A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Are You Creating Space for Young Leaders to Lead?

Many young philanthropists ask themselves early on, Am I doing this right? It is understandable that emerging leaders may feel underprepared. They often are the youngest or newest member of a board or staff, sometimes just starting their professional journeys.

But something more powerful than age or experience is also at work: Almost to a fault—and, in our experience, without exception—young leaders in philanthropy approach their new positions with such deference—with such desire to add value and carry forward a legacy—that they humbly hesitate to contribute from the start, or to contribute confidently. Complex family dynamics can add additional hurdles.

If your organization is positioned to engage young leaders—or if you are a young leader yourself, your peers offer the following pointers for creating a welcoming space with opportunities to learn and build confidence.

Make Time for Meaningful Orientation

At the Donley Foundation, Executive Director Daphne Rowe created an intensive training program to onboard the next generation. “It was a detailed training,” says Jenny Donley, now a third-generation trustee. “We had assignments every few months, presented at board meetings, sat in on calls with the other next gen’ers, and, at the end, were tasked with making a discretionary grant.”

“I’ve been going on site visits with my dad,” says Sapphira Goradia, executive director of The Goradia Foundation in Houston. “It’s been so helpful to see what questions he asks from a business perspective. I think we better understand how we complement each other in this work. 

Find Peers and Mentors

Young leaders often find it empowering to connect with peers on multiple levels: with those facing similar challenges and with others who are one or two steps ahead.

“A lot of [feeling prepared] comes with establishing a good network of people that I can call on and talk to,” says Sapphira. “I feel more connected now, after participating in Exponent Philanthropy’s Next Gen Fellows Program, and that makes me feel more prepared.” 

“Peer-to-peer spaces are legitimate and important, as are cross-cutting spaces,” adds Rusty Stahl, founder, president, and CEO of the Talent Philanthropy Project and past executive director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP), with chapters for young, new, and/or junior foundation professionals in 12 cities.

At different times over the past decade, Johanna Edens Anderson, executive director of the Belk Foundation in Charlotte, has benefitted from formal mentoring relationships (as mentee and mentor) and a peer coaching circle with two seasoned grantmakers.

Consider pairing new board members or staff with more seasoned ones, or encourage your young leaders to look beyond your organization for opportunities for mentoring and coaching.

Value External Training

Formal training programs are a key way to prepare young leaders to operate confidently. Fortunately, a full menu of philanthropy-focused trainings exist today, which wasn’t always the case. Universities now offer degrees or continuing education courses in philanthropy, and intensive trainings are found nationwide through organizations like 21/64, EPIP, Resource Generation, regional and national associations, community foundations, Exponent Philanthropy, and others.

To maximize the impact of these experiences, request that young leaders present their learnings at a future board or staff meeting. Says Jenny, “One of the reasons I signed up [for the Next Gen Fellows Program] was because my sister and my cousin had attended Next Gen convenings and returned [to board meetings] with ideas. My sister has since been one of the most vocal voices on our board. It gave her the confidence to pipe up at meetings; I found the exact same thing to hold true.”

Whereas many young people will seek out these opportunities, others will benefit from encouragement to embrace them.

Build Confidence

Building confidence is central to keeping young leaders engaged and eager to share new perspectives, try new ideas, or disrupt longstanding traditions.

In 2013, Lucy Cantwell was hired as the first executive director of her family’s nascent foundation, New Belgium Family Foundation. “A really important moment for me was when I realized the diverse ways people handle this work,” says Lucy. “It’s easy to be new and say everyone knows so much more than we do. Although there are areas where that’s true, I don’t find it helpful to discount the experience newcomers have.”

Echoes Jenny Donley, “At first I didn’t want to say anything. Others on the board had much more knowledge and expertise to bring to the table. But then I realized the information was right here. I have a brain and a voice, and I can participate in this conversation. I can draw from life experiences.” 

Organizations can bolster young leaders’ resolve by welcoming new ideas, being willing to try something different, and encouraging them to look beyond the organization for ideas and education to support their confidence-building.

StephenProgram Manager Stephen Alexander designs sessions for our educational programs and coordinates content production with the goal of delivering the best service possible to the Exponent Philanthropy community. He currently serves on the board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network’s DC chapter. Follow Stephen on Twitter @StephenALXdc.

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