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What Do Social Sector Leaders Want?

February 14, 2014

(The following post is the second 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.)

You're probably not surprised to hear that most social sector leaders have a wish list. But you might be surprised by what's at the top. More time to experiment and explore new ideas.

Management guru Jim Collins calls it "white space," the 50 percent of his time he keeps unscheduled for reading, thinking, and writing. Collins tells every manager he works with that they need to make this type of time for themselves if they hope to be creative – and effective.

In 2013, I asked 196 CEOs and other top managers at foundations, social investment funds, nonprofits, and social enterprises what attributes they need most in order to succeed in the coming years – and what kinds of resources would help them get there. Fully half the respondents said they needed more time to experiment and innovate, as well as sabbatical time to rejuvenate, gain exposure to new ideas, and broaden their horizons.

In addition to more time to think, respondents indicated a desire to grow their networks, get some coaching, and build their communications skills. Social sector leaders want time to discuss what's happening with colleagues, understand it with the help of mentors, and share lessons with others – as well as the time to process what it all means and plan how to act on it.

As documented in Creative Disruptions: Sabbaticals for Capacity Building and Learning, a 2009 report from Third Sector New England and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, sabbatical time is one of the more valuable investments a nonprofit and its funders can make when it comes to organizational capacity and effectiveness.

It not only benefits the sabbatical-taker, allowing her to recharge her batteries and gain a fresh perspective on the organization's mission and work, it also tends to strengthen the organization's internal capacity, ability to collaborate, and governance. Funders often benefit from the stronger relationship with the grantee that invariably follows and the fresh insights the organization's leader is able to apply to its work.

And, as the report notes, most leaders who take a sabbatical recommit to their leadership role after the sabbatical is over, with only 13 percent looking to move on to another job within three years.

So why aren't sabbaticals in the social sector more common? Our survey revealed that most leaders in the sector don't know how to access the resources they want and need – either because they don’t know where to find them, or – if they do find them – because they're too expensive.  What's more, without support and encouragement from their board and funders, the typical social sector leader isn't sure how to fit a sabbatical into an already demanding schedule.

That's a loss for all of us. As Professor Sonia Ospina of the Research Center for Leadership in Action at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service told me in a December 2013 interview: "It is unfortunate that the possibility of engaging in reflection on one's practice – of being able to step back and look at the intricate details of a given situation to then locate these within the bigger picture – is perceived as a luxury that social sector leaders cannot afford. And yet what is precisely needed in the social sector is the opportunity for leaders to participate in learning spaces, to engage in cycles of action and reflection, and to exchange experience with peers. Such spaces can help social sector leaders develop the strategic, results-oriented and mission-driven approach to the work that will produce organizational success."

That kind of approach was described by software company CEO Jason Fried in an op-ed ("Be More Productive. Take Time Off") in the New York Times. "We decided to give everyone the month of June to work on whatever they wanted," explained Fried. "It wasn't vacation, but it was vacation from whatever work was already scheduled. We invited everyone to shelve their nonessential work and to use the time to explore their own ideas….Then, in July, we asked each person to share, with the rest of the staff, whatever idea he or she came up with….The June-on-your-own experiment led to the greatest burst of creativity I've seen from our 34-member staff. It was fun, and it was a big morale booster. It was also ultra-productive. So much so that we'll likely start repeating the month-off project a few times a year."

We're not saying it’s right for every organization, but if it's good enough for a high-flying tech company...

-- 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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