Leadership and the Lessons of Change

“It is not necessary to change.  Survival is not mandatory.” 

~W. Edwards Deming

I love this quote, because it reflects the necessity of change to stay relevant, but also our inherent reluctance to take that step forward.  At The Miles Foundation this past year, we’ve certainly pushed ourselves to implement changes we believe will help propel us forward and build stronger partnerships – even when it has felt a little uncomfortable.

The great part of change, though, is what you learn through the process of transformation. With our first-ever Annual Report, a fresh website and new grantee stories published (along with an inaugural social media presence), our intentional focus on transparency and connectivity has been an exciting and informative journey.

One of the areas in which we have concentrated much of our efforts and gained significant insight is our grantee selection process – a key focus area noted in the GrantCraft and Glasspockets guide “Opening Up: Demystifying Funder Transparency.”

What we received through the exercise of revising our grantee selection process – in addition to a more efficient, effective, and transparent approach – was a welcome revelation about the important role of leadership in our grantee partnerships.

This discovery began as we examined each of our grantee selection phases, so that we could clearly delineate (for our grantee candidates and ourselves) the specific evaluative criteria for each.  Our three distinct phases included:

  • An on-site evaluation, which allows us to see, feel, and touch the grantee organization – observing how it functions on a daily basis, experiencing what the environment is like, and interacting one-on-one with its staff members;
  • A letter of interest, which enables us to efficiently sort through initial grant inquiries based on a set number of criteria, and select those that fit with our mission and funding profiles; and
  • A full application evaluation, which prompts us to ask detailed questions about the organization, its proposed program, and how it will measure success, to determine whether the grantee is an ideal partnership candidate.

For each of these selection phases, we identified qualification criteria, and ensured that certain evaluative factors carried more weight than others. Heavily weighted criteria, such as a nonprofit’s track record of achievement, an innovative program idea, or a well-designed plan could influence our likelihood of funding a particular program.

But we quickly began to see that one critical factor continued to rise above the rest. We found that effective leadership was the one element that was consistently present in successful programs, and thus, we concluded, would be one of the most significant indicators of a program’s potential for success and therefore our likelihood of funding.

Leadership is somewhat of an obvious success metric, but it’s hard to quantify, outside of past performance and experience.  It is easy to assume that every successful organization has it, but leadership often is what separates the “good” from the “great.” The presence of powerful leadership is almost tangible – it’s a spirit that employees exude, a confidence that the organization embodies, and an impact that’s measurable – true leadership is, in short, a game-changer in the grantee selection process.

What can leadership do?  It can drive a program agenda, inspire better results, and maintain accountability to a standard of excellence. Surely, we have seen that without strong leadership at the executive or management levels, even the best-laid plans can be thwarted.  And so, leadership is now one of the key criteria we use when evaluating our potential partners.

Perhaps this discovery should not have been as much of a surprise. At The Miles Foundation, we believe in the power of leadership, as it’s one of our three core funding profiles. And as we move forward, our emphasis on leadership, both in our funding and our grantee selection process, will undoubtedly continue to grow. Regardless, this past year has taught us that change is a good thing.  For The Miles Foundation, we’ll embrace our continued path of transformation and discovery, with the hope that each revelation along the way will help guide us, and make us stronger, for the future.