November 15, 2011

How Grant Makers Can Help Build the Talent Nonprofits Need to Thrive in Tough Times

The Bridgespan Group conducted an independent assessment of the nation’s largest philanthropic leadership development program, Neighborhood Builders, operated by Bank of America. In this Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed, Bridgespan's Kirk Kramer and Matt Forti share lessons from our research that will help organizations of all sizes design or improve upon the approach they take to developing leaders.

By: Matthew Forti
(This op-ed originally appeared November 13, 2011, on The Chronicle of Philanthropy  website.)

Leadership matters. Corporate leaders who create a powerful vision, set priorities, and motivate people to achieve those goals consistently outperform other organizations, according to research conducted by Bain & Company.

While the nonprofit world lacks a common measure of return, it’s clear from our work with mission-driven organizations that the ones with strong leaders achieve better results.

Developing nonprofit leaders is not just for large or well-financed organizations; it is a necessity for all nonprofit groups.

Indeed, the nonprofit world must add 640,000 new senior leaders—the equivalent of 2.4 times the number now employed—over the next decade, according to research that Bridge­span conducted five years ago. One of the key ways to fill those jobs is to train more people who already work at nonprofits to become strong leaders.

Unfortunately, not enough has been done to evaluate what works best to develop nonprofit leaders.

In a landmark report on the topic, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation concluded that most leadership-development efforts failed to do enough to learn from evaluations of what mattered most to participants.

But a program review we conducted this year does point to some new ideas.

We conducted an independent assessment of the nation’s largest philanthropic leadership program, Neighborhood Builders, operated by Bank of America.

Now in its eighth year, Neighborhood Builders is unusual in its approach. It asks local committees of leaders to select high-performing community-based organizations. Then it offers leadership training to both the executive director of the organization and an emerging leader, plus an unrestricted grant of $200,000 that the groups can use to further expand their operations or apply to program and staff costs.

Some 1,200 leaders have now been trained and are now part of a powerful network of people who help one another cope with the challenges of running a nonprofit.

The Neighborhood Builders participants credit the combination of cash, training, and peer networks with fostering better results at their organizations. Participants reported that the leadership program helped their organization achieve its goals (88 percent), increase or enhance the effectiveness of its programs (92 percent), improve financial sustainability (80 percent), and drive innovation (80 percent).

Additionally, despite the tough times the bad economy has caused for nonprofits, especially community groups, all but one of the more than 600 organizations remain in operation.

Based on this study, we found lessons that will help organizations of all sizes design or improve upon the approach they take to developing leaders.

Training chief executives and emerging leaders together can strengthen an organization and be catalytic for aspiring leaders. Both executive directors and emerging leaders reported tremendous value in going through the program together, particularly the opportunity to think together about the vision, strategy, and priorities for their organizations. But the emerging leaders reported significantly greater changes than executive directors in their aspirations, knowledge, skills, and leadership capacity and confidence.

As one emerging leader reported, participating in the program “helped me see that I was not the only one who struggled with leadership challenges. ... [This] helped me acknowledge and accept that I was a leader.”

Another aspiring leader, Luis Marquez, went through the program at what turned out to be an important moment of transition for his organization. The Puente Learning Center, which provides free classes and training to Los Angeles neighborhoods with high unemployment and poverty rates, was selected for the program just as its founder retired. During the training, other emerging leaders encouraged Mr. Marquez to apply for the chief-executive job, and he won the promotion.

Mr. Marquez used what he had learned in the training sessions to create a formal succession plan to prepare the organization for future transitions. He also told us: “Now I invest to develop leaders in each of my departments, and our organization is the better for it.”

While most leadership programs focus on executive directors, it is important to adopt a rigorous selection process to catch leaders and potential leaders at the right stage of development and to understand how powerful leadership training can be for this rising generation of leaders.

Linking training with follow-up support helps leaders put to work what they learn. Leaders who took part in Neighborhood Builders reported significant gains from the training, and many were able to apply those gains to benefit their organizations. However, many also told us that follow-up support (whether through more training, progress reviews, or peer networks) would enhance their ability to put their education into practice.

In working with a range of nonprofit networks and organizations, we have been struck by the potential of peer networks to sustain and magnify the impact of an initial set of training sessions.

Peer networks capitalize on the emerging trend of "networked nonprofits" as organizations increasingly recognize the critical need to learn from and collaborate with their peers.

Both in what they say and what they do, participants in Neighborhood Builders have demonstrated how much they value continuing contact with their peers: 68 percent expressed an interest in learning from and sharing with other participants, and 59 percent say they have kept in touch with at least one other leader from the program.

On average, while Bank of America does not directly take steps to keep leaders in touch, the participants themselves say they have stayed in contact with an average of six other leaders from the program.

They tended to use those peer relationships most often for assistance in doing their jobs and second to encourage collaboration among organizations or joint advocacy efforts.

Continuous measurement is critical to improving the design and results of a leadership program. Bank of America has been able to improve the Neighborhood Builders program over time by gathering feedback along the way and using what it has learned to make key changes.

Based on feedback from the first class of emerging leaders who had less experience with leadership training and wanted more of it, the allocation of training was reversed: two workshops for executive directors and three for emerging leaders. These and other changes that the bank has made along the way have improved participant satisfaction with the training, and over time a higher percentage of leaders has reported organizational and individual gains from the program.

We’re not arguing that every leadership-development program needs a full-scale evaluation. But every leadership-development program should identify what success would look like and try to measure the extent to which it’s achieving what it set out to do. Sending surveys immediately after a program concludes is a good start, but follow-up questionnaires and interviews are important, too. If you set individual and organizational goals for the program (and you should), go back six months or a year later and see if you can assess progress on these goals.

No leadership program gets it entirely right from the start. Maybe a different mix of training, mentors, and follow-up support is needed or a different strategy for selecting participants.

But focusing on the best ways to produce results is vital if we are to have a supply of leaders capable of serving essential needs in society.

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