Another Multiplier Effect: Invest in Talent Development – Part Two

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is the second of a two-part guest post by Daniel Jae-Won Lee, Executive Director of the Levi Strauss Foundation

by Daniel Jae-Won Lee

Foundation leaders are called upon to deliver on a number of fronts:  driving strategy, aligning programs, supervising staff, “managing up” to boards, cultivating donor and grantee relationships, and serving as the public face of an organization.  (I’m out of breath already.)

I am intimately aware of the rigors of navigating these multiple and competing demands – and it can be intimidating, especially at the outset.  Even with the best of intentions, philanthropic leaders may have a hard time carving out the requisite time and space to mentor their staff.

I saw the flip side of this when I had the privilege of meeting some of our field’s best and brightest at the national conference of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP)—one of the “pre-game shows” to this week’s Council on Foundations annual meeting in Philadelphia.

It was striking that many of these talented folks felt they needed to venture outside their organizations to seek mentorship opportunities and a broader understanding of the “issues of our day” in our field.  (It is terrific to see them finding these through EPIP and also through “next generation” programs at the Council on Foundations, Association of Black Foundation Executives, Independent Sector, and other grantmaker associations.)

Some openly wondered if their institutions were a “place to stand” to pursue their potential and passion—and how long they could stick it out if their trajectories proved stagnant.

I recently crossed the threshold into my forties (a granddaddy of inflection points!). Rusty Stahl, EPIP’s enterprising founder and executive director, generously assures me that by EPIP’s inclusive definition, I still qualify as “emerging.”  As the leader of the Levi Strauss Foundation, with a staff of nine people, I’m also looked upon to provide the perspective of a “seasoned” professional.

Even as I still receive valuable guidance on a daily basis, I’m convinced of the value of investing in the emerging talent in our midst.  In fact, it’s becoming clear to me that there’s a real opportunity cost to neglecting or failing to absorb the unique potential and contributions of those entering our institutions.

The tectonic plates undergirding the philanthropic sector are rapidly shifting, calling for new skills to propel success. We are called upon to adapt with celerity, demonstrate transparency, cogently communicate and leverage technology.

At the conference, it was evident that many EPIPers carry an instinctive sense of the power of “viral.”  They understand what it means to work in a networked way. They need no convincing that government and business are powerful partners—and that policy and markets (at their best) can serve as tools for social impact to build a better world.

I’m convinced that integrating the experience of seasoned professionals with the innovation of emerging leaders will strengthen our institutions and transform our field.

When investing in emerging talent— through quality supervision, cultures of learning or practices of mentorship—leaders must be prepared not only to be challenged, but also surprised and delighted. I can vouch that EPIPers are liable to return to their institutions fired up:  keen to push the boundaries of expectation and inspired to take courageous risks.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

4 responses to “Another Multiplier Effect: Invest in Talent Development – Part Two

  1. Carolynn Sween

    Great posts, Daniel!

    I’ve been a program director at a community foundation for 10 years, but often still feel like the ‘new kid’ (I’m 30). My own observations definitely bear out the findings of the COF study about philanthropic leadership…instead of grooming younger staff who show promise and/or commitment and who would come into a directorship with a much shorter learning curve and an already-established passion for the work, foundations often seek a talent from outside the organization, hoping (I think) for new ideas, cross-sector connections to leverage, and the benefits of notoriety that comes from hiring well-known leaders from other arenas.

    Obviously there is nothing inherently wrong with that strategy, but I think the former (mentoring younger, emerging leaders with a demonstrated track record within the organization) could yield benefits as well, and shouldn’t be ignored. A variety of strong options is never a bad thing.

    Keep up the great work!
    Carolynn L. Sween
    Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa

    • Carolynn, thanks for your comment and sharing your experience! If you haven’t already you should definitely check out Emerging Leaders in Philanthropy

  2. As a senior in the field (I’m a boomer), yet only 9 years in philanthropy, I’d like to know if one of my observations holds true. As I’ve looked around, I’ve noticed that vacant positions of director level and above tend to be filled with candidates from outside of the organization. Is this seen across our sector? Is it a matter of the “grass is greener” on the other side of the fence? Is it that we tend to focus on the weaknesses of our own colleagues and on the glitter of the relatively unknown stranger? Just wondering.

    • Sylvia, your observations align with the facts. According to a report ‘Career Pathways to Philanthropic Leadership’ by the Council on Foundations, 80 percent of recent CEO searches yield hires from outside a given foundation. Two-thirds of new CEOs in this sample (440 executive transitions were studied) came from outside the philanthropic sector.

      This helps explain why mentorship gets short shrift within foundations (rippling from the CEO level): new leaders may be preoccupied with learning the ropes of a new sector — and moreover, may have limited field experience to inform their mentorship.

      What do folks think about these trends: refreshing or counterproductive?