On Leadership and Risk

I was recently asked to pen some thoughts about “leadership and risk” in our sector, and here were the biggest points on my mind:

  • Leadership for me is strongly personal and spiritual. It is about expressing deeply held beliefs and values through action. Organizations of the nonprofit variety – including philanthropy – are merely an extension of this framework.
  • My favorite definition of the term “leadership” is a three-word definition: hope in action. I think this definition nicely covers leadership expressed at the individual level, as well as at the organizational level.
  • There is a fair amount of attention paid to the matters of leadership and risk in the corporate sector, but winning or losing through risk-taking in the corporate sphere is far more easily captured than in our sector. Quarterly profits, losses, revenue, or the balance sheet, or going public, or split shares all help define successful or unsuccessful risk-taking. In our nonprofit world – where the deliverables (or at least the ones that have meaningful value) reflect the human condition, social change, and hope – it’s not so easy. We probably run into trouble when we equate nonprofit success in a corporate frame, i.e. revenue, size of annual budget, and “growth.” 
  • From my vantage point, we have to come to grips with some related questions. Do we believe – and I mean truly believe – that there is a shared, compelling purpose of our sector? Do we believe that the individual organization that we serve contributes to that shared sense of purpose? If so, are the values and principles of the organization underlying that sense of purpose expressed in all that we do? How connected, or disconnected, is the organization’s strategic plan and/or daily actions to that set of values, beliefs, and principles? And from that standpoint, what are you willing to risk to assure that it is, in fact, seamlessly connected and meaningfully expressed? Are you and your board willing to risk (or spend) comfort, assuredness, capital, brand, and reputation?
  • To understand what risk-taking should entail, one of the key requisites is the ability “listen hard.”  Listening to whom we serve, leaning forward, taking in every word, emotion, and experience that communities and families have to offer. Are you listening as ritual, or cherishing it as wisdom?

Here at The California Endowment, our foundation is blessed with considerable assets – financial and otherwise. My heart goes out to our colleagues in the nonprofit sector who need to raise money to assure the execution of the work towards mission. It would make my job very different, and probably a whole lot less fun. But even at a $3.5 billion foundation, the resources are finite, and tough decisions at the nexus of leadership and risk must be made.

For us, the biggest risk we took was becoming better listeners to community leaders and grantees, and executing on a commitment to act on what we actually learned. Over my 15 years at the foundation, and with the supportive partnership at our board, we have taken some risks together:

  1. We left the comfort zone of funding a lot of direct health and health-related services to fund advocacy, powerbuilding, and voice.
  2. We broadened our definition of health from health care to that of community wellness. That shift meant funding very different kinds of things.
  3. We use the bully pulpit and brand and reputation capital of the foundation in response to community wisdom — even at political risk — with topics including undocumented and farmworker health, boys and young men of color, LGBT rights and health equity, and justice reform. While we have received kudos for taking such stands, we get hate mail and phone calls, too.
  4. We made a big bet with our 10-year Building Healthy Communities campaign.

We are far from a perfect or exemplary nonprofit. But we do believe in the connectedness of purpose, values, action, and risk. Leadership is about understanding that acting on this belief is never done.

About the author(s)

President and CEO
The California Endowment