Young Leaders: Take Charge of Your Professional Development - Exponent Philanthropy
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Young Leaders: Take Charge of Your Professional Development

For emerging young leaders at small-staffed foundations, the pathway to professional growth, advancement, and impact may not always be clear. But, with creativity, courage, and intention, we can take charge of our own development.

There is no perfect formula for how to tackle society’s biggest challenges. Nor is there a ubiquitous road map for success as a program officer, executive director, or trustee of a highly effective grantmaking organization. In fact, this ambiguity is often acutely experienced by individuals working alone or with few colleagues, especially early in their careers.

Whereas other fields or large foundations have formalized training opportunities—and even small foundations may have step-by-step credential tracks—the  onus frequently falls on staff to self-identify professional development opportunities while juggling myriad responsibilities.

The good news is that assuming an entrepreneurial approach to learning leads to great results. In fact, the benefits are exponential, creating opportunities to contribute more meaningfully to our organizations, the philanthropy field at large, and our own sense of professional fulfillment.

Not sure where to get started? Below are five ways I personally stretched my professional muscles over the past year to gain greater clarity and confidence in my role as program officer at a small-staffed foundation.

Join or convene a peer learning cohort

Learning from the experiences of your peers is invaluable. Consider inviting philanthropy peers from your community to monthly or quarterly brown-bag lunches to foster a reciprocal exchange of ideas and relationship building. Propose a focused question or article to discuss to catalyze more robust conversations. Learn about Exponent Philanthropy’s Next Gen Fellows Program

Find a mentor (or two)

Choose one or two skills to hone, then identify several individuals whose acuity in those areas you admire. Reach out to see if they are available to mentor you as you progress toward your goals. Some individuals will be too busy to mentor you regularly, but may be open to sharing a cup of coffee or an informal one-time conversation that can be equally helpful.

Join a nonprofit board

If you want to stay relevant and truly understand the challenges nonprofits face on the ground ,then jump into the trenches and join a nonprofit board. This is a great opportunity to practice your leadership and decision-making skills while working alongside other passionate volunteers. If you cannot make a full board commitment at this time, then steering or sitting on a committee is another great opportunity to be engaged locally.

Facilitate a workshop

Leading a workshop is a fantastic chance to hone the essential skills of public speaking and group facilitation. Conferences geared toward young professionals such as the annual Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) conference actively seek submissions from millennials.

If you’re not ready to jump into facilitation yet, then take your first step by introducing a speaker at the next conference you attend or by joining a local public speaking club such as Toastmasters to increase your comfort speaking in front of groups.

Write a blog post

Writing is an essential communication skill we should all practice regularly. Challenge yourself to write a blog post on a topic relevant to your current role or foundation. Putting pen to paper will crystallize your own experiences and share key lessons learned with the greater community. Comments from readers may shift your thinking, spark new action, or help you identify your next big goal!

When you begin to take intentional steps outside your comfort zone, you also start to become the driving force in your own professional growth. I encourage you to pick one step to take on this month!

Let us know how you’ve taken initiative and shaped your own personal learning agenda by leaving a comment below.

Samantha Alarie-Leca is inaugural program officer at The West Foundation, where she is currently designing a giving program for emerging international development nonprofits. Previously, as a Lipman Family Prize Fellow with the University of Pennsylvania, Samantha visited Nepal and co-authored a case study on the 2013 Lipman Family Prize winner: READ Global.


  1. Alexis Marion

    These are all great ideas. One of the things I’m currently doing is taking a free online class through edX in evaluation as I felt that was an area I would like to learn more about and will improve my grantmaking.

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