10 January 2023

Leading from behind: the challenge of herding cats

Philea’s membership consists of not only individual organisations, foundations and philanthropic entities, but also the national or regional philanthropy associations that represent such organisations as members on national or regional level. In this piece, I take a closer look at the data from the survey that the national philanthropy associations filled in before their Summer Meeting following the Philea Forum in Barcelona in summer 2022. The findings are very interesting and contain a wealth of information, but since they have already been shared elsewhere, I will take the opportunity to discuss two aspects in greater depth.  Firstly, what the national associations think that their members want from their associations and what the national associations see as their main challenges. Second, also based on the answers from the national associations, to humbly attempt to suggest how to handle the apparent paradox.

According to the Philea annual survey of national associations, two of the services most valued by members of national associations are creating opportunities for networking and peer learning and ensuring that the national associations function as the voice of the sector in national and international legal and advocacy matters. Something that most of us Philea members, both foundations and national associations, probably recognise. These two services, or roles if you will, are rather different in their focus and organisation and put different demands on the national association.

The first role, creating opportunities for networking and peer learning, is a more inward looking, facilitative, and servant-oriented role where the national association’s role is to provide arenas for members to meet and facilitate activities and processes that support networking, discussion, and learning. The second role, functioning as the voice of the sector, is more outward looking and puts the national association in a position where its primary role is to represent and speak for the collective of members (and often also for the national philanthropic sector as a whole), to influence the members to adopt new practices and sometimes to develop and change in new directions. Since memberships of most national associations, not to mention national philanthropic sectors, are very diverse when it comes to size, operations, organisational needs, the initiatives they put in place, and their vision, it is no wonder that balancing these two roles can become complicated.

This is also clear in one of the main challenges mentioned in the survey: how national associations can create the conditions for a thriving community of members where the members themselves set the direction(s) for the activities of the association at the same time as influencing the members to develop and change and being seen as the authoritative collective voice for the membership by other actors. Several of the national associations also describe how they try to cope with taking a leading role in advocacy issues without moving too far ahead and by that risking dividing the membership. Some of the national associations describe different strategies that they have developed to handle this apparent paradox and these strategies often revolve around concepts such as nudging, bridging, supporting, capacity building, and leading from behind.

Leading from behind may sound like an oxymoron, since the common understanding of leadership is that the leader should be the one setting the vision, rallying the followers, and boldly leading the way forward. But one scholar that has studied the concept of leading from behind is Professor Linda A. Hill from Harvard Business School, and she uses an example from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography to explain what she means by leading from behind. Mr. Mandela suggests that leaders should be inspired by how shepherds direct their flocks, they do this not by being in front of the flock showing the way but by leading it from behind. Even though the flock follows the most daring and nimble sheep (or perhaps more accurately for philanthropy organisations, cats) at the front and not the shepherd at the back, it is the shepherd that directs the flock and makes sure it safely reaches its destination. This kind of servant leadership is anything but passive and sets high demands on the leader, especially if you are leading an association with independent organisations as members. And, as we all know, the philanthropic foundation is one of the most fiercely independent organisations there is.

In order to successfully lead from behind, you need to nurture a strong community united by shared values and goals. This is a process of collective sense-making, where the community of members, in this case philanthropic foundations, come together and co-create their shared values and goals. Here the main leadership skill is to enable and motivate the members to connect with each other and to the community-at-large without erasing the individual differences between them. This can, in practice, be done by the national association focusing on its role of creating opportunities for networking and peer learning by, for instance, creating arenas and activities where the members can learn and socialise together. When doing this, it’s paramount to make sure that there is ample time to discuss – and challenge – the shared values and goals of the association. If not, the risk is that the values and goals are either changed too quickly due to inadequate discussion such that some feel excluded, or that such a superficial discussion never touches the hard questions, leaving an inert organisation behind even as the environment and conditions change.

This work sets the stage for the second role, functioning as the voice of the sector, which entails nudging the members forward and being responsive to changes in the external environment at the same time as respecting the diverse voices and needs of the members. In practice, this might entail showcasing the work of trailblazing members both for the membership of the national association and for the external environment, just as the shepherd lets the most nimble and courageous sheep lead the flock forward. And it could also mean setting up networking groups around important and timely topics and engaging in responsive listening with members in order to encourage discussion on the shared values and goals of the national association.

To conclude, it seems that the two roles of networking and peer learning and voice of the sector might be complementing rather than conflicting with each other rather, and that leading from behind might be a successful way of handling this apparent paradox. Nonetheless it poses high demands on the leadership of the national association to function as a facilitator and on the members being active and responsible in the activities and discussions of the association. But most of all, it takes time and effort from all involved.


Stefan Einarsson
Board member, Association of Swedish Foundations