Post 15: On Philanthropy and Leadership

[eJP note: This post, by Gidi Grinstein, was originally published on May 13, 2008, as part of a series on Philanthropy in Israel. With this year’s Jewish Funders Network conference taking place in Israel, we thought it would be timely to rerun the series.]

Too often we tend to immediately associate the concept of philanthropy with leadership. But we should not. Some philanthropic activities truly amount to leadership. Others do not, and may actually be leadership-neutral or even be counterproductive in terms of leadership. Furthermore, sometimes an act of leadership by a philanthropic requires withholding funds, a public statement or a political action. For the heavy hitters of Jewish philanthropic giving in Israel, it is important to be able to identify leadership and to pursue it.

I have written in my blog about the distinction between ‘leadership’ and ‘authority’ based on the work of my teachers Ron Heifetz and Dean Williams. Their books Leadership Without Easy Answers (Heifetz), Leadership on the Line (Heifetz with Marty Linsky) and Real Leadership (Williams) provide the intellectual underpinnings of this distinction. The coming few paragraphs will deal with the meaning of authority and leadership in the area of philanthropy.

According to Heifetz, authority is given to someone by a relevant constituency and can be taken away. It is a covenant. A person in a position of authority – a President, CEO, Rabbi, teacher, or military commander, for example – receive power, recognition, honor and material benefits from a community. In return, that community expects its delegate to dedicate his or her resources to its service and to effectively help it achieve security and material well-being, to resolve conflicts and to assign roles.

Leadership however, is asserted. We do not elect, appoint or nominate leaders. They emerge because they engage in activities that are targeted at changing values, priorities, habits or patterns of behavior in order to help the community face its challenges. Dean Williams in his book Real Leadership identifies six prototypes of such potential challenges: updating values and priorities (Activist Challenge and Transition Challenge), cultivating capabilities needed for progress (Development Challenge), protecting what is essential during hard times (Maintenance Challenge), doing something that has never been done (Creative Challenge) or going through of extreme danger (Crisis Challenge).

Hence there are significant differences between leadership and authority. Authority is given and can be taken away while leadership is asserted and can not be taken away. Authority is about making people feel good, safe, protected and cared for while leadership is about making people go out of their tradition and patterns and, hence, is associated with discomfort. Authority is about being liked while leadership entails being disliked by some. Authority is about resolving conflicts while leadership is about orchestrating conflict. Authority is about caring for everyone while leadership is about deliberately having some people lose because their values, priorities, power or way of life will be compromised.

Consequently, as Heifetz explains, you can have authority but not exercise leadership and you can lead without authority. In any case, leadership is a dangerous business, whether it is exercised from a position of authority or no-authority.

The benchmark that distinguishes acts of leadership is very simple: Are your actions geared toward helping the community meet a new challenge? If the answer is positive, there is leadership. But there are other symptoms to leadership – or to lack thereof. Leadership would usually require focusing on a single issue, educating a community, raising questions or taking positions that create a disturbance, creatively making provocations, and failing to live up to traditional expectations.

Hence, the immediate association that we tend to make between philanthropy and leadership is not always in place. If a philanthropy is designed and executed to support an essential adaptation toward a challenge, than it truly represents an act of leadership. However, if a philanthropy is directed at preserving an irrelevant structure or conduct it pulls the brakes on essential changes and therefore embodies the exact opposite of leadership. Naturally, many philanthropic activities are leadership-neutral in the sense that they neither promote nor withhold any visible necessary change.

At the same, a philanthropist does not always have to write a check to take action of leadership. Sometimes withholding a check or drawing a line, tying a gift to new standards, making a public statement or taking a position in a heated debate are as important.

These observations about leadership are true also when it comes to Jewish philanthropy in Israel. Meeting its challenges will require fundamental changes in patterns of conduct and priorities of its heavy hitters of Jewish philanthropy, as well as adapting the way its Israeli grantees have been using the generous gifts that they have been receiving.

Why is this challenge so difficult? Why don’t we see enough leadership in these areas where the need for change is so evident? The answer is simple: because leadership is ‘dangerous’ in the sense that there will be inevitable resistance. A Jewish philanthropist that aspires to lead should except the risks of being framed as ‘avant-garde’, ‘arrogant’ or ‘loner’; of losing their seat at the table; of being tempted to support additional causes that would stretch their financial resources thin; or of being seduced to accept honors and distinctions (Heifetz and Linsky identify four basic forms of danger with countless variations in Chapter 2 of Leadership on the Line).

Paradoxically, the biggest ‘danger’ to leadership by the Diaspora Jewish philanthropy may come from the Government of Israel and its agencies, including the Jewish Agency. Naturally they would like to subordinate the priorities and loyalties of Jewish philanthropy to their own. This is not a matter of bad will but of the natural dynamics of politics.

And why is it so important to be able to identify philanthropic leadership? The answer is that for Jewish philanthropy to continue to play a central role in Israel, it would have to change its own patterns as would its Israeli counterparts. It would to engage in actions of leadership. It would have to lead.

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder and President of the Reut Institute.