Making the Argument for Leadership Development

Linda Wood, Senior Director of the Haas Leadership Initiative at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, recently wrote an interesting post on The CEP Blog of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, “The Leadership Development Disconnect.” Working both in the field of leadership development and on program evaluation, I was encouraged to see these important issues highlighted. Much of my experience is consistent with the author’s.

In the post, Wood states:

“…not enough funders are investing in strengthening the leadership of their grantees. And second, many of those who do may not be providing the kind of support that nonprofit leaders want and need… In stark contrast to the corporate sector, most grantmakers do not view leadership development as an essential investment that pays off over the long run. They see such support as a “nice-to-have,” even a luxury.”

I am always pleased to see funders supporting professional development: generally advocating for it, funding it directly for their grantees or funding organizations that provide it for the field (as a provider of leadership development for the arts and culture sector, National Arts Strategies falls in this final category). I also hear arts and culture leaders articulate the value of professional development opportunities, for themselves and their teams: 77% of NAS Business of Arts and Culture alumni found the content in our leadership development programs highly relevant to their work.

Just as we are well served when we rely on the judgment of those leading the organizations we invest in regarding resource allocation generally (by funding general operating support as much as possible), I couldn’t agree more that leaders must be free to develop their own courses of professional development.

My experience has been somewhat different than the author’s in that I haven’t seen the majority of funders view leadership development for nonprofit executives as a luxury good, either in the arts and culture field or the nonprofit sector more broadly. Witness the efforts of organizations such as Independent Sector and the emergence of organizations such as The Center for Effective Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.

It is a challenge to point to definitive causal linkages between investment in leadership development and organizational performance gains given the universe of other factors that affect organizational performance. However, Wood points out, there is considerable evidence supporting the gains on such investment, not least from the very leaders funders are investing in. She points to evaluation data of the Haas, Jr. Fund’s Flexible Leadership Awards (FLA) grantees who have demonstrated tangible gains in many areas, including leadership capacity. An analysis of NAS evaluation data on arts and culture executives revealed similar experiences: 97% of organizations took action following participation in our leadership development programs and 88% experienced organizational change.

There is another kind of disconnect related to leadership development. I hear executives identify leadership development as critical to personal and organizational success as well as talent recruitment and retention, firsthand from nonprofit leaders NAS has worked with over the last ten years and in research such as the 2011 Daring to Lead study. However, leadership development budgets (where they exist) are among the first items to be cut in a downturn: precisely when, it can be argued, this investment is most critical.

I applaud Linda Wood for posing the question of what barriers exist to a greater appreciation by grantmakers of the impact professional development has on the performance of nonprofit leaders and their organizations and what more funders can do to support their grantees’ professional development needs without being prescriptive. There is of course a responsibility for nonprofit leaders who value professional development to advocate for it, ensuring funders and other stakeholders are aware it is a lever for increasing organizational performance and therefore, mission achievement. Finally, those of us who work to provide effective and relevant professional development opportunities must strive to continue to improve the evaluation of our programs’ impact, giving both leaders and funders common language and data to judge the return on this critical investment.


  1. Heather Beasley says

    One of the biggest problems I see in asking for funders to support leadership development is that it means directly supporting people, not organizations. The reality is that leaders will move between organizations in order to make professional progress in their careers. Funders are unwilling to support individuals, in part because it would mean having to articulate criteria for merit in a way that simply can’t be as data-driven as the metrics they often use for funding organizations. Good leadership leads to good but intangible outputs (e.g. loyalty) even when the tangible outputs may not point to complete success (e.g. low box office receipts). Looking only to successful organizations as having leaders worth funding would completely miss the point of leadership development. The leaders that need support most are the ones working in underfunded positions where their organizations need strong leadership but can’t subsidize training from within.

  2. Fielding Grasty says

    Heather, thanks for your comments. I agree one of the most critical areas for investment in leadership development is smaller organizations and their unique resource constraints. Funder interest and investment should not flow only to larger organizations. (I am taking a leap in assuming this is what you mean in referring to those working ‘in underfunded positions,’ but please let me know if I’ve misinterpreted that.) I would argue an organization’s success (defined more expansively than the ability to attract resources) is a quality independent of size: many smaller organizations are amongst the most successful and certainly there are large organizations that come up short.

    We have seen funders investing both in organizations (such as the Boettcher Cultural Leadership Program ( in Colorado) and directly in specific leaders ( Do you think there is a better argument in asking funders to invest in organizations (i.e., their leadership teams) than in specific individuals? Do you think there are also tangible markers of good leadership?

  3. Heather Beasley says

    I think that funders are likely to be more comfortable investing in organizational leadership teams than in specific individuals. That said, many funders don’t look further than organizations they already have established relationships with. “Leadership” qualities and definitions will vary by funder–“future leaders” or “proven leaders”? The Boettcher programs haven’t really worked with organizations with budgets under $1M, although maybe some of their current Chief Executive Fellows may be from such organizations…yet the people who need leadership training the most are often those in small and mid-size nonprofits who are filling gaps left by the larger organizations. Some professional organizations take this on directly instead of waiting for funder support; for example, a number of Seattle-area professional groups like the Northwest Development Officers Association offer scholarships for people from smaller organizations. I think that would be another viable option for funders: rather than staying in their organizational comfort zone or imposing from above/ outside what kind of training is most necessary, funding scholarships and travel stipends to conferences and trainings to democratize participation for organizations that can’t afford to send their own staff.

    • Fielding Grasty says

      There are undoubtedly still funders who are top-down, prescriptive and not interested in turning over new ground, so to speak. I’ve been fortunate to work with many who are interested in new ideas, new organizations and working as partners. Many of the organizations in the Boettcher Cultural Leadership Program were large organizations, but both cohorts had a cross-section of CO organizations that included organizations of all sizes including smaller groups with budgets under $1M (Curious Theatre, The Dairy Center for the Arts, Steamboat Springs Arts Council, Western Colorado Center for the Arts; some have since grown). I completely agree the leaders are the ones best-placed to determine their own development needs and hope we see the ranks of funders (and organizations) that recognize the value of this investment continue to grow. Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. says

    Arts Midwest has been providing leadership development for the past several years, through the generous funding of its ArtsLab program by several major arts and culture funders (The McKnight Foundation, Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, United Arts Fund and The Wallace Foundation) as well as through the Bush Foundation’s Regional Arts Development Program. In our experience, among the core capacities within an arts organization that lead to healthy organizational prospects, leadership development is paramount. The quality of leadership, both at the board and executive level, has a significant impact on all other organizational capacities. Rather than a “luxury”, we view leadership development as the anchor to building sustainable futures; not in the form of specific tactical skill development or “prescriptive” approaches, but through building self-awareness of personal leadership style, shaping team and organizational culture. Within our work with small and mid-sized arts organizations in both urban and rural settings, we continually encounter requests for professional development opportunities for their staff: time apart that is not normally built into the routine nor allocated financially to focus on team development. We are currently evaluating our programs and developing case studies exploring factors that lead to organizational success, and though it is too early to be definitive, it is clear that a major factor in navigating the uncertainty of the current times is the quality of leadership.

  5. says

    One of the most powerful methods of developing leadership is through teaching leaders about their own personality type, the type of their associates, and the people they lead. When you understand the strengths of those with whom you have a leadership role, you can communicate and interact far more effectively.

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