Lifting up Leaders

Advancing Leadership and Equity

The Kresge Foundation is committed to diversifying and broadening opportunity in America’s cities and recognizes that its grantees and partners are the true arms and legs of this work. Strengthening grantees’ organizational capacity, investing in their individual leaders to enhance problem-solving skills and uniting with them to transform fields is therefore essential to advancing Kresge’s mission.

Kresge has long supported multifaceted components of leadership development. Now it is giving special attention to how it contributes to building the next generation of diverse leaders, organizations and fields.

Convenings give leaders from Kresge grantee organizations around the U.S. an opportunity to participate in shared learning and problem solving. (Photos by Steve Ruark)

One way the foundation is taking a bold step to put leadership development, in all its various forms, at the core of its work is through its internal Leadership and Infrastructure Funding Team, also called LIFT. This 13-member grantmaking committee includes representatives from every program and practice area within the foundation. Equipped with an annual budget of $2 million, it is identifying and testing high-quality, equity-focused opportunities to build and enhance the talent of nonprofit leaders across the country.

Simultaneously, LIFT is accelerating strategies for capacity-building within organizations and strengthening relationships between and among membership associations, philanthropic affinity groups and nonprofit infrastructure organizations. LIFT represents Kresge’s commitment to develop leadership at the individual, organizational and systemic levels to bring lasting change to the nonprofit sector.

“All of this work is critical for enhancing the effectiveness of individual leaders and grantee organizations — so they can better solve local problems and challenges in the cities where they work,” says LIFT’s founder and leader, Caroline Altman Smith, who also serves as deputy director of Kresge’s Education Program.

FUELing Racial Equity

Instead of prescribing leadership development for partners, Kresge’s LIFT team opted to survey grantees and asked: What do you need to cultivate effective leaders and durable outcomes in your organization?

ProInspire Leadership Institute delivers Kresge-sponsored leadership development programs for grantees around the United States. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

Grantees indicated that they needed help developing stronger senior teams, more robust mid-level talent and more racially and ethnically diverse staff.

“We don’t define for grantees what they need,” says Neesha Modi, a senior program officer with the Detroit Program and a member of the LIFT committee that spearheaded the FUEL program. “It is a part of Kresge’s DNA to respond to what our grantees tell us.”

That feedback helped Kresge craft its groundbreaking Fostering Urban Equitable Leadership (FUEL) program, designed to examine and grow social sector leadership and organizations through a lens of racial equity. It is delivering transformational change for grantees while offering a fresh approach that could serve as a model for other funders.

“Kresge’s grantees are all working to dismantle inequities in America’s cities in some fashion, yet many of them lack sufficient resources to invest in their own leaders and racial equity work,” Smith says. “It has been very gratifying to hear how FUEL has enlivened their work and about how they put new racial equity practices into action immediately.”

Strengthening grantees’ organizational capacity, investing in their individual leaders and uniting with them to create transformation are integral parts of Kresge’s mission. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

Kresge unveiled FUEL in 2016 in collaboration with Community Wealth Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that crafts results-driven strategies for nonprofits. Committing $1.3 million to this important work, FUEL set out to build the effectiveness of senior and mid-level nonprofit leaders at Kresge-funded organizations to strengthen their operations and bolster the resilience of the broader social sector.

The interest in FUEL’s programming was impressive, with nearly 300 people from 120 organizations participating over the course of two years.

“About 85 percent of the grantees that the program teams nominated took advantage of the opportunity, even though they had to fit the commitment into their already demanding workloads,” Altman Smith says.

FUEL’s success hinged on offering a curated menu of services that grantees could tap as needed. These included individual leadership support, board capacity building, broad-based networking and leadership succession planning. That required Kresge to identify and partner with a cadre of specialized organizations to offer talent- and organization-building services to FUEL participants.

FUEL has also helped to deepen racial equity goals and understanding within the foundation itself. Kresge staff are embedding FUEL components into other grantmaking. For instance, the foundation’s Environment Program has unveiled a $625,000 initiative that provides equity-based leadership development to environmental nonprofits.

Building Momentum

LIFT and its FUEL program underscore Kresge’s role in pioneering philanthropic practice, particularly with leadership development programs that serve organizations working in cities.

“We need to support the people who are at the front of this work, who have on-the-ground knowledge,” says Modi. “They have strong problem-solving skills, they have the ability to bring strong connectivity, they are the stewards of this work.”

This support comes at a pivotal moment. The nonprofit sector is bracing for a wave of talent turnover, fueled to a large degree by shifting demographics as Baby Boomers in leadership roles retire. Some of that change is also sparked by burnout and other inherent challenges that come from working on the front lines of human need, where missions are urgent and intense, and the challenges can be overwhelming and complicated.

By building the strength, resiliency and diversity of grantees so they are equipped to achieve their goals as well as equitable outcomes in their communities, The Kresge Foundation expects to magnify the impact of its investment while supporting grantees on multiple levels — helping them be even better equipped to bring remarkable and resilient change to America’s cities.

This is the momentum Kresge is championing.