Small Foundation Leadership: A Portrait Emerges - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Small Foundation Leadership: A Portrait Emerges

Leadership can be defined in literally hundreds of ways. This is why Exponent Philanthropy knows we can’t take an “off the shelf” definition of small foundation leadership.

Instead, by taking time to explore leadership in small foundations, Exponent Philanthropy will be better able to validate, nurture, and celebrate it. And, by nurturing leadership, our hope is that small foundations will make even more impact and serve as catalysts and changemakers.

This post offers a look at the portrait of leadership that is emerging through our almost 40 interviews.

Going into this work, we believe every individual at a small foundation can lead: founder, trustee, staff person, family member, and advisor. And we believe foundation leadership isn’t about formal authority. When you think about it, a foundation large or small can’t make anyone do anything. And yet, a foundation can have huge influence.

We are asking, How do people with no formal authority exert influence?

Here is what we are learning:

  • Small foundation leadership begins with passion and a hunger for knowledge. Leaders are deeply concerned about a specific problem or issue and hungry to find out more about it. They seek input and listen carefully. They reach out and talk with grantees, nonprofits, government agencies, and citizens who are informed.
  • Small foundation leaders take time to make sense of the knowledge they gather, in order to identify important issues and where they can make impact. They assume that problems are complex and have multiple influences. Therefore, they try to understand the larger landscape or system. People we interviewed note that foundations are uniquely positioned to gather and make sense of knowledge, since they work with many different organizations and can see patterns and trends. Leaders take advantage of this privileged perspective.
  • Driven by passion and hunger for knowledge, some small foundation leaders focus attention on specific problems, generate solutions, and create a vision for the future. Some leaders take the next step: acting on their knowledge and insight to become catalysts in the messy business of changemaking. Small foundation leaders take action by raising awareness of problems and potential solutions; commissioning research and fact finding; convening grantees, nonprofits, government agencies, and others to develop action plans; mobilizing diverse partners to coordinate efforts and build collective will; funding and engaging in advocacy; and more.
  • Some leaders act on their knowledge. Why do some small foundation leaders step out of their comfort zone and take action? Courage and a willingness to take calculated risks were cited as key qualities. And leaders who are truly aware of their freedom to experiment and dissent are willing to pursue greater risk for higher return. Leaders also have a special awareness of the powers of small funders, and a desire to use all those powers to make change.

Who among the small funders you know is a leader? What makes them a leader? What do you admire about them?

Senior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.


  1. Yes, small foundations are more nearer to the needy community and even they may be brought up from the needy communities facing the challenges during their childhood age. Some times children from the needy communities when they get the chance to break the shell of their way mostly through education coming to the upper ladder leaving behind their childhood challenges .Such individuals even if they are at comfortable status in their actual life, still their childhood status discomforts may encourage them to minimize the pains they shared in their previous communities and this may be the essence for finding their present nonprofit organizations. In terms of limited capacity of individuals, it more open wide chance to work with interested groups to provide genuine support at grass root level . Though challenging, time taking, and resource consuming, genuine support for those help less suffering who are daily suffering really creates mind heart relief. Yes , small foundations if supported with counter check up seem to be more functional.

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