2005

Avoiding a Tragedy of the Commons

The demand for nonprofit leaders could quickly outstrip supply, says Executive Director Kathleen P. Enright of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations in this commentary on the 2005 Bridgespan Group report, "The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit." The situation is particularly compelling for grantmakers, because their success is inextricably tied to the success of the nonprofits they support.

By: Kathleen P. Enright, Executive Director, GEO

A commentary on The Nonprofit Sector's Leadership Deficit

Effective leadership is at the heart of every innovation and every bit of progress the nonprofit sector makes. Yet we consistently and habitually neglect the sector’s most valuable resource: its people. The result, as Tom Tierney’s paper suggests, is an impending tragedy of the commons in which the demand for nonprofit management talent will greatly outstrip the supply. Nonprofits will battle and poach for experienced people leaving no organization properly deep; valuable energy will be wasted in countless leadership transitions; and very few organizations will have the depth of leadership to survive a crisis.

This crisis is particularly compelling for grantmakers, because our success is inextricably tied to the success of the nonprofits we support. Realizing significant progress on intractable social issues is impossible without strong leaders. For this reason, our response must be immediate and collective.

Research conduced by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations points to the need for philanthropic investments that are:

  • Collective. For the sector’s leadership to be deep and strong, foundation investments in leadership must look beyond the executive director to the board and staff. In addition, grantmakers must collaborate to build infrastructure to support current leaders and to create a pipeline of future leaders. Consider the Meyer Foundation’s support for CompassPoint’s groundbreaking research on the perceptions and challenges facing executive directors and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s important work on executive leadership transitions. Both efforts look beyond the needs of their grantees to address systemic leadership issues confronting all nonprofits.
  • Continuous. Philanthropy must encourage nonprofits to think strategically and systematically about leadership development. But we must back this advice with the resources nonprofits need to invest in their people. The California Wellness Foundation recognized this when it made the decision to focus its resources on larger, longer term, general operating support grants. Such support enables nonprofits to plan for and underwrite the environment necessary to attract and keep best people.
  • Contextual. Like all other forms of capacity-building, a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development doesn’t work. A new executive director of an environmental start-up needs different support from the longtime vice president of programs of a multi-million dollar arts organization. If a foundation hopes to make a difference, its support must be tied the organization’s context so that it helps solve real problems. Consider the Irvine Foundation’s newly announced Fund for Leadership Advancement, which offers tailored support to executive directors in the context of their day-to-day jobs, including coaching, board facilitation, focused technical assistance, or other expertise. Irvine provides an organizational development consultant to help executive directors construct their plans and provides grants of between $15,000 and $75,000 to finance them.

GEO’s research suggests that foundation interest in and support for leadership development is growing. Innovative foundations are experimenting to learn what works best. If we are going to surmount this crisis of talent, we must expand on these early efforts and work together to protect the nonprofit leadership commons.


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