What is this thing called Leadership?

Here's a "sneak preview" of my article in our newsletter Current "hitting stands" this week:

I often muse that writing about what Grand Rapids Community Foundation does would be easier if we only funded solutions for problems that experts already know how to fix!

But we follow the advice Warren Buffett gave in 2006 during his massive infusion of money to the Gates Foundation. He said, "Don't just go for safe projects. You can bat a thousand in this game if you want to by doing nothing important. Or you'll bat something less than that if you take on the really tough problems."

Warren Buffett's wise counsel serves the Gates Foundation well. They just announced the largest gift ever given to a single cause - $10 billion over 10 years to research vaccines and bring them to the world's poorest countries. Buffett's advice works as well for Grand Rapids Community Foundation, though on a much smaller scale!

The big thing for the Community Foundation isn't so much the amount of our grants as our leadership in the community. We are trying to explain and highlight this leadership clearly and succinctly. It's hard. We brainstorm with staff and emerge with statements that assume everyone has the same understanding of certain phrases and concepts (such as "systemic change") and agrees on how to address key community issues.

Bold adaptive leadership

Leadership experts talk about applying "bold leadership" or "adaptive leadership" to problems for which there are no easy answers, problems whose solutions may push people outside their comfort zones. My challenge is to define the "it" of this type of leadership without people's eyes glazing over.

I met recently with a long-time donor who asked good questions about the financial statement in our annual report. After explaining the facts, I gave a behind-the-scenes example of how the Community Foundation takes on what Buffett called "the really tough problems."

I detailed how we have been addressing the problem of child abuse and neglect for 15 years by providing ongoing funding for prevention programs. We've also been advocating with the Michigan Department of Human Services so their policies and practices will help, not hamper, how services are provided in Kent County through a strong network of nonprofits. Doing this work takes staff time and requires gumption.

Next I launched into the story of how 17 area foundations came together in November 2008 and agreed to pool their resources to better respond to growing needs for emergency food, clothing and shelter because of job losses and foreclosures. The new fund is housed at the Community Foundation and linked to the already-existing Essential Needs Task Force, which guides funding decisions. Now all community housing emergencies go through a central point at the Salvation Army called the Housing Assistance Program. This is a change in how the "system operates" and seems to be providing positive results for many families in our community.

The very helpful donor said, "Why don't you describe that in your publications?" Why indeed! We do try and we will be doing a better job of that. Our donor said he'd be happy to review whatever we write to see if it is clear and compelling!

What is the "it?"

Like the Gates Foundation, we choose strong partners, risk new approaches and take the long view on problems others won't tackle. Community Foundation staff members have led the way in many community efforts, such as
* preventing foreclosures
* providing funding through Program Related Investments to rehab houses in target urban areas of Grand Rapids
* working with "experienced adults" as they transition into a productive and satisfying "retirement"
* diligently addressing the academic achievement gap in area schools
* and so much more!

We do not shy away from the knotty issues. It takes resources to do this (yet-to-be-clearly-defined) work. I hope we can do this in future issues of Current!