Historically, most funders and senior teams in the social sector put their focus on program results, and wouldn’t dream of using part of their budget for leadership development. The social sector faces serious problems about cultivating the next generation of leadership. In the Daring to Lead study of more than 3,000 executive directors, 75% plan to leave their organization within the next five years and less than 17% have succession plans. Facing the question of whether to “make” or “buy” leaders, isn’t even an option. They won’t be able to recruit from other agencies simply because there aren’t enough leaders waiting in the wings. Internal leadership development is essential to the sustainability of the social sector.
The Coaching and Philanthropy1 project’s research shows that coaching is a very effective strategy for developing leaders and their organizations. Many nonprofit leaders view coaching as a way to develop and hone key leadership and management skills.
In the table that follows, the nonprofit leaders using CompassPoint’s coaching referral and matching service had similar “coaching intake themes.” Derived from a 12-month period, the themes are ranked in order of priority.2
Coaching is especially valuable in supporting social sector leaders who are facing pivotal points in the life of the organization, including:
Executive director transition
Shift in the founder’s role
New strategic plan
Expansion or cut back of program or funds
What follows is a story offered by a coach about creating an ideal relationship with a board.
I coached an executive director who said, “My board makes hostile remarks, undermines me at every turn and they are never straight with me. I think my job is in jeopardy.” She wasn’t happy about going to work and was compromising her values on a daily basis. She held an entrenched viewpoint that her board was out to get her and as long as she believed that, nothing could shift. So we worked to shift her viewpoint to, “I can create a board that really works for me. It’s really possible to have the support that I need.” From that empowered viewpoint, she created a plan of action to develop an ideal relationship with her board. From there, she worked on finding her voice and made requests of her board. She had never imagined that she could ask for what she needed.
She kept her job, asked a few board members to leave, and was able to create a new board that was responsive to the needs of the organization. Most importantly, they interacted with her differently—she finally got the respect she’d been craving. She used the concept of creating a conscious relationship to get clear with the board how they wanted to work together. From there she created conscious relationships with her staff.
The coaching tools that had the most impact were calling out the power and challenging. Her viewpoint was so entrenched—she repeatedly said, “This is an impossible situation; I’ll never figure it out.” As a coach, I took a stand that surprised her, “Of course you will figure it out; there are many options here.” I had no idea how it was going to come out for her. But I took a stand for her resourcefulness and happiness, and knew that something useful would come out of the exploration.
Most people come into the social sector because they are passionate about the organization’s mission. They become managers “accidentally,” not because they have a strong desire to manage people or run an organization. So they often need support in developing management skills, including creating a coaching culture in their organizations. They face complex, diverse challenges, but they often need help with basic skills like saying “no,” holding people accountable, or choosing how they prioritize their goals.
According to David Coleman, a seasoned executive coach who works with nonprofit leaders, the primary benefits of coaching are:
Helping leaders gain new perspectives on themselves and their situations
Building the confidence of leaders
Retaining valued employees
Developing new leaders
Bringing renewed energy to longtime leaders so they can recommit to the tasks ahead3
A coach who only works with social justice organizations offers an example of her challenges:
I coach people working in social justice organizations who are doing things to change the world to make it a more equitable place. They are very heart driven, very values driven and that’s incredibly inspiring. People are not coming to coaching with “I don’t know what to do with my life…” They know what they’re doing and why.
But it’s challenging coaching them because they don’t know how to balance other priorities in their lives. They honor the collective more than the individual. A new client said, “Taking care of myself; that’s not as valuable as taking care of my staff or the organization or the movement.”
Surrounded by so much inequality, he said, “I can’t slow down because who am I to rest when other people have so much less than I have. I need to keep working on behalf of the cause.” So a lot of my work is around sustainability. I told him, “Yes, it’s true that the inequality doesn’t stop and what is also true is that if you keeping working the way that you’re working, we’ll lose you from the movement, you’ll burn out, you’ll get sick.” Once he realized he wouldn’t treat anyone else the way he treats himself, he changed the way he works and lives.
More and more grantmakers are including coaching as part of their leadership development initiatives as a way to build capacity in organizations. As leaders address organizational challenges and opportunities, the coaching process has a ripple effect on their families, communities and movements.
1 Coaching and Philanthropy: An Action Guide for Coaches. 2009. Kim Ammann Howard, BTW informing change Michelle Gislason, CompassPoint Nonprofi t Services Virginia Kellogg, Leadership that Works
2 Coaching and Philanthropy: An Action Guide for Coaches. Kim Ammann Howard, BTW informing change Michelle Gislason, CompassPoint Nonprofi t Services Virginia Kellogg, Leadership that Works Source: CompassPoint, Coaching Referral and Matching Service Intake Data, September 2008 – September 2009.
3 David Coleman, “A Leader’s Guide to Executive Coaching,” Nonprofit Quarterly, Spring 2008.
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