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Foundation Leadership for a New Era

January 21, 2012

LeadershipThe news that Peter Hutchinson had stepped down as president of the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation after four-plus years at its helm came as a surprise to many. Hired in 2007 to lead a strategic refocusing of the 55-year-old foundation's mission and grantmaking activities, Hutchinson impressed those who worked with him as a thoughtful, energetic leader, and his decision to move on left many scratching their heads.

Hutchinson himself was rather cryptic about his reasons for leaving. As he put it in a valedictory post on the foundation's blog:

[The "change"] part of this organization's journey is now complete. While I might like to believe that I can do all things well, I know that is not true. I am great at some things but only good at others. I believe there are others who will be better than me at leading the foundation through the next phase of its journey....

For some this will seem sudden. I don't believe in long good-byes. If new leadership is going to succeed, old leadership needs to get out of the way so that people in the organization and its partners can focus on the future and not the past...."

As we noted in our year-end wrap, Hutchinson is the latest in a series of foundation executives -- Greg Chaillé, Aryeh Neier, Gara LaMarche, Thomas Aschenbrener, Karen Davis, Lance Lindblom, and Gary Yates among them -- who over the last year have either stepped down or announced that they would be stepping down. With the oldest baby boomers now reaching retirement age, they'll be joined over the next decade by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of senior-level nonprofit and foundation executives.

This rolling wave of retirements presents the philanthropic sector with both a challenge and an opportunity -- a situation not lost on the leaders of nine progressive nonprofit organizations who earlier this month released an open letter to the trustees of the $7 billion William and Hewlett Foundation. As many of you know, the foundation's president, Paul Brest, has announced he'll be stepping down this summer to return to teaching, and the letter's authors wanted to share some thoughts with the Hewlett board. After noting that the board has "no more important role than selecting [a new] CEO," they offered four suggestions for the board to keep in mind as it conducts a search for Brest's replacement. The next president of the foundation, they wrote,

  • should be someone who maintains the foundation's historic commitment to philanthropic effectiveness;
  • someone who understands the role that race continues to play in determining life opportunities in America;
  • someone with deep experience and passion for the highest-impact grantmaking strategies of grassroots advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement;
  • someone who understands the limits of "strategic philanthropy."

While the above list reflects the social justice concerns of the nonprofit leaders who issued the letter, it also raises a number of questions: What kind of qualities and experience should a foundation leader -- and I'm talking here about foundations with half a billion or more in assets, of which there are more than a hundred -- possess in the twenty-first century? Should he have had prior experience as a grantmaker? What about nonprofit or NGO experience? Should she have earned at least one advanced degree? Be fluent in a foreign language? Have visited at least half a dozen countries, including countries in Asia, Africa, and South America? Should he have at least one entrepreneurial failure on his resume? Know about and use Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter? Be able to program, or at least know the difference between Java, Perl, Python, and Ruby?

Okay, maybe the last one isn't entirely reasonable. But you get the point. In a connected, networked world where money and knowledge flow across borders at the speed of light, where rising inequality is a global phenomenon and the threats to our survival increasingly are transnational, where the metaphor of earth-as-lifeboat has never been more appropriate, effective foundation leadership is vital.

Given the reality of the power dynamics in our sector, I don't really expect anyone to weigh in on this. But I'll ask it anyway: What will (or should) effective foundation leadership look like a decade from now? Use the comments section to share your thoughts....

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Cynthia Gibson  |   January 22, 2012 at 11:39 AM


Excellent post and question -- one with which I've also been grappling lately. Leadership isn't just about "management" or having "gravitas" (or other traits that tend to be associated with "leadership" in more traditional institutions). It's a new century and with that has come major cultural shifts (many of which technology is driving) that will require a new form of leadership--one that goes requires a set of different skills and ways of thinking (and doing). It's time we all took a step back and asked serious questions about who is being considered for these positions, why and by whom.

Posted by Jim Canales  |   January 22, 2012 at 01:08 PM

As one who has the privilege of occupying one of these leadership roles today, I wanted to weigh in on your thoughtful and timely post. I would suggest we should not only be asking what successful leadership looks like, but what we are doing to prepare the next generation of leaders for foundation CEO roles.

As one who was appointed to my position from within philanthropy, I worry this will sound self-serving, but we should consider specifically what we are doing to prepare those in philanthropy today to be viewed by boards (and the search firms they hire) as serious and credible candidates when they are searching for a new CEO.

It is this belief that has motivated those of us planning the annual conference for the Council on Foundations this spring (in LA on April 29-May 1) to put together a track of sessions exclusively geared toward aspiring CEOs. Participants will have a chance to hear from a group of CEOs who are relatively new to their roles about how they positioned themselves successfully and what the job really entails. We will have a second session with a mix of search consultants and trustees to talk about what they look for. And we will conclude with an interactive round-robin session that will give participants a chance to meet with current CEOs and trustees in small groups of 5-6 people, for about 10 minutes each, to explore these issues further. In doing this, we are building upon the success of the Council’s Career Pathways program, which seeks to develop a pipeline of diverse leaders for our sector. Here’s the link to the information about the conference:


While each foundation has the right to determine what it considers to be the most important qualities for its institution at a particular moment in time, there can be little argument with this assertion: our sector collectively requires leadership characterized by clarity of vision, courage of conviction, a capacity to listen and learn, and a healthy dose of humility to fulfill our promise as a philanthropic community.

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   January 22, 2012 at 04:35 PM

Thanks, Cynthia. I like the way you've framed the issue. At the end of the day, though (as Jim Canales notes), it's still the board that's in the driver's seat. And to paraphrase the old saying, "If you've seen one foundation board, you've seen one foundation board." How do we change that calculus?

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   January 22, 2012 at 04:42 PM

Thanks for the comment, update and link, Jim. I think it's great you're helping to lead the council into a new era on this critical front, and I'd be willing to be that the session track you've put together for the annual conference will be wildly popular. Will those sessions be open to all conference attendees?

Posted by Jim Canales  |   January 22, 2012 at 06:19 PM

Thanks, Mitch. In response to your question about the aspiring CEO session, we want to keep it intimate, so here's what we say on the website about eligibility:

"The three-part program is intended specifically for those with more than five years of senior management experience who expect to be foundation CEOs in the next three to five years. Designed to foster open, candid dialogue, the Aspiring CEO Sessions will explore the skills and qualities needed for the job and the paths to leadership. Current CEOs, trustees, and search consultants will be on hand for the discussions."

Thanks for your interest and for stimulating a good discussion of an important topic. I hope others will weigh in!

Posted by Cynthia Gibson  |   January 23, 2012 at 01:43 PM

Yes, it's the board, but moreover, it's the search firms/professionals that are increasingly hired to oversee these placements and, thus, have a lot of power over who is even on the docket to be considered. Unfortunately, there's little incentive for most search firms/professionals to go outside the box and tap potential leaders who embody the kind of new thinking/skill set that is becoming necessary in the global/technology age. Nor is there incentive for them to pull in people who lack the credentials that seem to be more persuasive to the decision-makers than actual on-the-ground experience, and, more importantly, competence and a track record of concrete results. Finally, there is the "temperament" issue, i.e., new styles of leadership (and people that are embracing them, including young people) aren't as enamored with the "go along get along" "measured sensibility" that has, arguably, characterized the leadership styles of more traditional institutions. As numerous studies have shown, today, young people and many others are running from institutions because they are less interested in politics, face time, and hierarchy and more focused on results, innovative thinking, and action (and action that's timely, not drawn out over years). Given that most boards aren't wanting to "rock the boat" with hiring the kinds of leaders that embody these characteristics, why should the search firms they commission to find "new leaders" do likewise, since their payment is based on placing someone that will please the board?

So, Jim is correct that, ultimately, the etiology of this issue stems from the board's lack of interest in trawling new ground, but it also includes the head hunters/search professionals who fail to push those boards into thinking differently about what's needed in their institutions--especially those that go beyond paper credentials and traits that are better suited to old-school institutions than to the organizations and social context of the 21st century.

Posted by Heather Peeler  |   January 23, 2012 at 05:33 PM

Thank you Mitch for this provocative piece. In light of the scale and complexity of challenges facing our communities, there is a great deal of urgency to the question — What kind of qualities and experience should a foundation leader possess in the twenty-first century? Certainly, there is no one-size-fits all answer. Building upon Cynthia’s and Jim’s comments, I would like to offer additional food for thought.

Change is driven by individual and collective action. Thus to inform individual action, twenty-first century leaders must embrace and prioritize organizational learning as a tool for improvement, and be willing to share knowledge about what is working or not with the broader field of philanthropy. They must also possess collaboration and communication skillsets that enable them to build, support and leverage networks to effectively solve problems.

Effective philanthropy is rooted in both the how, such as providing general operating support and multiyear grants, supporting capacity building, etc., and the who through stakeholder engagement. Adaptive, innovative leaders have a degree of humility and empathy, reach outside themselves for knowledge and effortlessly bring intuitive or authentic understanding about the needs of communities into their organizations.

Finally, it’s also important to remember that organizations are only as good as the people behind them. What if we used this opportunity to consider new structures and approaches that concurrently nurture and develop standout leadership within and outside the foundation? What if twenty-first century leadership included the organizations and communities that grantmakers are dedicated to supporting? Investing in leaders transforms what grantmakers do; it transforms what grantmakers are.

Heather Peeler
Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

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