Courage to Lead (from our hearts) in Philanthropy

Editor's Note: We're sharing this post, written by former Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation Executive Director Gayle Williams, from the National Center for Family Philanthropy's blog. NCFP and SECF are partnering on the June 12-13 Courage to Lead Retreat in Asheville, North Carolina, which immediately precedes the 2018 Family Foundations Forum.

Twenty-five years of work in foundations has confirmed for me what is now emerging as a truth in the leadership field: Trustworthy relationships and emotional intelligence are at the heart of all successful leadership. Foundations are heady places where academic knowledge, analytical thinking, measurable impact, and management competence are highly valued. These are all important, but insufficient for life-giving and effective work in family foundations where complicated family dynamics are at play as staffs and boards work on complex community issues. At its heart, philanthropy is about relationships.

During my 20 years as a family foundation executive director, the Center for Courage and Renewal was a source for nurturing my skill and resilience as a leader in at least three key areas: Show Up; Be Trustworthy; Stay curious. 

Show up as wholeheartedly as possible. A dear mentor and master philanthropist put it succinctly: “Being human together” is the core of all philanthropy. “Being human” starts with the inner work of knowing what’s most important to us, nurturing insight into our own gifts and weaknesses, and deepening our compassion for others. Foundation staff and boards work in a crucible of money and white power. For me, holding the tensions inherent in this culture of white privilege, my role, my personal values, and my Eastern NC tenant farmer upbringing was an ongoing challenge – and growth edge. Retreats such as the Courage to Leadwere a source of respite, renewal and growth for me.           

Be trustworthy as an individual and an institution. Relational trust is a necessary ingredient for success in anything a foundation does. Trust in personal and institutional relationships are nurtured by qualities such as mutual respect, integrity, competence and compassion. Such trust is hard to come by in philanthropy, given the money imbalance between foundations and their nonprofit partners and foundations’ long-standing embrace of hierarchical power. For years, including in its most recent publication, The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report highlights two ways foundations can strengthen delicate relationships:

1) understand the context within which grantees and partners operate; and

2) be transparent.  

Building trustworthy relationships requires a good dose of humility, deep listening, and a learning mindset. My experiences with the Center for Courage and Renewal as participant and facilitator have built my skills at listening, at asking open honest questions to which I couldn’t possibly know the answer, and at holding paradoxical tensions that live in the complex work we and our nonprofit partners do every day. In short, because of these and other practices, I’m better at being trustworthy myself and at leading an institution that aspires to be trustworthy.              

Stay curious.  A Courage and Renewal Touchstone is “When the going gets rough, turn to wonder.” My experiences with Courage Work shored up my courage to live into “I don’t know” in the foundation field where ideas and answers reign supreme and “I don’t know” is often seen as weakness. The truth is that much of the work foundations do is in situations where complexity makes it impossible to be certain about answers or to have a linear strategy. Some of the most important and rewarding work I’ve done in philanthropy embraced “we don’t know” and “we’ll figure it out together” – for example, building a more inclusive and diverse staff and board; working on racism and poverty; transforming Program Officers into Network Officers. The going will inevitably get rough when we do complex, relationship-based, outcomes-oriented philanthropy. Staying curious and courageous opens us to inconvenient truths (for example regarding equity inside our foundations) as well as to wisdom from unexpected places/people about generative pathways forward. Curiosity can be an antidote to “smarty-pants philanthropy,” to borrow a phrase from a colleague.       

Are you curious? Join us at the 2018 Courage to Lead Retreat to explore together “habits of the heart” that tap into your own inner wisdom, courage, hope and hopelessness in these challenging times.

Gayle Williams, a consultant to foundations and an individual leadership coach, is a former executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation.


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