Leadership for Change: Will, Skill, and Courage

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Leadership for Change: Will, Skill, and Courage 
A CEO Message from Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

In her recently published report, "A Change Management & Deep Equity Primer,” Sheryl Petty talks about the Will, Skill, Courage, and Love needed to lead equity-embedded change management within an organization.

In the report, Sheryl asks us, “Do we even really want to change and see things different in our institutions?” This question invites us to consider the will we have, individually and collectively, to change, to look beyond the “performative will” and assess willingness to substantially alter deeply embedded practices. She then goes on to ask about our skill for the work, “Do we need more, deeper and/or different kinds of talents in the system? How much unleashed vs. caged/inhibited talent is already in the system? How much of that have we recognized?” Sheryl notes that once we believe we are willing and have a good assessment of the skills and capacities of our team, we have to ask ourselves how prepared we are, individually and collectively, for the journey. On courage, she explains, “we should be a bit nervous here — but not daunted….It says that we’re paying attention to what we’re about to do.” At Philanthropy New York, we have no shortage of will to see equity-centered change management succeed in our organization and within our ecosystem, but we are just beginning to fully appreciate the different skills and courage required for the work.

The Will to Bring About Real Change

Philanthropy New York’s recently released Strategic Framework is a valuable tool to guide our organization through an equity-centered change management process. As I mentioned in my last CEO letter, our new Strategic Framework articulates our belief that philanthropy must name, negotiate, and change the established ways that power operates in our field. In philanthropy, power has often been exercised through positional authority and justified under a traditional conception of leadership. This distribution of power keeps it concentrated in the hands of the few and mutes the voices of those whose life experiences and perspectives hold so much untapped value. The beliefs articulated in our strategic framework – the result of collaboration with multiple institutional stakeholders – showed that we have the will to shepherd a process of analyzing and changing deeply embedded practices, including those around leadership. The framework rests on a theory of change that invites our membership to become active participants in catalyzing a more equitable, sustainable, and democratic society through peer-to-peer leadership both within the PNY community and within their institutions.

Unleashing Deeply Held Skill

In recognition of the power and potential of peer-to-peer leadership, one of our commitments in the Strategic Framework is to build a model of shared leadership internally at Philanthropy New York and to acknowledge the spheres of influence that each individual on our team brings to our community. This is just one aspect of a dynamic change-management process designed to help our organization adapt and restructure our institutional life. The goal of this restructuring is to create avenues that allow for the untapped and undervalued knowledge and leadership of BIPOC folks — often celebrated and recognized outside of white dominant norms — to shape our organization and the PNY community. We believe that it is critical to reorient the definition of leadership and to build the skills and courage needed to practice leadership in service to a more equitable and anti-racist future.

Philanthropy New York is at its best when we’re building a shared leadership model in service to equity, unleashing the talent and wisdom that exists at all levels of our organization. How is this shared leadership beginning to show up at Philanthropy New York?

Internally as an organization:

  • PNY staff recognize that we each have a unique sphere of influence within our role and vantage point on our work. For example, in our Strategic Framework process, staff with less positional authority noted that to truly live into our values, we needed to challenge the “business model” of member service and move into a posture that requires us to be brave and to catalyze change.
  • Our board nominations process is prioritizing candidates who do not occupy the traditional positions of authority we often default to in board leadership, looking instead to nominate community members and individuals with lived experience who can offer a first-person understanding of power dynamics and share the strength and feedback of their peer networks.
  • We are building a Management Team that identifies core shifts needed in how we work and then building teams at all levels of the organization to think through those shifts, garner feedback, offer possible solutions, and pilot them with a learning mindset.

Externally in our work with members and partners:

  • Our Essential Skills and Strategies for Program Officers curriculum invites newer grantmakers to reflect on their spheres of influence and build their skillful use of power in their roles to better engage the communities in which they seek to be in partnership.
  • PNY staff who oversee issue-based working groups and role-based peer networks are working with co-chairs to build community agreements that honor the skill needed to create the space for learning and acknowledge the particular wisdom and knowledge of the group’s participants.
  • The Public Policy Committee has generated a new framework for policy decisions that centers a position of allyship with our nonprofit partners, rather than single, heroic leadership on policy issues.
  • We are increasingly focusing our programming for foundation trustees on the role of boards in supporting equity-centered change management.
  • Our board is recognizing not only their leadership within the board setting, but also envisioning their role as interconnected individuals who impact one another in their individual relationships and their collaborative networks and working groups. They are developing the skills and courage to hold the work of our Strategic Framework not only at the board table but also in those networks and groups by disrupting, offering different ways of thinking, and meeting resistance with invitation.
  • We have begun conversations with BIPOC foundation CEOs within the PNY community about the conditions that need to change in philanthropy to support a more inclusive field, and the role of white allyship and community accountability.
  • As we weigh the needs of all of our members around in-person and virtual programming, we have recognized that one of the benefits of providing some virtual programming is that those with less positional power may have more freedom to attend.

The Courage to Work Differently

Personally, I have needed to continuously unlearn some deeply ingrained beliefs and dismantle certain structures that I’ve employed in my leadership. I am actively working to stop trying to lean on solving organizational problems solely within the senior leadership team and instead engage the full wisdom of others throughout the organization. Yet, when we recently conducted surveys of our team, I failed to first ask staff what questions would best get to the issue at hand. Instead, I defaulted to crafting questions based on what *I* thought we needed to know and made an organizational decision based on the information without providing space for the entire group to reckon with the results. Why? Because constructing a new form of leadership that centers ongoing dialogue requires me, and our entire team, to build and exercise a new set of skills and way of problem-solving, that was never part of our habit in the past. I approach each day with the will for change. And my will for change compels me to invoke courage in the face of work that disrupts my equilibrium. It calls on me to employ curiosity over defensiveness and to earn the trust of the entire team so that we are creating the mutually supportive, accountable culture necessary to achieve our vision. This is what is required of me for things to work differently — more equitably — in my institution and in our larger ecosystem.

How do you invoke courage in yourself and your organizations? What unleashed talent have you identified, and what skills are you building for equity-centered change management work? I welcome you to reflect on these questions with me. In the spirit of peer-to-peer leadership, we have much to learn from each other. I hope we continue to inspire each other to reflect deeply and hone our skills to rise to the challenge of transforming our sector. After all, just because we know the science behind how parachutes work doesn’t make it any easier to jump out of an airplane!