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Are Social Sector Leaders Walking the Talk?

February 19, 2014

(The following post is the third in a series of four written by Laura Callanan, a senior fellow at the Foundation Center. Laura wishes to acknowledge colleagues who have contributed to this work. For more on the survey, click here.)

Social sector thought leaders such as Lucy Bernholz, Paul Bloom, Bill Drayton, and the late Greg Dees have all weighed in on how ecosystem-level cooperation is the only way to scale and sustain solutions to problems too daunting for any one organization to tackle alone. As Dees and Bloom wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the first step for social entrepreneurs – and other social sector leaders – is to understand their environment:

Social entrepreneurs get help from some individuals and organizations, give help to others, fend off threats from others, and compete with still others. Social entrepreneurs must identify all of the relevant players and the roles that they play.…To create significant and long-lasting changes, social entrepreneurs must understand and often alter the social system that creates and sustains the problems in the first place. This social system includes all of the actors – the friends, foes, competitors, and even the innocent bystanders – party to the problem, as well as the larger environment – the laws, policies, social norms, demographic trends, and cultural institutions – within which the actors play....

In recent years, many funders and nonprofits – reinforced by colleagues in government and some corners of the private sector – have emphasized the importance of ecosystem-level efforts to address social problems. It all started with a few discrete cross-sector partnerships among businesses, government, and nonprofits. It evolved into a nuanced discussion of how social impact assessment must look at organizations' contributions to solving a problem, rather than attempt to attribute credit to individual actors within a like-minded group of organizations working in concert. It has led to innovative financing options such as social impact bonds, in which government, impact investors, and nonprofit service providers share risk, and rewards, in order to scale proven social welfare interventions. FSG even coined a term, "collective impact," to describe the approach.

My colleagues and I wondered whether the rhetoric around collaboration, cooperation, and ecosystem-level change was in fact the reality in the social sector. So, through a survey, we asked leaders in the sector how they are working today, and what attributes they thought would be most important for successful leaders in the future. The answers we found were mixed.

First the good news: respondents to the survey agreed that social sector leaders do their best to fulfill the public trust, are savvy networkers, and value effectiveness.
  • 63 percent of respondents believe leaders in the sector meet the highest standards. Our leaders take seriously the trust placed in them to use tax-advantaged resources for the good of society.
  • 80 percent believe that leaders in the sector are able to leverage partnerships and resources effectively.
  • 53 percent say that leaders in the sector anchor innovation in data and evidence.

Now the not-so-good news: when it comes to practicing what we preach about collaboration, most respondents did not believe the sector was living up to its principles:

  • 61 percent of respondents said that social sector leaders put their organizations first, ahead of collaboration.
  • 61 percent reported there is little cooperation across the ecosystem, and that organizations are more interested in claiming credit than in contributing to a solution.
  • 59 percent said social sector leaders don’t prioritize problem solving or serving constituents.

So, our current behavior gets low marks. But while the social sector may be falling short of its goals, these same leaders continue to believe that working together is important. When we asked people to prioritize the attributes they thought successful leaders in the sector would need over the next ten years, three of the top five were consistent with the idea of cooperation as a driver of ecosystem-level change:

  • Skilled collaborator, experienced bringing multiple stakeholders together (49 percent); another 23 percent selected Possesses good understanding of ecosystem and operating environment.
  • Places solving the problem ahead of individual/organizational success (23 percent).
  • Surrounds self with talented team (selected by 53 percent of respondents). An additional 22 percent of respondents selected Participates in collective/shared leadership.

The two other attributes prioritized by respondents suggest that the things leaders in the sector are talking about today will continue to be important in the future:

  • Ability to innovate AND implement (58 percent).
  • Manages to outcomes/committed to quality improvement (40 percent); another 23 percent selected Good user of data and evidence.

While it's great that leaders still believe in cooperation, when we asked whether today’s social sector leaders were capable in these five key areas, the responses were troubling. Respondents generally don't think they themselves are particularly strong with respect to the five top attributes they said leaders need – and they don't think their peers are, either. Indeed, across the five attributes, somewhere between two-thirds (68 percent) and almost nine out of ten (89 percent) respondents said that they and their peers are weak.

Attributes respondents selected as important for leaders

% of respondents who rate themselves as strong

% of peers respondents rate as strong

Skilled collaborator, experience bringing stakeholders together

24 percent

33 percent

Places solving the problem ahead of individual/org success

11 percent

11 percent

Surrounds self with talented team

20 percent

39 percent

Ability to innovate and implement

32 percent

22 percent

Manages to outcomes and committed to quality improvements

18 percent

24 percent


Why are we so far from realizing our goals? Thirty-seven percent of our survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that social sector leaders are often poor managers and collaborators because those behaviors are not rewarded or encouraged by funders and the media.

Our survey respondents had the opportunity to write in additional comments about factors they thought were affecting social sector leadership. Many of these comments focused on the role of funders to set incentives and establish ground rules for the sector. Here are a few of the comments we received:

"Donors have the power to cause collaboration and partnerships among different sector players. They should expect/require this behavior."

"[There is a] need for collaboration among social sector partners – and also among philanthropic funders and foundations."

"It takes organizational courage to be transparent and share lessons in the face of a highly competitive funding environment. Funders can be helpful in setting standards and promoting this behavior."

Despite the widespread belief that social sector leaders need to be good at collaboration, much of the sector remains focused on social change "heros," tolerating a hierarchical leadership style as long as it is packaged with an abundance of dynamism.

But the tide might be turning. David Bornstein – who has written many an inspiring story about iconic social entrepreneurs – has a new project, Solutions Journalism, which, as its Web site explains, "looks at examples where people are working toward solutions, focusing not just on what may be working, but how and why it appears to be working (based on evidence), or, alternatively, why it may be stumbling." Solutions journalism is not, as the Web site explains, "Hero worship. These are stories that glorify an individual, often at the expense of talking about the idea the individual exemplifies."

Equally encouraging, there is a small but growing cadre of people who are thinking about and pioneering a new type of leadership, asserting that everyone can be a changemaker, and that leadership, in order to be effective, should be "shared," "collective," and, perhaps most importantly, "networked." (Professor Jane Wei Skillern defines a networked leader as one who is focused on mission, rather than organization; exercises trust, rather than control; emphasizes humility, rather than brand; and is dedicated to positioning their organization as a node in a network rather than the hub of meaningful action.)

We know what we need. We know what it looks like. So, how do we get from here to there? We do it together.

– Laura Callanan

Survey scope:

We targeted a very specific segment of leaders for our survey: CEOs or top senior managers at foundations, social investment funds, nonprofits, and social enterprises. We also focused on U.S.-based leaders (regardless of where their work was directed) because we were asking questions about access to resources and leaders working globally would have different opportunities and challenges in accessing leadership resources.

We excluded people working in government, board members, consultants working with social sector organizations, or more junior colleagues. We did not attempt to compare leaders in the social sector with their counterparts in the private or government sectors. We also emphasized leadership to solve a problem at a sector level and did not focus on internal management within a single organization.


In 2013, McKinsey & Company prepared a landscape and conducted a survey of U.S. social sector leaders. This series of blog posts builds on that original work. The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Lenny Mendonca, Nora Gardner, and Doug Scott of McKinsey & Company.

The author also wishes to thank her colleagues Paul Jansen and Dr. Nora Silver in the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at the UC-Berkeley/Haas School of Business, as well as the following Haas students:  Archana Kannan, Asif Erayath Thekke Valappil, Christine Tringale, Daniel Alonso, Devin Christiansen, Edwin Mach, Eric Quan, Iona Da Costa Pereira, Jasen Bell, Jennifer Kimbal, Karthik Suryanarayanan, Kasiraman Krishnan, Laura Liao, Lul Tesfai, Munmun Baishya, Nagendran Rangan, Rekha Iyer, Riddhiman Ghosh, Ridham D Shah, Rodrigo de la Calle, Saman Kielty, Sara Kabot, Sumee Khanna, Sushma Bhatia, Tim Cao, Vishal Kudchadkar, and Xiaoding Zhuo. And a very special acknowledgement to Haas students Amy O’Callaghan and Leo Wallach.

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