Lead and Give with Bravery and Humility

Courtesy of Sindre Strom from Pexels

Society is calling leaders to action: demanding fundamental changes in our mindsets, how we operate, and what we pursue. Responding to the call requires us to step into unknown spaces and discomfort and to go beyond platitudes and statements of support. The bold step into action challenges us to be brave, vulnerable, and humble. Leadership is hard. It is messy. It is full of mistakes. But embracing the opportunity to be a leader is the only way that we grow and evolve. 

The path of leadership is uncertain. The first steps are often unstable. We slip. We fall. The stumbles can feel—and often are—quite consequential. Focusing on consistent success is both daunting and incredibly limiting. What if we shifted our mindsets to be proud of taking risks—even after failing? Or feel intrigued and compelled to learn more from our mistakes and empowered to forge ahead, rather than to shy away? Now, in this moment of reflection and reckoning, we must decide not only if but fundamentally how we answer our call as leaders.

Living into the answers

When I started my tenure as President and CEO of the National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP) two years ago, the world and field of philanthropy looked radically different. A global pandemic and overdue racial reckoning shook us all and left us with more questions than answers. How can I use my role to share power? How can I depersonalize the process? I’ve been reminded of a Rilke poem a friend shared with me long ago. “Be patient,” the poem says, “…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” To lead is to ask questions and to forge ahead despite uncertainty.

The past year has been one of ongoing reflection. I continue to embrace the questions. I will never have all the answers, but there are a few things I know for sure:

  1. NCFP must hold a perspective. Leadership requires that we make assertions and take actions that bring our values to life. 
  2. Just as funders are more actively embracing proximity, we too must listen and be accountable to our network. Leadership requires sharing power. 
  3. Statements and good intentions are not sufficient. In order to be leaders that have meaningful impact, we must all commit to actions that drive change. 

Holding a Perspective

Chief among the perspectives that NCFP seeks to posit is that there are effective philanthropic practices to employ in the pursuit of impact.

I have been advising families for over 10 years and effective practice has always been front and center for me, yet I never fully connected the concepts of equity and philanthropic effectiveness. Racial justice was not an issue that I brought forward at all, and in retrospect it’s shocking. I now recognize that we can’t separate effective practice from gross disparities in concentrations of wealth and equity. 

This experience prompted me to scrutinize our implicit bias as a sector and as donors. While the recognition that racial equity is fundamental to effective family philanthropy was clarifying, it also raised many other questions. How were we potentially stalling progress through our leadership practices? What mistakes did we have to acknowledge and where could we find new solutions? Did we have trusting partnerships with leaders who could best guide us? Through the exploration of these questions, the staff and trustees of the organization redefined our values and affirmed a commitment to hold equity as a core tenet of effective family philanthropy.

We must elevate a conversation on effective philanthropy. 

Sharing power, listening to community, and learning together

NCFP recognizes the value of listening to the needs of our community and acting on what we hear. 

Shortly after joining the organization, a network member remarked that “donors are looking for something to chew on.” I learned that donors are curious and eager to reflect on difficult questions and more deeply explore emerging practices. Core to our mission is donor education and we had more opportunity for growth. This and other feedback catalyzed the development of Learning and Action Networks, which are designed as ongoing cohorts dedicated to deep, shared learning about specific concepts in family philanthropy, with an expectation of commitment to defined action(s) after the completion of each program. Learning and Action Networks provide connected and dedicated peer communities while challenging funders to think differently and commit to learning and real action.

We also heard the importance of holistic education that addresses the full spectrum of decisions that donors encounter throughout the lifecycle of their philanthropy. While NCFP has deep expertise in areas such as philanthropic purpose, governance, and succession, we recognized that our programming was not meeting the entirety of donor needs. As a result, we committed to be a hub of learning, connection, and action that provides our community with support at all points of their giving journey. Our model by definition recognizes that our organization doesn’t know all the answers, but is committed to finding solutions and partnering with organizations that have complementary expertise. 

We must equip families with the tools and resources to orient toward effective outcomes.

Committing to Action

We believe it’s time to commit to action. 

This year, we held a retreat for executive leaders in family philanthropy. Following the gathering, I talked to a community member about his experience as an attendee. He felt the event introduced important concepts, but was left wondering how to use those concepts in his own work. He noted the need to move beyond a place of exposure to a place of testing, trying, and applied learning. This raised a number of questions. How do philanthropic families learn? How do you promote the application of learning? What support is needed for donors to shift their pace and practice?

Families need the right support and continuity of learning to find their focus and act on their intentions. As a result, we expanded our Peer Network programming and began CEO Cohort Councils for executives to wrestle with real-time challenges together. 

We must activate a diverse network of philanthropic families.

Our Commitment

The past year has taught us that we don’t need the answers to start change. We just need to embrace our roles and responsibilities as leaders, which includes identifying areas for growth. We must also accept the notion that others may be better equipped to lead. NCFP is committed to maturing our approach to leadership by:

  • Listening and engaging more deeply with our network 
  • Designing programs informed by the philanthropy community
  • Pursuing approaches to effective family philanthropy that center listening, trust, and equity

 As a sector, we can support one another through the challenges, messiness, and milestones. NCFP will continue to develop rich resources and supports as you contemplate and grow your leadership. We are here to walk alongside you. Leadership is about taking the bold step forward, but it doesn’t have to be a solo journey.

Nick Tedesco is the President and CEO of NCFP