Nurturing nonprofit leadership

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Leadership can be nurtured and cultivated. And in the past year, the Fort Wayne-based Foellinger Foundation has taken on that job.

Since 2008, the foundation has worked to strengthen nonprofits in the Fort Wayne area, but it hasn’t stopped with its Invited-Initiative.

Last year, it launched the Foellinger Center for Nonprofit Adaptive Leadership, a program focused on developing leadership that is needed for today’s nonprofits, leadership that can adapt to the changing economy and needs.

“It will help prepare leaders to address both the complex challenges and the incredible opportunities facing the nonprofit sector,” said Cheryl K. Taylor, foundation president.

The impetus for the center came in 2015, and was based on careful listening. In grantee discussions, several organizations talked about succession planning, but were also concerned that there weren’t steps taken to groom potential leaders.

The foundation staff’s response was to surprise these community-serving nonprofits with a grant to pilot this effort. A multiyear grant launched the center, and it began offering experience-based education for local nonprofit leaders.

Last March, four Invited-Initiative grantees — Brightpoint, Early Childhood Alliance, Lutheran Social Services and YWCA — began training employees with demonstrated leadership ability for potential future leadership roles. The participants’ organizations in the Emerging Leaders pilot program had earlier received an INSPIRE grant from the foundation to think about the best ways to train their next levels of leaders. Their organization’s executive directors selected participants.

According to Taylor supporting leadership is part of the foundation’s strategic intention. Taylor credits Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz with spelling out the differences between technical knowledge and adaptability in his book, “Leadership Without Easy Answers.”

This recent effort is seen as complementary to the Invited-Initiative and can have wide-reaching effect.

“You know you can find all sorts of people who understand how to read a finance statement and know that they should have a board orientation and probably staff development, which is important. But what’s the other side of that? What do you do in a crisis? How do you have imagination? Where is the vision?” Taylor said.

Foellinger is trying to help organizations have leadership with both adaptive and technical abilities.

Karin Tice, president of Formative Evaluation Research Associates (FERA) based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has done formative evaluations of aspects of the Invited-Initiative program and is currently studying the leadership emerging leaders.

In Michigan, she has seen first hand what happened to some nonprofits with the 2008 downturn and the results of not having adaptive leadership.

“Nonprofits had people who were their donors and who were sustaining and supporting the organization in all sorts of ways now coming in their door for services. That is a huge shift,” said Tice. It meant that organizations had to think of creative and adaptive ways to meet those needs.

Under the Center’s umbrella are three programs — Emerging Leaders, Executive Leaders and the Barbara Burt Leadership Develop Fund.

The fund is named for Barbara Burt, a longtime member board of the Foellinger board and community leader. The fund is designed to encourage exceptional board governance, support adaptive thinking and to promote exchanges about best leadership styles and practices within the nonprofit sector. It extends past the Invited-Initiative work and more community wide.

The Executive Leaders group started in June. According to Tice, there are only a handful of Invited-Initiative organizations in it, so it’s reaching a much broader group of in the community and organizations that haven’t been involved in the initiative. The 18-month program is for key staff leaders to develop or sustain them as adaptive leaders.

“We’re learning a lot about the structure of that and also the value of executive leadership,” said Tice. “There is rich learning here for foundations. For Foellinger’s size, it is amazing what they’re able to do,” said Tice.


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