Leadership Development Programs; Are Funders too Elitist in our Approach?

By Richard Marker

Leadership development programs abound. It is a rare week when we don’t read of another one sponsored by an impressive organization and funded by one or more foundations and philanthropists.

Why not? If we want to make change, isn’t it best to invest in leaders, either current or potential? Is there a more efficient way than to buy into the “multiplier effect”?

If we want innovation, isn’t the mantra to invest in people, not programs?

If we want to have inspired institutions, don’t we need inspired and inspiring leaders?

And more. Not everyone in our field funds this way, of course, but it is fair to say that the dominant approach to funding change is to do so around leadership models.

A closer look reveals something even more telling. Selected a.k.a. future or emerging or young leaders are very often the very same ones who were selected for the last leadership training, and very likely will be selected for the next one. Once on the inside track, it becomes a prestige express. Organizations and funders jump on the winner bandwagons.

Don’t misunderstand: I believe that there is a great need for training leaders. Indeed, two of them radically changed the trajectory of my professional life: a year-long executive management program of the Sloan Foundation in 1980-81 and a three-week program of the German government in 1989. Moreover, I have been involved in the funding of and teaching in several first-rate ones.

But, a recent conversation with the head of a successful and growing international NGO made me realize how funders too often become enamored by a single approach. This NGO, which has been around for about 40 years, prides itself on developing programs and leadership from the grass-roots up. The very decision to have a professional coordinate the international organization was controversial and culturally challenging. When s/he came to me, he/she shared a dilemma. Funders didn’t think that their leadership development program was professional enough.

It wasn’t for me to assess whether or not that perception was accurate, but it did make me wonder: is the professionalism of their leadership development program a true metric of their success? If an organization has been around for 4 decades, is expanding, and utilizes a ground up approach and not a top-down one, it seems to me that that is something to celebrate and model, not something to change and put into a pre-conceived box just because we funders buy into a preconceived concept of organizational development.

It also seems that a model of developing an educated populace may be just the model we need at this time in history. It may be that there has been too much of an erosion in the development of caring, interconnected communities, with pluralist values, and a shared commitment to an inclusive future. Ya’ think?

The above-mentioned NGO is built around educational values, multiple sources of learning, a sense that the whole can only exist when the disparate parts are in sync [but they don’t have to be in agreement.] Their paradigm is to create space for all, even when that challenges, and to recognize that leadership must be earned, not ascribed. They have expanded because these core values have been adapted to cultures in many communities and countries. Civility is mandated as a non-negotiable ethos.

Not a bad model I would say.

To be fair, not all funders have ignored the need to fund civil society from the ground up. There are a growing number of examples that surface in the news bulletins and journals from which most of us get our news. But there continue to be even more announcements of all sorts of leadership programs that are targeted to the already accomplished. [So that no one misunderstands: I am not advocating a “know-nothing” vacuous populism; I am suggesting that we need to cultivate populations that care carefully, make educated judgements, and insist on a commitment to the social weal and humaneness as guiding principles.]

There is room for us to continue to create and fund leadership programs, but perhaps it is time that our funding priorities swing to those who comprise our communities, not just those whom we fund to lead them.

Richard Marker advises funders and foundations on their philanthropy strategy through Wise Philanthropy, and teaches philanthropists and foundation professionals at both Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and NYU Academy for Funder Education.