Last year, the Putnam Consulting team had the privilege of working with Blue Shield of California Foundation (BSCF) on a case study documenting the Foundation's work to build cadres of leadership in the state's community health centers and domestic violence shelters. In a nutshell, BSCF created the Clinic Leadership Institute to provide an intensive 18-month leadership development experience for cadres of up-and-coming leaders as well as programs to enhance the leadership abilities of existing executive teams and new CEOs. It also incorporated a strong Leadership Development Program into a broader effort to strengthen the field of domestic violence service organizations. You can read more about program specifics here.
What we found unique and particularly interesting about BSCF's approach was the confluence of need, timing, flexibility and focus that is showing evidence of field-wide transformations. In essence, it was almost a "perfect storm" for spawning leadership.
By now, everyone in the philanthropic world has heard of the impending leadership crisis as established leaders retire. This is true for California's community health centers and its domestic violence service organizations. But in both of these fields, the impending loss of leadership was compounded by the fact that many organizations were working in relative isolation from peers. That meant that when individual leaders left, there would be no broader support system for new leaders - and hence few sources of knowledge and experience from which to draw as they took the helm.
For California's community health clinics, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act was a great catalyst for action - including actions to develop new leadership and strengthen existing leadership teams. The writing on the wall was fairly straightforward - move ahead or perish. That's a huge incentive for leadership development that may have had something to do with the levels of participation in BSCF's programs. On the domestic violence side, providers were reeling from massive budget cuts at the state level, and were struggling to keep the doors open. Again, this is a situation in which the need for leadership becomes paramount and blatantly obvious.
When confronting obvious needs, it's very tempting for foundations to push ahead with solutions. After all, there are many credible and successful leadership development programs out there that could be brought to bear relatively quickly and efficiently. But BSCF wanted more. After researching what was available, the Foundation decided to create programs tailor made to the needs of community health centers and domestic violence service organizations. Then, as each program progressed, BSCF made continual tweaks in curriculum and delivery to increase effectiveness. As a result, programs were always filled to capacity, and demand still exists today.
Because BSCF very intentionally focuses on serving two distinct fields - community health centers and domestic violence - the leadership programs it developed were able to dive deeper in terms of connecting real needs with skill development. This made the programs more relevant for participants. In addition, BSCF was able to make strong and meaningful connections between participants who faced the same situations and challenges in their daily work. Graduates of BSCF leadership programs still maintain their close networks of colleagues years after completing the programs. In fact, many attribute these networks with helping them foster ongoing innovation and improvements, as well as breaking through the old sense of isolation and giving a more unified voice to the fields in which they work.
While not every field will have the "perfect storm" described above in which to create a strategy for leadership development, it may pay to look beyond the fact that old leaders will retire and new ones will need skills. With a broader view of factors that shape the environments in which leaders operate, the issues that they face in their specific fields, or the ways in which rising leaders connect with one another, foundations can perhaps create stronger programs with greater, more lasting impact.
To learn more read the full case study or executive summary.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a nationally recognized philanthropy advisor. Find out more about how she helps foundations communicate results. You can also join her this Sunday April 26th in San Francisco at the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers' annual meeting and reception, where she will facilitate a panel discussion about philanthropy consulting and the forthcoming issue of The Foundation Review.
© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.