Leadership in Small Foundations

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

Exponent Philanthropy is launching a Leadership Initiative.

Does it sound like it’s about being a trustee of a small foundation, or top executive? That is part of it. But our look at leadership is even bigger.

For one thing, we believe every individual working at a small foundation can lead, including founders, trustees, staff, family members, and advisors. We also believe that leadership can happen on an ongoing basis, or for brief periods of time—a month, a week, a day, or even in a moment.

And we believe foundation leadership isn’t about formal authority. When you think about it, a foundation large or small can’t make anyone do anything. And yet, a foundation can have huge influence. Foundations have the freedom to take risks, experiment, speak out, and address the toughest issues facing communities and society.

So Exponent Philanthropy is asking fundamental questions: What is the essence of leadership? What does leadership mean in philanthropy? What does leadership mean for small foundations? How do small foundations provide leadership in communities, in their fields, and in society?

Why are we doing this?

If you look at all the assets foundations bring to the table, you can think of human assets such as creativity, resourcefulness, and passion; the knowledge and skills of trustees, staff, and family; their connections and networks; and the foundation’s freedom.

There is also leadership.

With a clearer picture of leadership, we’ll be better able to validate, nurture, and celebrate leadership among small foundations. And, by nurturing leadership, our hope is that:

  • Small foundations will have greater confidence and inspiration to maximize their skills, talents, and passion in support of their missions.
  • Members will achieve greater impact, and serve as catalysts and changemakers.
  • The contributions and accomplishments of small foundation philanthropy will be elevated.
  • Exponent Philanthropy members will inspire others to lead.

In short, if more small funders step into leadership, huge forces for good will be unleashed.

To explore the nature of leadership, we have conducted more than 35 interviews with Exponent Philanthropy members, board members, and staff, and with thinkers in philanthropy.

So far, the picture that emerges is that true leaders in small foundations are people who are passionate about a problem or issue, have deep knowledge of its workings, and are moved to act on their conviction and knowledge to influence others. We are learning how the uniqueness of small foundations empowers such leadership.

And people are telling us much more, which I’ll describe in future posts. In the meantime, our exploration continues.

What do you think? What is the essence of leadership? What does leadership mean for small foundations?

We value your perspective.

Senior Program Manager Andy Carroll, lead staffer on Exponent Philanthropy’s Leadership Initiative, writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for Exponent Philanthropy members. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with members about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. He and his wife Valerie are proud parents of a daughter who attends middle school in the DC public schools.

3 thoughts on “Leadership in Small Foundations

  1. Pingback: Small Foundations Embrace Advocacy to Catalyze Change | PhilanthroFiles

  2. Pingback: Leadership Is Available to Everyone | PhilanthroFiles

  3. Pingback: Philanthropy and Complex Problems—Being Real, and Stepping Into Leadership | PhilanthroFiles

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