How do you become an effective leader?
We pursue this question for ourselves and others every day.
One way we do this is to partner with the High Point Community Foundation. For a third year, HIGOL is providing support to the Foundation’s high potential grantees through the Excellence in Nonprofit Leadership Program.
In this special post, Paul Lessard, the Foundation’s CEO shares a bit of the Foundation’s story. Hear his take on how to become an effective leader and the results of our on-going partnership.
The journey of the Foundation mirrors the journey of their grantees. Both include strong courageous leaders facing uncertainty and overwhelming odds, pressing forward with a vision bigger than any individual.
The History of High Point Community Foundation
The High Point Community Foundation has been a remarkable success story in an older industrial southern city of just over 100,000 people. Its success has not been without significant challenges. Courageous collaborative leadership has made a huge difference in the Foundation’s ability to thrive and have real impact.
Seeded and established in 1998 with an unrestricted gift of $5 million, the Foundation’s Board hired a young President, Paul Lessard. Paul challenged them in their first meeting to envision a Foundation that would one day, in their lifetimes, exceed $100 million in assets. He saw the Foundation could play a pivotal role in securing a thriving more equitable future for High Point residents. It was with this sense of faith, vision and a steadfast belief in the mission that the Foundation moved forward.
Seeing Vision Beyond Current Circumstances
A strong vision and purpose were needed to take on the serious challenges High Point faced in the late 90s and 2000. These included a dramatic loss of traditional manufacturing jobs. This abruptly created a large under-educated, under-employed workforce. From this, a serious escalation of poverty, drugs, gangs and violence occurred, compounded by a legacy of systemic racism. These issues presented enormous obstacles to the future of the community. It became clear the only way through this storm would be with a strong, coordinated public/private partnership that empowered local communities from the ground up.
Paul focused on:
- innovative management practices across his team;
- close board member relationships that translated into highly effective fundraising;
- collaborative relationships across differences in income, race, gender, education and ethnicity;
- helping the board develop a willingness to take risk and
- an unrelenting commitment to meet the community’s unmet needs.
Weaving these strategies together, the Foundation grew year after year, as did the projects and organizations it sponsored.
The Foundation strategically chose to play a key role in the redevelopment of an aging downtown. Through a cooperative funding partnership, a vibrant, pedestrian friendly, family-oriented environment came to fruition. The community began attracting new businesses. New partnerships created new and exciting amenities. This, in turn, bought young people back to High Point.
Meeting Goals and Getting Results
Staying true to its vision, the Foundation eventually grew to 5 employees to support its expanding role and effective problem-solving leadership in the community. Today it has met its goal of raising $100 million in assets under management.
“I know, without doubt, timing of our Foundation’s arrival and the early work we accomplished solved problems that otherwise would not have been resolved,” remembered Bill McGuinn, Past Chairman, HPCF. “We all knew that money to fund projects would always be important. We also learned that the leadership and the relationships the Foundation could bring to issues were often times even more effective than money in finding solutions.”
Building Grantee Capacity based on the Harvard model
In 2019 it became increasing evident the Foundation needed to find a way to support grantees to grow their business skills, efficiency and effectiveness if their critical work was to become sustainable.
Wanting to protect years of investment in these organizations and the community impact they were creating, an idea was born. In 2005, Lessard had personally and professionally benefited from attending the Harvard University Business School’s “Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management” Program.
The program was like a mini-MBA course that gave nonprofit CEOs from around the world an opportunity to learn business applications and study nonprofit best practices. Equally important, it provided Paul the opportunity to interact with contemporaries who rarely had the time or opportunity for peer interaction. The program proved transformational for Lessard, fundamentally changing the way he approached his work.
“The program gave me a stronger foundation grounded in the business of nonprofit organizations and a more complete understanding of best practices that would get results”, shared Lessard. The interaction with CEOs from all over the world gave me a peer group that I still keep in touch with today. I wanted to bring that experience to the nonprofit leaders in High Point.”
Foundation leadership had seen the majority of the local nonprofits leaders were committed, passionate and extremely well-intentioned. However, many has never had the opportunity to study or train in business and leadership principles that could unlock the full potential of their organizations.
Engaging HIGOL to Develop A Turn-key Leadership Development Program
The Foundation turned to HIGOL with its deep expertise and experience providing coaching and consulting for nonprofit organizations to help them scale their work.
“At HIGOL we have always focused on helping leaders recognize their strengths and how to leverage them. We help leaders learn how to effectively delegate what they don’t do well and develop and collaboratively lead a team that can go the distance together to meet critical missions.” shared Teri Beckman, CEO, HIGOL.
HIGOL’s work aligns leadership behaviors with business drivers that improve organizational performance, increasing community impact and raising the revenue needed to support the impact.
Lessard and Beckman worked together to create a program that was similar to the Harvard Nonprofit management program. It also included extended one-on-one coaching to develop professional and interpersonal skills. The first year of the program included 6 local nonprofit CEOs for 12 weeks with a combination of individual and group teaching venues.
Approaching the Challenge
“We approached the challenge in High Point with 3 goals: first to understand the leader, second to evaluate the organization and third to come up with a strategy to elevate both. We do a lot of one-on-one coaching; we evaluate the business model and help leaders fine tune it. We see leaders more deeply step into the role of CEO. It’s a fascinating process in which we see remarkable personal and professional growth. We end up with nonprofits that are stronger and better funded. Everyone wins!”
Early assessments quickly discovered CEOs had several common struggles. They knew their communities, but often lacked formal business and organizational training and too often worked in a vacuum. Most of them were so pressured to raise money that they seldom had time to focus on organizational strategy or personal professional growth. In a very real sense these CEOs spent much of their time responding to the urgent and struggled to build long-term sustainability.
By the end of the first cohort, it became clear that Lessard and Beckman were on to something very significant. They could see it dramatically impacting the organizations, the way they approached problems, strategy and their ability to raise money. Lessard took the results back to his Board of Trustees. It was immediately and unanimously decided that funding this program would be an annual commitment.
“It has been our privilege to watch these leaders grow and develop, almost magical.” Teri Beckman of HIGOL further shared, “We observe that if we can support leaders can grow by a factor of “1”, the organization grows by “10”. We find Executive Directors to be the point of most leverage in the organization. Investing in their development and success is an incredibly efficient and productive use of financial resources.”
Results and Looking to the Future
After 2 years of the Foundation investing in the Excellence in Nonprofit Leadership Program some interesting developments have occurred. First, the participating CEOs immediately increased the revenue of their nonprofits and they also began running their organizations with more expertise, efficiency and confidence.
From the Foundation’s perspective, this program has created a burgeoning collection of well-educated and mentored nonprofit leaders who now have a peer group to interact with and rely upon. They are beginning to talk about how they can share resources.
In the 3rd year of the program the Foundation has its sights on developing, maintaining and further cultivating alumni relationships and community by hosting regular luncheons and connection meetings, and incorporating past program graduates with current program participants. The Foundation hopes the result will be the creation of a supportive peer community for local CEOs. It wants to encourage mentoring, continuous learning of best practices, a community of support and culture of high performance among leaders of the local nonprofit community.
“We take our responsibility as a catalyst for leadership development in the High Point nonprofit community very seriously,” stated Paul Lessard, “In 2019 our Board of Trustees decided to put our money where our aspirations are by directly investing in the nonprofit leaders of High Point. We believe great leaders don’t just happen; they are the product of very intentional investment, mentoring and nurturing. We see this program is the beginning of a new era for our local non-profit community.”