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CTL July 2022 Retreat

Interview with Our Founder, Ken Saxon

Leading From Within


Ken Saxon had a clear vision when he founded Leading From Within (LFW), the Santa Barbara nonprofit that supports leaders and staff of other local nonprofits.

“I came to Santa Barbara from the business world, where our most important investments were the ones we made in our people,” Saxon said. “But when I started serving on nonprofit boards here, I saw some amazing people doing really critical work. But in general, they were operating in silos, and not being invested in, supported or connected to others. Leading From Within was created to take the cadre of civic leadership, professional and volunteer, and invest in them in a deep way so that they can be more impactful in addressing these really difficult problems in the community and revitalize them, so they can keep doing it.”

Fifteen years later, Leading From Within has four fully thriving programs: Courage to Lead, a reflective retreat-based program to reinvigorate executive directors and experienced nonprofit and other social sector leaders; Emerging Leaders, designed to empower, elevate, and connect mid-level and new execs. that form the next generation of nonprofit leaders; the Katherine Harvey Fellows, which invests in community-driven leaders hailing from outside the nonprofit world; and the Leading for Community Impact program that engages northern Santa Barbara County nonprofit professionals to develop their leadership skills and explore management strategies to make a greater impact.

“We’re proud to have had an impact on all of these people who are choosing to make their career in the nonprofit sector who typically had not benefited from high-quality investment before,” Saxon said. “We really go deep with them and help them get connected to each other.”

Among the nearly 600 past participants in the programs are a passel of powerful figures in the Santa Barbara nonprofit world, from Bucket Brigade’s Abe Powell and Pacific Pride Foundation’s Development Director Tyson Halseth to Carpinteria Children’s Project’s Teresa Alvarez and Good Samaritan Director Sylvia Barnard.

Even COVID couldn’t put the kibosh on LFW’s impact.

“When the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure if people were going to have the time or the money, or even still have a job to be part of our programs,” Saxon said. “But the reality was that the demand for all of our programs grew, and now they are as full as they’ve ever been.”

But resting on its laurels isn’t an option for Leading From Within.

Leading From Within runs four different programs aimed at improving leadership in nonprofits and other social sector organizations

In fact, the nonprofit has emerged from the pandemic with an even more ambitious agenda for amping up area nonprofits’ effectiveness.

“After 15 years as the only local organization that is laser-focused on building and supporting civic leadership in the region, we’re ready to step up to the next stage,” explained Saxon, who is Leading From Within’s board chair. “We have a full-time executive director who is
top-notch, and we have a new strategic plan developed after engaging with the community for a year and a half to find out what’s needed. We’re ready to engage at that level to support the sector that works on our community’s most intractable problems – things like homelessness, climate change, healthcare, and education.

“They’re dealing with really complex issues,” Saxon said. “These are problems that aren’t going to be solved by any one organization or one program or one leader. So, we need to augment the leadership development piece to tackle them and support our leaders to be better collaborators, to be able to operate in loose networks rather than just hierarchical corporate structures, and be able to deal at a systems level with these complex problems.”

Some of those structures already exist in such areas as the food systems network, the fire preparedness group, and the Thrive Education Initiatives, but support is critical to their emerging networks’ success, Saxon said.

“What we were hearing over the conversations we had in the 18 months was that leaders need to learn these things you don’t get from school or even in your job. You need to learn how to successfully engage and collaborate with people who don’t work for you and to partner in really profound ways to come up with a collective aim that you all agree upon. That’s something we have some experience with. Collaboration is hard, and most people don’t really know how to do it.”

Leading From Within is putting new focus on creating the spaces and places for leaders to gain the mindsets and skill sets that help people operate in collaboration over time, Saxon said. The new three-year strategic plan calls for the organization to address its own existing programs to cover more collaborative material and likely develop a new one to help people in leading networks and complex collaboratives.

“It’s not top down, it’s not linear, and it’s not simple,” Saxon explained. “A single-focus solution doesn’t really exist when you’re dealing with complex problems. We’re inviting people to come together under our auspices to see what they need and how we can support them in doing what works better in the area of facilitative leadership. It’s about asking: What kind of resources do you have? What do you think? What are you seeing today? How can we partner together?”

That additional focus takes additional financial resources, of course, and Leading From Within will be actively seeking people and organizations and funders to partner with, Saxon said.

It will take a bit of implementing its own best skills for an organization that, he said, hasn’t previously spent much energy communicating externally.

“We’ve just been doing our work, maybe a little bit under a bushel. But we’re coming out of it here. Our ability to make progress with this new strategic plan will depend on our ability to work with funders and partners who share this vision for how we need to evolve as a community.”


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