Confessions of a Leadership Funder: Sometimes It’s Better to Be a Follower

By Lisa Pilar Cowan

Vice President

Here at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation we support leadership development as an equity strategy. It is work that I believe in deeply, but at the same time – in my understanding of leadership development, it has become more and more clear to me that not everyone should be a leader. In fact, I often think of leadership as a kind of last resort – if there is somewhere you really have to go, some piece of work that really needs to happen, and there is no one else leading it – then it is time to consider whether you should step in.

And of course, no single one of us is suited to lead in all moments. If you want someone to be the first person at the lunch buffet, then I am your leader. I will confidently stride over and heap my plate, sit down and start eating, inviting and cajoling other people to join. But if you want to organize a protest against the Mayor, I am much better suited to showing up where I am told to, repeating the chants, and writing the follow-up letter you tell me to write. My skills are not best used in front of the crowd of protesters. And frankly, you need people like me–if all of us were leading the chant, no one would be repeating and amplifying the words.

One of our favorite illustrations of the importance of following is illustrated in this YouTube video:

You should watch it, because it is hilarious and smart (but definitely don’t watch it to learn any hip dance moves). The narrator says it better than I can, but the video showcases how a ‘lone nut,’ a shirtless guy dancing on a hillside, transforms into a leader in large part thanks to his first follower who joins in the dancing.

We like to think of the Foundation as ‘first follower’ in the Trust-Based Philanthropy movement. As you may have read about on this site and elsewhere, Trust-Based Philanthropy reimagines traditional funder-grantee relationships by addressing the inherent power imbalance that exists between foundations and nonprofits.

When we were talking with colleagues in the field about how we wanted do grantmaking here,   a couple of them noted the similarities to The Whitman Institute’s approach and introduced us to the Whitman team and an early version of the Principles of Trust-Based Philanthropy. We were struck both by how similar Whitman’s values and way of thinking was to ours, and by how much further along they were in articulating the approach. We asked if we could join them as practitioners and promoters of TBP – and we became a ‘movement’ of two. Soon the Headwaters Foundation of Montana joined, and in the last year we have met with over a dozen foundations interested in joining our hillside dance.

It’s become a happy but in no-way-planned alliance. We never actively sought to name our approach, or have it become a movement. We simply wanted to adopt a better way of grantmaking, based on our past experience leading nonprofits and being grantseekers. It turned out that becoming ‘first follower’ was the very best way for us to succeed.

I guess we could have come up with our own name for the approach, rather than going with Whitman. Perhaps we’d have had a little more individuality in how we talk about our approach. But the truth is that we don’t deserve the credit, and that their articulation is solid and helped us strengthen our work. And as we continue to dance alongside Whitman, Headwaters and the other allies that are joining in, we are seeing the beauty of this approach as something that can be customized and adapted to fit each organization’s unique brand. In being the first followers, we have learned so much and the Whitman team has learned from us too. As we grow the movement, and as we see in that quirky YouTube video, the lines between leader and follower are blurred. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who is leading the charge – as long as we are all dancing together and inspiring others to join us in that dance.