A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

The Power of Community to Develop Young Leaders

By Janice Simsohn Shaw, Exponent Philanthropy

Last month, we kicked off the 2014 Next Gen Fellows Program, our second installment of a 6-month program to bring together young trustees and staff for learning, connecting, and mentoring. Just like our cohort of 2013 Next Gen Fellows, they are as diverse as any group in their passions, politics, priorities, and concerns. Yet when they come together, something magical happens. Their confidence rockets, and their collective energy, commitment to good work, and potential for difference-making follow suit.

Why is community so powerful in developing young leaders?

Philanthropy can be a lonely business. Whether you’re the only staff member in your 20s, or a sole next gen trustee or executive director, finding collaborators and honest feedback can be difficult. As one past Fellow shared, “Community has been an important professional development marker, given that I work at home by myself. Am I listening well enough? Being respectful of different opinions? Basically, playing nice with others? I haven’t been at this long enough that I have many professional relationships, so those that I do have are meaningful.”

Confidence is bolstered. One 30-something reported upon attending a regional grantmakers’ gathering that she would never have had the confidence to attend—let alone ask questions—before becoming part of the cohort of 2013 Next Gen Fellows. Participation helped put her role and her work in a broader context—even if that meant knowing just how individualized and personalized philanthropy can be. “The biggest thing I’ve gained from community is confidence to continue the path I’m on. Hearing how everyone else is doing things, and appreciating our differences and different situations, has made me more comfortable with my own decisions.”

It’s empowering to know others in similar shoes. It’s one thing to gain knowledge—to read books, attend conferences, or even go to graduate school—and yet another to gain a community of peers who can help you determine how to put that knowledge into practice. As another Fellow wrote, “Being able to connect with next gen’ers experiencing some of the same trials and tribulations provided a needed union between empathy and problem solving.”

Millennials grew up collaborating. As a general rule, those in their 20s share comfort with working in groups, and the support of the group is missed when working alone. After years of intergenerational work with our members, this understanding came my way only recently in a frank (and frankly humorous) conversation with some of our younger team members at Exponent Philanthropy.

And although our Fellows—and our staff—stay connected through social media, email, and conference calls, the desire for connectedness cannot be entirely fulfilled online. There is still nothing that compares to being together in person.

Supporting young leaders—and building communities for them—is crucial now. Unique dynamics at play today make the power of community—and investments in young leaders—deeply important.

For starters, silos are crumbling in today’s world. The federal government and many local and regional governments, for example, have opened their doors to partnerships with philanthropy. To see examples, we need only look to the Social Innovation Fund, now a key arm of the Corporation for National and Community Service, or the City of Newark, NJ, which has an assigned philanthropic liaison. We are part of an interdisciplinary system, and building communities supports the cross-pollination of ideas.

Likewise, much has been written about the ongoing intergenerational transfer of wealth—and organizational leadership—that make investments in young leaders among our field’s smartest moves.

Simply put, your philanthropy—and our world—will benefit from investing in young leaders and building communities of support and practice for and with them.

See Exponent Philanthropy’s new report Outsized Impact for more commentary on today’s trends and their effects on philanthropy with few or no staff.

Related posts

Millennial Voices in Philanthropy: Caroline Mullis

Millennial Voices in Philanthropy: Jessica Gonzalez

JaniceSenior Program Director Janice Simsohn Shaw is our networking maven, always happy to connect members and others for learning and growth. Over her near-decade at the organization, she has played a number of roles. She now oversees the Master Juggler Executive Institute and the Next Gen Fellows Program, as well as other work engaging young people in philanthropy. Janice is a popular facilitator at conferences, and she loves designing interactive learning experiences.

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