February 13, 2018

Lessons in leadership building

Both nonprofits and funders have a role to play in creating and nurturing the right kind of talent required for the social sector to grow.

3 min read

The social sector is about people. The people we serve, the people who serve. Which is why there is a clear need to focus on attracting more good talent into the sector and developing leadership capability within organisations.

We at Phicus Social Solutions, a nonprofit organisation focused on developing organisation, programme and leadership capacity within the social sector—wanted to understand the broader capacity building needs in the sector as well as the key levers that will determine sectoral advancement in the years to come.

In 2016, we conducted primary and secondary research with more than 100 leaders at 60 nonprofits across the country, asking them to share with us what they think will be the key to the future success of Indian nonprofits. The findings pointed to two clear areas of potential:

  • Better talent: Whether you are looking for a programme manager or a teacher in one of the schools in which you operate, the lack of quality talent is a huge issue across levels within the social sector. Moreover, because there has historically been less funding available for institution building and support functions, developing talent within organisations hasn’t been easy.
  • Leadership capability: The sector has been able to build great technical leaders but not organisation builders. Other than a clutch of external training programmes and people crossing over from corporates into the social sector, there are limited opportunities to address the senior level talent gap.

This talent deficit needs to be addressed both at the level of the funders as well as the nonprofits.

How funders can support the talent quest

1. Fund capacity building: Capacity building requirements are usually tucked into programmatic expenses and hence address only the most urgent needs. Organisation building, however, is a more medium-term effort.

The US-based Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr Fund sets a fine example here through their Flexible Leadership Awards programme, which focuses on helping their grantee partners build non-programmatic capacity over a period of three to five years.

The programme offers three kinds of support:

  • Flexible funding to address leadership challenges and opportunities
  • Peer learning to enable the exchange of ideas and offer mutual support
  • Strategic advice to build and implement a leadership development programme, with the help of an external consultant.

Among other activities, Haas grantees have been able to use these award funds to support coaching for staff, board development and engagement, and succession planning. In fact, at Phicus, we are currently piloting Teerna, a programme designed to build non-programmatic capacity in small and mid-sized nonprofits.

2. Focus on leadership development:
When we speak of the need for social change to be ‘sustainable’, what it means is creating a depth of leadership within the organisation and in the communities to keep the fire burning. Aritra, a leadership programme that Phicus offers with IIM Bangalore, aims to build such a leadership pipeline in the Indian social sector. Not only should donors invest in leadership development, but they should also hold heads of nonprofits accountable to creating a leadership pipeline within their organisations. It is vital that donors track this as closely as they would programmatic outcomes and make future funding contingent on the achievement of organisational outcomes such as these.

Leadership Building - Laying Brick

Photo Courtesy: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

How nonprofits can address the talent crunch

1. Offer coaching and mentoring: Nurturing talent is fundamental to grooming future leaders. In our research with leaders, most spoke about the significant role their mentors played in their careers. These mentors, many of whom were senior leaders, shared their expertise, wisdom and counsel, contributing significantly to shaping the leadership thinking and practice of their mentees. Thus, ensuring that people have the right coaches as they navigate their careers could help fill critical skill gaps and provide the guidance necessary to improve their performance.

2. Build rotational programmes:
Putting in place a rotational programme that provides exposure to the various functions within an organisation is a great way to build the capacity of internal talent, especially those individuals with the potential to move into senior management roles. This can be done by providing exposure stints to leaders in other functional areas, allowing opportunities to shadow another leader or offering cross-functional projects, all of which help employees gain exposure and perspective.

3. Leverage volunteers:
In the near term, organisations can take better advantage of volunteers. Today, most of them are asked to either support the core team during events or offer assistance with generic programme needs such as conducting fun activities in schools, helping paint buildings and so on. There is huge potential to leverage these volunteers in their areas of core competence—strategy, finance or marketing—to augment a nonprofit’s organisational capabilities.

For the social sector to thrive, it is vital that the talent gaps in the entire value chain—right from sourcing to engagement. development and retention—be addressed urgently. And both funders and nonprofits have a role to play here.

We want IDR to be as much yours as it is ours. Tell us what you want to read.
Vandana profile
Dr Vandana Nadig Nair

Dr Vandana Nair is founder-director at Phicus Social Solutions, which focuses on capacity building of key change agents in the social sector to amplify social impact. She works closely with heads of social impact organisations in charting their growth roadmap, as well as with heads of foundations and CSR teams. She also drives the Social Innovation Labs practice in Phicus.
Vandana has 26 years of work experience across the corporate and social sectors, having worked with Hindustan Unilever and Torry Harris Business Solutions before setting up CoCoon Consulting. She has also co-founded ElderAid Wellness Pvt. Ltd, a social enterprise that provides at-home services to senior citizens in Bangalore. Vandana holds a PhD in industrial/ organisational psychology from Central Michigan University.