Note to Funders: If You Believe in the Importance of Leadership, Fund What Leaders Want to Do

Many academic journal articles and even entire books are devoted to the importance of leadership to the success of organizations, whether in the nonprofit, corporate, or government realms. There are literally entire shelves in the business sections of bookstores about this topic. No matter if the research focuses on what makes effective school principals, college presidents, nonprofit executives, or corporate leaders, experts agree on the critical role of the leader in enabling an organization to achieve its mission and goals.

Yet, the funding community that supports the nonprofit sector, including foundations and individual and corporate donors, seems intent on making decisions about how and what it will fund in a way that ignores this vast body of literature.

In fact, most funding to nonprofits is restricted—set aside for a specific purpose—most typically determined by the funder’s priorities, not those of the organization’s leader. In very few instances is the leader ever asked by the funder or donor how she or he really needs or wants to use the money.

In my experience, almost 100 percent of nonprofit leaders, if asked, would say they want general operating support or unrestricted funding. Yet, a very small portion of overall charitable funding falls into this category. I understand that foundations have to accommodate the wishes of their trustees and the constraints of their endowments. I understand that corporations need and want to show their shareholders alignment between their business and philanthropic goals.

But still. There is a giant mismatch between what nonprofit leaders need and what funders fund. If, indeed, there is evidence to show that leadership really matters, why aren’t the needs and priorities of leaders more often considered when funders make their investment decisions?

If funders believe enough in a leader to invest in the organization that person leads, why not take the next step and trust that leader to make the very best decisions about how to use the money to advance the mission?

It is really time to reconcile the research and the practice.

About the Author: Nancy Wackstein has been executive director of Alliance for Children and Families member United Neighborhood Houses of New York (UNH) since 2002. UNH is the federation of the New York City’s 38 settlement houses and community centers. Prior to her UNH appointment, she was executive director of Alliance member Lenox Hill Neighborhood House.

Wackstein served as director of the Mayor’s Office on Homelessness and SRO Housing from 1990-1991 under Mayor David N. Dinkins. She was senior policy advisor for Human Services in Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins’ Office from 1986-1989, where she was also staff director for the Task Force on Housing for Homeless Families.

Wackstein received a bachelor’s from Binghamton University, State University of New York, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She received a master’s from the Columbia University School of Social Work. In 2013, Wackstein was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Binghamton University.

Wackstein currently serves on the United Way of New York City Board of Directors, and she is the immediate past board chair of the Human Services Council of New York Board of Directors. Wackstein was appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2003 to the New York City Youth Board and to the Citywide Coordinating Committee to End Chronic Homelessness.

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