Leadership in Philanthropy – A Newcomer’s Reflections

Two months into my first role in the Trusts and Foundations sector I found myself standing in Two Temple Place, London, awed by the beauty and history of the building, the luxury of the environment and the event, wondering how on earth I had found myself there.

As the new Head of Learning for the membership body of 46 Community Foundations across the country I was privileged to not just attend, but help to host, its biennial Symposium. This brings together executives and trustees from across the country to hear fantastic speakers debate important issues around the generosity of donors and the ways this wealth could be spent to improve communities. It was fascinating, enlightening, and utterly alien.

Many months further into the role I feel less like a fish out of water (though I still don’t know if I could ever dress formally enough for a venue like Two Temple Place), and so would like to capture a few reflections on this new role before I can no longer recognise the “water” that is the world of philanthropy. My remit is focused on leadership development for our network, so it is the unique nature of philanthropy leadership – often focused on a particular community – that has particularly captured my interest.

Bridging Worlds Through Authenticity

The experience of walking into Two Temple Place highlighted the first of these challenges: the bridging of worlds. Philanthropy development professionals must feel equally at home speaking to ultra-high-net-worth donors, and to the local grassroots groups they support. They must be comfortable donning black tie for an evening fundraising event, and coveralls to visit a gardening project. They must be able to speak the language of finance and investment management, and that of lived experience and social impact. This bridging, connecting role works best when it comes from a place of authenticity, of genuine belief in the value of one’s work, and the confidence of one’s individual and organisational knowledge and experience.

Focusing Action Through Vision

The second challenge, of focusing action, seems one of the great dilemmas of philanthropists around the world. When there is so very much need, in so many spheres and affecting so many people, there is constant tension between agendas that look to direct action to the places that need it most, can benefit most highly, or that are most attractive to new donations and donors. The necessary focus seems most effective when it is underpinned by a clear vision. Based on a range of quantitative and qualitative evidence, the needs analysis of an area, the temperature check of a current social reality, and the intimate knowledge of the community’s assets and requirements, all add up to create a compelling vision that drives donations, improvements and impacts.

Achieving Results Through Trust

Lastly, I have begun speaking with colleagues in detail about distributed and collaborative leadership, as the best way I can see of achieving results in the face of such high levels of need is to offer the most possible resource to every issue we choose to tackle. The best way to free up and empower this resource is trust. Trust in every member of staff in every organisation involved in fund development and grant-making to do their best work at all times. Trust in every community leader to act with integrity to achieve the greatest possible impact. Trust in every grantee to spend each penny given to the community with more care and attention than they would their own money.

Mid-way through the first prototype of our Community Foundation Leadership Programme, and with applications coming in for further cohorts, we are rising to the challenge of bringing these common threads into a programme that works with many different people, all serving different communities and working in different ways. By coming together as a community of leaders, we can identify new approaches and generate new solutions to the current and future challenges we face.

I feel proud to be a part of this work.

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