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We’ve Seen the Future and It Is…Collaborative!

February 25, 2014

(The following post is the final 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 scope of the survey referenced in this post, click here.)

On the surface, a leader is a leader is a leader. Leaders need to innovate, mentor, use data, and be responsible with the checkbook. But beyond those basic capabilities, are there differences?

My colleagues and I set out to define the capabilities a social sector leader needs to be successful. We conducted interviews, surveyed two hundred social sector leaders, and reviewed ten years of literature on social sector leadership. Based on that research, here is the framework we developed:


We suggest a social sector leader needs all six of these dimensions to be well-rounded and successful. At first look, it might seem like these are the same capabilities any leader needs. But the difference is in the details.

Leaders in the private sector are charged with increasing the financial bottom line of their company. They do this by growing market share, innovating new products, and keeping costs under control. Private sector leaders may influence whole markets, but their job is to compete, grow profits for shareholders, and make sure their company's products and services remain indispensable to an increasing number of customers.

Leaders in the social sector are focused on solving society's problems, addressing the needs of poor and excluded people, protecting the planet, perpetuating artistic expression, and preserving cultural treasures. They and their organizations help to do this by innovating new solutions and scaling effective interventions. But no single social sector organization can address big societal challenges alone.

Social sector leaders must work with their counterparts, cooperating and collaborating together to address complex, dynamic, and wicked problems. If the problem is solved and the leader's organization becomes obsolete – that would be social sector success.

So, while all leaders solve problems, we suggest that a social sector leader must put solving the problem first, ahead of building their organization or personal reputation. While many organizations encourage cross-departmental and perhaps even external collaboration, the best social sector leaders nurture the growth of their partner organizations out of recognition that no one actor can solve a big problem alone. While many leaders take the time to be good mentors, social sector leaders recognize that staff, volunteers, and board members could be spending their time and energies elsewhere and so actively engage them.

Strategic managers look for opportunities to do better; social sector leaders not only try to improve people's lives but must be careful to do no harm. All good leaders understand that a commitment to learning will keep an organization's culture healthy and refreshed. But social sector leaders share their lessons broadly, trying to develop knowledge for the sector as a whole. And while all leaders nurture their networks, social sector leaders – fueled by their mission – possess super-charged influencing skills which they use both to manage disparate stakeholder groups and to access resources and opportunities that money cannot buy.

The expressive nature of the social sector – the heartfelt, ethical imperative to provide safety, healthy, happiness, and freedom for all people – is fundamental to the style of leadership suitable and relevant for making social change. The sector's focus on building leadership cannot be preoccupied with hard skills. While there is undeniable benefit in bringing in finance/marketing/technology/supply chain/media expertise from the private sector, what the social sector needs most is a heightened ability to collaborate across organizations, solving problems at the ecosystem level. This is not an area where the private sector excels.

Encouraging collaboration means rewarding leaders who are part of coordinated efforts, rather than those that go it alone. If the media focuses on stories of how social problems get solved, rather than telling another hero tale, it will encourage cooperation. If funders bring portfolios of grantees with common goals together, it will help them to find partners and put the problem first.

But collaboration isn't only a mindset; it is a skill, and it can be taught. A good partner builds trust through patience and consistency, taps into a range of problem-solving and learning techniques, and respects different organizational cultures and approaches.

The social sector has the competency to address its own leadership needs. What's missing is the permission to make this most impactful investment.

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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