Developing Agility for Community Foundation Leaders

Tuesday, August 15, 2017 - 10:20 am EDT
Mark Ewert

This spring I traveled to Japan, where I had the opportunity to visit the Hosoo textile company in Kyoto. The company was founded in 1688 and has been passed down through 12 generations of the same family, still sitting on the same site. Formerly focused on textiles for traditional garments used in imperial households, the company has retooled itself for the cultural edge of the modern era. Now, they are working with MIT on innovative smart fabrics and providing material to fashion houses like Louis Vuitton and Channel. This seamless transition between the ancient past and the near future was a frequent sight in Japan, and it struck me as a stunning metaphor for how we might not only adapt to momentous change, but use creativity and take risks to leap ahead of it.

Although enduring as an organization for over three hundred is not an obvious goal for community foundations, sustainability in the nearer future is raised in Kevin Murphy’s thought piece, Community Foundation Business Model Disruption in the 21st Century. Murphy cites seismic changes taking place in advisory professions, the banking sector, and with the growth of commercially sponsored donor advised funds. These put traditional community foundation business models at risk. The article has generated a lot of discussion in community foundation circles, and its timeliness has stung for some foundations already feeling squeezed by these changes.

The question is not how to adapt to these changing conditions, as adaptation, by definition, lags behind transformations that are already occurring; we will always be behind them, fighting to keep up. The crux of the matter is how to develop the organizational agility that Hosoo demonstrates; to roll with disruptions and look beyond to leapfrog into new models of community philanthropy. This is easier said than done, yet there are tools available to community foundation leaders, to help foster effective innovation.

  • Create intentional pauses.The pace of change in our work, and our communities, is exhausting; we tend to focus on trying to keep up. Our electronic calendars have little or no white space. Although counterintuitive, the best way to deal with this is to stop and protect time for reflection, perspective taking, and broader thinking. Really block times out in your calendar, protect those times, and use them for that purpose. This supports a long-standing model for fueling creativity that Daniel Goleman writes about In The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: Step 1, Define and frame the problem; Step 2, Go deep to gather information; Step 3, Let go, relax, walk away; Step 4, Execute. Don’t miss out on Step 3, which is where the creativity often activates.
  • Be present. The worries about the potential effects of disruption in Murphy’s article are compelling. Yet “what-ifs” can create anxiety and self-doubt that can stifle risk-taking and reduce creativity. Being present allows for openness to the opportunities the current situation might hold. Yes, this is related to the now-popular concept of mindfulness. My colleague Kristi Hedges’ book The Power of Presence is a practical guide to developing this ability for leaders. 
  • Embrace ambiguity.Exploring new territories of innovation and creative practice requires a spirit of adventure, willingness to risk, and accepting failure in service to learning and vulnerability. Embracing ambiguity entails bravery. You must acknowledge uncertainty and moving forward in spite of it. Here is a great short video on the topic by Patrice Martin of
  • Seek out practitioners on the edge.Sometimes people who are being innovative and visionary are criticized as not understanding or respecting how things work. Seek out those people, be curious, and gather more information to get a glimpse of what may be possible. This is where the convenings and communications of the Council on Foundations might really be helpful. Remember, as Vijay Govindarajan, author of The Three Box Solution states: innovative change “…calls for entirely different management strategies and metrics than does the relatively settled and predictable work of executing the present core business at the highest level.”
  • Engage in coaching. It should not surprise you that a leadership coach would suggest this one. Coaching creates a scheduled venue to use a number of these tools – to pause and reflect, be present to what is emerging, and to dwell in the powerful questions that are facing you and your community foundation. Your foundation’s agility is tied to the agility of its leaders, including your own; coaching is a place to assess and develop that capacity.

Effective responses to the disruptions Murphy presents in his article have not been fully flushed out or tested, and may have multiple, localized iterations in community foundations. These new business models may help community foundations to endure for 12 generations and stay on the leading cultural edge like Hosoo fabrics. To get to them, community foundation leaders will need to use all available tools to foster innovation, creativity, and agility. This may be a case where, as the barrier-busting tennis player Arthur Ashe said, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is more important than the outcome.”

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Leadership Development