6 January 2021

Leadership styles matter: The key finding for grantmakers and grantees from the Virtual Summit on Impact

This blog first appeared on the Alliance magazine website in December 2020

How can grantmakers be sure the programs they fund have the maximum possible impact? For grantmakers, the most critical factors are agile, flexible, learning-oriented leadership. Grantees, on the other hand, say they can be most effective when their organizational development and capacity-building needs are met, which creates the trust required to have timely, honest discussions about program improvements. In both cases, the quality of leadership was identified as the single most important factor. These are the central findings from the recent four-day Virtual Summit on Impact organized by the European Foundation Centre and the Fondation Masion des Sciences l’homme, which I had the honor to help moderate.

As a grantmaker, I have encountered these same lessons before, including during my service as a senior appointee in the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President Barack Obama. In 2009, President Obama’s administration wanted to increase the impact of grants made to help Americans recover from the 2008 global economic meltdown. I was asked to identify previously funded U.S. federal higher education and job-training projects that had achieved the most positive impact. Our goal was to direct $2 billion in newly appropriated funds, the single largest discretionary grant program of the Obama presidency, toward projects that had the best outcomes.

I reviewed every outcome report available using the skills and experience I had developed over decades in my previous careers in journalism, and as a local and state government official. My conclusion was illuminating even if it was also disappointing. Much to my regret, I could not find any one program design or evaluation methodology that was by itself a predictable indicator of positive impact. Interventions funded by the U.S. government with identical designs had succeeded brilliantly in one location but were embarrassing failures in another. The difference I slowly realized was an ingredient not usually described in any of the grant applications or outcome reports: the quality of leadership, the exact same factor that was mentioned so frequently at the Virtual Summit on Impact. A good leader, it turns out, can make a poor program design succeed while a bad leader can ruin even the best program design. Given this reality, which is evident around the world, focusing on the quality of leadership, and how it can be improved, is of ever-growing importance.

At the Virtual Summit, we saw examples of the opportunities associated with improved leadership revealed repeatedly during a series of candid exchanges between senior representatives of major European philanthropies, government grantmakers, and NGO grant recipients, all of whom share the goal of increasing their impact. Virtual Summit participants discussed issues of pressing concern to the philanthropic and grantee communities in both Europe and North America, including fears the increased need to generate and document impact may limit interventions to only those ideas whose outcomes can most easily be measured, such as the number of free meals served, or the amount of goods delivered. Panelists also emphasized the wisdom of gathering data while an intervention is underway, and the utility of relying on third-party evaluators including during project-design phases.

But for me, the most hopeful, encouraging revelation of the Virtual Summit on Impact were the leadership styles of those participating in the dialogue. They were open, willing to share their successes and disappointments, and eager to learn from one another. All together, they served as role models of the collaborative methods that so often lead to success in our modern, connected world.

The critical role of empowered leadership was perhaps best captured in the well-received remarks of Moushira Elgeziri, the associate director of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, who commended the most thoughtful funders, including Hillary Wiesner, the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Program Director for Transnational Movements and the Arab Region, for putting capacity-building efforts that allow recipients to quickly adjust to fast-changing needs at the center of their plans.

“It is often most helpful when grants are not ‘projectized’,” observed Elgeziri, speaking from Beirut. Even the most flexible funding formulas can be evaluated for impact by looking at broader measures within a targeted institution or social milieu, she added. That strategy, Elgeziri said, investing in building leadership capacity, is what creates the most sustainable impact. Wiesner, participating from New York, readily agreed, saying she sees “hope all across the [MENA] region,” pointing to the example of patient, philanthropic capacity-building efforts in Latin America that have led to substantial recognized progress. “We have a model that works,” said Wiesner.

As the Virtual Summit on Impact highlighted, leaders who inspire trust and confidence are at the center of that model. That type of leadership, participants agreed, is most reliably maintained through open dialogue with peers and stakeholders. At the conclusion of the Summit, it seemed clear to everyone involved that creating a new opportunity to strengthen and improve the quality of leadership, including normalizing increasingly sophisticated forms of collaborative leadership via the use of online real time discussions, was a valuable contribution of the Virtual Summit on Impact, and the strongest argument for a continuation of such efforts.

Hal Plotkin, who served as a moderator of the Virtual Summit on Impact, is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, based in Half Moon Bay, California. Mr. Plotkin served as a Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, where he helped oversee the distribution of $2 billion in U.S. federal education and job-training grants.

Photo by Nasir Khan Saikat CC-BY-SA 4.0


Hal Plotkin

Senior Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education