Build your nonprofit leadership capacity with development programs and learning communities

In recent years, forward-thinking capacity builders have learned that they could build the leadership capacity of the nonprofit sector not just through direct individual consulting, but also through the design and delivery of leadership development programs and learning communities. These professional development modalities provide an intensive learning opportunity, usually for executive directors, structured on a peer-learning model. Through these programs, small groups of executives commit to working and learning together over an extended period, often a year, or, in the case of a learning community, longer. The groups are supported by consultants/trainers who are experienced in organizational capacity-building, leadership development and the nurturing of learning communities.

The goals of these programs include:

Enhancing participants’ management and leadership skills;

Creating networks of nonprofit professionals that can sustain and develop their members; and

Developing each participant’s awareness of the impact of his or her personality upon his or her leadership style.

Leadership development programs

Leadership development programs, which are more formal than learning communities, often work from a core curriculum, which is customized for each cohort and timeframe, and generally covers the following areas:

The role of the executive director—leading the organization

The relationship of the executive to the board—getting the most out of the board

Understanding and managing strategic issues—growth, competition, new ventures

Managing people—volunteers, staff and interns

Communicating your message—internal and external communication strategies

Developing a nonprofit that people want to support—fundraising strategies

Leveraging resources—board members, consultants, peers

Setting and measuring goals—you don’t have to be a research wonk to do it

Developing a lifelong, sustainable approach to leadership development

Leadership development programs usually combine a small amount of reading with discussions and role playing, as well as group and individual projects. The group leader ensures that key concepts are communicated in each meeting, using discussion among peers as an important learning tool. The leader seeds conversations and presents cases for discussion by the group. Group members are encouraged to contact one another between meetings—enhancing the peer-to-peer approach to learning and support.

These programs can also contain informal communication vehicles developed to facilitate between meeting contact. For example, a program might utilize a Web site that is accessible to group members only, where members can post their respective strategic plans or other documents, ask one another questions, etc. These sites can be quite simple and bare bones, or they can become much more elaborate “knowledge management centers.”

Currently, most leadership development programs are designed for executive directors. However, both funders and nonprofits are increasingly asking for similar programs aimed at other organizational leaders and mid-level managers (e.g., the chief financial officer, chief operating officer, program director, development director, etc.), who may be future executive directors. In this way, the current management structure can be deepened as the future leadership pipeline is strengthened.

Of course, the curriculum for these leaders is somewhat different. In place of the leadership development program’s heavy emphasis on the challenges executive directors face working with boards, there might be somewhat less attention to this still critical area, with the addition of a section on “managing up,” or how to manage from the middle of an organization.

Learning communities

Learning communities have similarities to more formalized leadership development programs, but differ in a few meaningful ways. For example, learning communities usually do not have a pre-determined curriculum, but instead are composed of a group of peers, usually executive directors (although this too is changing, with aspiring leader learning communities also on the rise), meeting regularly to discuss issues of mutual concern. The topics for consideration mirror those in the curriculum of a more formal leadership development program; however, they emerge naturally from discussion.

Learning communities are often used as a sustainable follow-up modality to a leadership development program, since they can be self-managed and continue for as long as the members have interest. In creating a variety of leadership development programs and models, and in facilitating various learning communities, I have learned that three elements are essential—not just to the overall success of each program, but also to the individual success of each meeting or session. These three elements must be present for participants to get the most learning out of their participation and to come away with a perception that their time was well spent.

The elements are:

Hard skill development: Participants must actually learn something new and useful at each session, such as how to run a better board meeting, read financial statements, manage a troublesome staff person or develop a personal performance plan.
Networking with peers: Participants need time and opportunity to connect with their peers in the group, through activities, discussion, exercises or other means.
Self-reflection: Participants must be given an opportunity to see themselves as others see them, in order to both build on their strengths and minimize any weaknesses in their self-presentation, communication style or other behaviors.

Well organized and ably facilitated, leadership development programs and learning communities are useful tools for capacity building. Not only do they help participants to develop skills and networks that will improve their job performance, but they are also generally reported to reduce stress and burn out, which may lead to longer tenure in their current jobs. For a board wondering how to keep its high-flying executive director or development director motivated and engaged, these tools might be something to consider.

See also:

Image credits: commlabindia.com, rutgers.edu

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