Another Multiplier Effect: Invest in Talent Development – Part One


Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is the first of a two-part guest post by Daniel Jae-Won Lee, Executive Director of the Levi Strauss Foundation

by Daniel Jae-Won Lee

What would happen if foundations invested – and invested seriously – in developing emerging talent within their own organizations?

(In homage to Roger Doughty, who leads the Horizons Foundation in San Francisco—an incisive leader and generous mentor—I thought it fitting to riff off the title and opening line of his recent post on Philanthropy 411.)

At first glance, the value proposition for investment in developing emerging professionals seems a no-brainer.  As foundation leaders, we hire the best and brightest. We cultivate them. They deliver.  And their rising tides lift many boats—notably, our foundations, our leadership and the organizations and fields we support.

Last weekend, at the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) national conference, I had a unique opportunity to put my finger on the pulse of the thoughts, aspirations and experiences of 200+ participants—a vibrant representative sample of the new talent in foundations. (It’s an experience I would highly recommend for so-called “seasoned” leaders in our field.)

I witnessed a rather disheartening common thread: by and large, EPIPers are experiencing a dearth of learning and mentorship opportunities within their own institutions.  Many feel their best ideas aren’t being heard.

When pent-up demand finds satisfaction, it often feeds into an electrified air. At the conference, the depth and richness of intergenerational dialogue and deliberation on the philanthropic “issues of our day” was off-the-charts.

It’s important to point out that what EPIPers might experience as difficulties in “speaking up” and fulfilling their potential is, in fact, a systemic (a beloved word in our field) issue.

Talent development plays out in an ecosystem:

  • First, there’s the level of the individual:  her capability, her ability to influence others, her ability to deliver against (and exceed) expectations.
  • There’s the malleability of the job description. Is this a “place to stand” to grow and contribute to meaningful change…or is the individual told to stand by the copier?
  • Finally, there’s the valence of the “porousness” of an organization to emerging talent.  Is there a commitment to mentorship within the walls of a foundation, and supervision standards to bolster this? How about currents of upward mobility—if not across the organizational chart, then within the trajectory of each position? Does the organization cultivate a culture of continuous learning?

In forthcoming posts, I’ll outline a value proposition for cultivating this kind of ecosystem, plus offer a few guiding principles of supervision (no doubt, where the rubber hits the road) that support a culture of performance, accountability and talent development.

As we gather at the Council on Foundations conference, and when we return home to our institutions and other philanthropy affinity groups, I hope that we can talk amongst ourselves about this important issue:

  • What’s the ROI for investing in talent development—whether through learning opportunities (like EPIP events or “next generation” sessions at Council on Foundations conferences), training and mentorship—in our field?
  • What anecdotes can we share about how the mentee, mentor, organization and field are transformed by this commitment—and how it drives concrete results?

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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