May the Force (of Leadership Development) Be With You

Written by: Ben Barge

Date: February 17, 2016

Like many, I crammed into the movie theater over the holidays to watch The Force Awakens, the latest in the Star Wars franchise. As the soundtrack swelled and “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .” crawled across the screen, I was instantly transported. Being a Jedi was one of my favorite childhood fantasies.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the most impressive heroes aren’t swinging lightsabers or piloting spaceships, but rather mobilizing volunteers, organizing late night meetings and inspiring folks to make sure their decision-makers speak for them. One of my favorite bloggers, Vu Le who writes Nonprofits with Balls, often calls such nonprofit leaders Jedis because their efforts are nothing short of superhuman: points of light bringing balance to an unjust world.

Philanthropy needs such leaders. Our sector has a long to-do list, from combating inequality to tackling climate change and more. Aiming big is vital because our society faces urgent problems that demand systematic solutions. Yet, too often, something’s missing from these grand plans: we expect these dreams to become reality without investing in the fundamental expertise people need to make change happen.

What is this expertise? In a word: leadership. In more words: grassroots, movement-building, relational leadership. Time and time again, from marriage equality to police accountability and beyond, the biggest breakthroughs in the fight for social justice come from webs of individuals and organizations that add up to politically powerful movements creating pressure for change. We need grassroots leaders to feed these networks by seeing beyond narrow interests and partnering with peers to inspire diverse people to dismantle complex, oppressive systems.

Even Jedis had leadership development, after all: they sat on councils, trained young ones and led revolutions. Without Obi Wan Kenobi’s mentorship, Luke Skywalker would probably still be a moisture farmer on Tatooine.

Yet, our nonprofit Jedis have been given short thrift to develop these skills. A 2014 national survey by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that 73 percent of nonprofit leaders reported lacking sufficient resources and opportunities to develop their leadership skills. And no wonder. Foundation Center data from 2003-2012 shows that U.S. foundations gave less than 1 percent of both their grants and their grant dollars to leadership development. In fact, NCRP found that overall leadership development funding fell from $270 million in 2007 to $160 million in 2012, despite the fact that total grantmaking is now back where it was in 2007. This dearth is compounded for grassroots leaders working on controversial social justice topics, who have fewer safety nets and are more prone to burnout.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In NCRP’s Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership: A (Missed?) Philanthropic Opportunity report, we found profound stories of grantmakers supporting leadership development that explicitly strengthens people’s capacity to build movements for social justice.

Take the Rockwood Leadership Institute. With an emphasis on self-care and relational, goal-oriented leadership, the institute has trained over 5000 individuals, more than half of whom are people of color. The institute also creates strong alumni networks to great effect. For example, Rockwood alumnus Gustavo Torres played a huge role in helping build alliances between immigrants’ rights allies and LGBTQ advocates across Maryland – resulting in the votes needed to pass marriage equality and in-state tuition for undocumented youth in 2012.

Another example is Pioneers in Justice, Levi Strauss Foundation’s five-year investment in a cohort of social justice leaders in California’s Bay Area. The effort combines capacity building grants, cross-issue projects and a host of networking opportunities to build alliances between participants. Though only three years in, the investment has already helped the participating nonprofits nurture new leadership, improve operations and diversify their memberships.

Four lessons emerge from these case studies. To be successful, funders should:

  • Integrate leadership development as a natural, strategic part of their issue areas, rather than treat it as a nice-to-have “extra.”
  • Focus on building the capacity of the people who are most affected by the problems they hope to solve, partnering with grantees to develop a shared definition of leadership using a culturally inclusive lens.
  • Connect leaders across different movements, allowing them to see the interconnectedness of their work.
  • Sustain alumni networks over time.

So if you’re a funder that wants to see big change, help your nonprofit Padawans grow into the social justice Jedis they were destined to be. Systemic forms of oppression like structural racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia and the like are complex, and they evolve with the times (unlike Star Wars villains, who pretty much always just build a bigger Death Star).

Supporting leaders who are fighting for a better future doesn’t require knowledge of an invisible, magical super-energy. We can plan for these leaders by investing in their potential. And we should.

Ben Barge is a field associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter.

CC image by DancingPhilosopher.