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Developing Nonprofit Leaders

September 2013


Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Ken Saxon. Saxon is co-founder of Leading From Within and Courage to Lead. He believes strongly in the importance of developing nonprofit leaders, including future leaders of nonprofits who now serve in middle-management positions. Many local nonprofit leaders have had the distinct opportunity of participating in his programs.

Saxon came to this work because of his involvement on nonprofit boards after he moved to Santa Barbara with his family in 1996. As an experienced small-business entrepreneur, he easily related to executive directors of nonprofits because their jobs are similar to running a small business — except that in many ways it is harder. Most of these executives were never formally prepared to do their job, and they have multiple bottom lines to manage. In addition, they “report” to a volunteer board that may or may not know how to be helpful (and some actually get in the way).

Since he had an interest in leadership development, Saxon decided to create a program that would help executive directors do their jobs more effectively and to sustain themselves and avoid burning out. In this article, Saxon’s comments focus on the imperative of providing professional development for nonprofit leaders and describe the four key programs he oversees with the support of the Santa Barbara Foundation: Leading From Within, Emerging Leaders Program, Courage to Lead and Katherine Harvey Fellows.

Professional Development for Nonprofit Leaders

If you want to become a teacher, a minister or a doctor, there are institutions and paths of study to support your development.

So I find it helpful to look at our nonprofit sector as the very young field it is. Lack of appropriate institutional support and common standards often causes organizational dysfunction and frustration and makes it difficult to develop and sustain effective leaders.

Leading From Within

Leading From Within has three programs: Courage to Lead, our Emerging Leaders Program and the Katherine Harvey Fellows. None of these programs would be available without the support of the Santa Barbara Foundation.

Through our partnership to enhance nonprofit excellence in our region, we and the Santa Barbara Foundation are working to create an environment where local leaders in our sector are supported, developed and encouraged.

For five years, we at Leading from Within have been investing in leadership development for our sector. We focus on the development of professional and volunteer nonprofit leaders, and we weave connections among them so they can support and inspire each other. This kind of nurturing peer community benefits the leaders themselves, their organizations, their missions and the community as a whole.

Ken Saxon
Ken Saxon

There is so much more that needs to be done. As government retrenches and philanthropy continues to grow, the nonprofit sector will continue to expand. Over time, institutions will develop to support the sector and its leaders. Think about the field of education. There are significant efforts in identifying teachers, training and mentoring them, supporting their renewal (through practices such as continuing education and sabbatical) — all institutional practices to support teaching professionals. This type of support has yet to be built in the nonprofit sector.

I love working with the nonprofit leaders in our programs. Leaders who are called to this kind of work are generally wonderful people who have a passion for making a difference. What they need are knowledge, self-development and a trusted peer community, all of which we help them acquire.

The field of professional development for nonprofit leaders is wide open and there is significant need. The two biggest barriers are a sense of scarcity around money and time. It’s embarrassing how small budgets are for professional development in our sector — and these are the first funds to be eliminated when finances are tight. Right at the time when organizations are asking more of people and should be investing more in them, the rug gets pulled out from under them.

I also hear a lot about an overriding sense of busy-ness. Many think that time invested in one’s own professional growth takes away from serving the mission. I see it differently. I want to see our nonprofit professional and volunteer leaders invest in themselves, so they can be more effective in advancing the organization’s mission. On every board I have served, I have advocated increased investment in professional development.

I’ve been hearing recently about a number of groups in Santa Barbara who are talking about investing in professional development for nonprofit leaders. In addition to Leading from Within, Antioch University and Fielding Graduate Universityhave been looking at launching programs. I think the need is great.

The main challenge for any organization investing in this arena is funding and recruitment. Since organizations don’t budget much for this kind for work, there must be scholarship money available. At Leading from Within, we’ve been fortunate to have supporters who have invested in making our programs financially accessible for all. We are a nonprofit ourselves, and we work hard to manage our costs; but even then, our programs cost more than most organizations feel they can afford.

Leaders must be willing to commit time to their own development and that of those who work for them — that’s something that needs to begin to shift in the nonprofit sector. I see it happening one person at a time. Leading from Within is trying to play a role in shifting the culture through our Emerging Leaders program. We began this new program in January with 15 midlevel nonprofit managers. We’ve gotten great feedback from their organizations about how they are growing and stepping up more into leadership. This is all part of a growing up process for our local nonprofit sector.

And Santa Barbara is not an island. We have been inspired by exciting experiments in professional development for nonprofit leaders being done all over the country. There are effective programs that we’ve looked at in Richmond, Philadelphia, Boston, San Diego and San Francisco that have been operating for years. Our Leading From Within board has been meeting this year with some of the pioneers in our field from across the state. We have so much to learn from others that can strengthen our local nonprofit sector.

Emerging Leaders Program

Our Emerging Leaders Program will open again for applications in September and October, and our 2014 program will begin this coming January. The ELP is a year-long professional development program for managers in nonprofits — mostly program, development and administrative managers at Santa Barbara County nonprofit agencies.

The program focuses on leadership development, personal development and nonprofit business skills. A big emphasis of this program has been to connect these folks to others in the larger community. Many of these young managers know only people their own organization, and few have a supportive group of professional peers. We invite outside presenters and lunch guests who are leaders in the field. Group members have a chance to ask questions about the speaker’s professional journey. This process develops a much deeper sense of being part of a broader nonprofit community beyond their agency.

Our Emerging Leaders Program has been very well received. It’s also a bargain because the majority of costs are covered by the Santa Barbara Foundation. The foundation recognized that there was no substantive programming that invested in emerging nonprofit managers in our community, and it wanted to be part of building the next generation of executive directors.

Courage to Lead

Courage to Lead is a year-long program for the personal and professional renewal of executive directors and other top-level nonprofit leaders. Over the past five years we’ve had four cohorts of Courage to Lead consisting of more than 85 California executive directors — including local executives such as Cecilia Rodriguez of CALM, Ernesto Paredes of Easy Lift Transportation, Erik Talkin of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and Colette Hadley of the Scholarship Foundation.

Once participants complete the retreat-based program, we have a full menu of alumni activities that continue to support them and cultivate this community of professionals. It’s our hope they become better able to care for themselves, better able to advance their missions and that they feel very nurtured by a trusted peer community. We will celebrate our fifth anniversary in November.

I came to this work because of my involvement on nonprofit boards after I moved to Santa Barbara with my family in 1996. As an experienced small-business entrepreneur, I easily related to executive directors of nonprofits because their jobs are similar to running a small business — except that in many ways it is harder. Most of these executives were never formally prepared to do their job, and they have multiple bottom lines to manage. In addition, they “report” to a volunteer board that may or may not know how to be helpful (and some actually get in the way).

Since I had an interest in leadership development, I decided to create a program that would help these executive directors do their jobs more effectively and to sustain themselves and avoid burning out.

I also wanted to help these critical leaders build a peer community. I benefited from such a group when I was in business. I was in an organization called Vistage, and I spent a day a month with 14 fellow small-business owners, supporting each other in improving our businesses and our lives. Most nonprofit executive directors I met were isolated, in that they did not feel they had a safe space to share their challenges and to learn and grow. So, the idea for Courage to Lead was born.

Many people said Courage to Lead wouldn’t work. They felt nonprofit leaders wouldn’t trust each other because they are competitors in a sector with scarce resources. But I had benefited from a professional peer community, so I wanted to try.

In the last five years we’ve proven that nonprofit leaders are hungry for a safe space to talk about challenges, ask questions, discover the things they don’t know, find ways to advance their missions and learn how to sustain their passion for their work over the long haul despite difficult circumstances.

Katherine Harvey Fellows

The nonprofit sector is fueled by people with a desire to engage in the world beyond themselves and make it a better, fairer, more beautiful place. Some people choose to make their living in the sector, but the nonprofit sector can’t succeed without successfully engaging volunteers.

In the late 1990s, the Santa Barbara Foundation created a pioneering program called the Katherine Harvey Fellows to cultivate citizen engagement in the community and volunteer leadership for the nonprofit sector. It’s an experiential program where younger leaders, ages 25 to 45, learn about the nonprofit and philanthropic worlds and about different ways to engage as a citizen actor in the work of the community.

The Santa Barbara Foundation gives the group some money and the class raises more, and their job is to go do some good with it. A diverse cohort of 15 business and other professionals in the community have to figure out how to make an impact with their money — which is much harder than it sounds. Through the process of determining their focus and deciding where to grant their funds, the Fellows learn a lot about the community and about how to make an impact. They also learn about themselves.

Currently we are running the seventh cohort of Katherine Harvey Fellows, which is facilitated by Peter Karoff and Carrie Randolph (our executive director at Leading From Within). The alumni of this program are a “Who’s Who” of Santa Barbara, including leaders from Mayor Helene Schneider to many of our business and professional leaders throughout the county. It’s been a huge success, and a pioneering achievement of the Santa Barbara Foundation. Leading From Within is honored to run this program in partnership with them.

Biographical Information for Ken Saxon

Ken Saxon has facilitated groups for more than 20 years. Following a successful business career as an entrepreneur, he put his skills to work in the nonprofit sector as a board leader and facilitator. He co-founded Leading From Within to invest in and nurture nonprofit leaders, who play such a critical role in the health of our communities.

He is an alumnus of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Princeton University. Ken serves on the boards of the Orfalea Foundation and Santa Barbara Middle School. He co-founded the Courage to Lead program for experienced nonprofit executive leaders in 2008, and Leading From Within’s Emerging Leaders Program in 2013.

Saxon was awarded the 2011 Man of the Year Award by the Santa Barbara Foundation for his significant and positive impact on the community.

— Cynder Sinclair, Ph.D., is a local consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137, or The opinions expressed are her own.

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