Hundreds of thousands of books have been written about business leadership, with new titles coming out each year. There is a growing literature about what it takes to build and lead high-performing nonprofit organizations, and a trove of research and writing exists on military and political leadership. Precious little has been written, however, about what it takes to successfully lead a philanthropic organization.
While a number of good books about philanthropy have been published lately, each touches only lightly on the subject of leadership, and none focus much attention on the role of the CEO. A recent National Center for Family Philanthropy report about the role of the CEO in a family foundation context makes an important descriptive contribution to the field, but there is room for more research and insight into what it takes to be a successful foundation CEO.
In the past two decades, the number of foundations in the United States alone has more than tripled, rising from about 32,000 foundations in 1990 to approximately 115,000 today. Given the proliferation of foundations, and the hundreds of billions of dollars in assets that foundations control, it is essential to ask: What makes foundation CEOs successful? What makes them fail?
These are deceptively challenging questions to answer.
An abbreviated version of the paper appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review earlier this summer.