In San Benito County, Patrick Ellis works with abused and neglected children, giving them the love and support they need to succeed in school and life.

And in Oakland, Cherri Allison directs an effort to provide the victims of domestic violence with comprehensive services, from obtaining restraining orders to crisis counseling.

The wide-ranging work of Ellis, and Allison is united by more than their common service to their communities. The duo are two among many heads of grassroots organizations who have  been selected to develop their leadership skills with training that has been underwritten by the Community Leadership Project.

The project is a joint effort funded by three California foundations – the David and Lucile Packard, James Irvine, and William and Flora Hewlett foundations – to strengthen grassroots organizations that serve low-income communities and communities of color in the San Joaquin Valley, Central Coast, and Greater San Francisco Bay Area.

“Being able to compare notes and techniques with other nonprofit leaders in the community is invaluable,” says Allison. “So it being able to get some space to reflect on what I do and how I do it.”

In December, the Community Leadership Project announced a second and final round of $4.25 million in grants for the work, bringing the total to $10 million – $2 million more than was originally planned. The project was launched in April 2009, and work funded through it will continue through the end of 2012. Project money is administered by local community foundations and other intermediary organizations making grants to the grassroots.

Reaching into the Grassroots to Make a Difference

“Like our partners, the Hewlett Foundation has long made grants to help low-income communities and organizations serving communities of color,” says Hewlett’s president, Paul Brest. “But our work has not always reached the smaller grassroots organizations, from whose ranks will come a new generation of leadership for California. The Community Leadership Project hopes to nurture those organizations by increasing their effectiveness.”

All told, the project has reached 100 grassroots organizations with grants to help an organization grow; 300 grassroots organizations with various forms of technical assistance; and 500 individual executives and emerging leaders with a variety of leadership training.

“The California Leadership Project’s grants are developing the talents of a diverse group of leaders and providing basic support to organizations serving populations in need,” says Assembly member Sandre Swanson (D-Alameda), whose district includes Allison’s domestic violence shelter. “Especially during these difficult financial times, it is crucial to the success of our state to support individuals and organizations that provide services to the underserved.”

But it is through the stories of the individual organizations and their leaders that the impact of the grants can best be understood.

In Hollister, Patrick Ellis is the program director of the Chamberlain’s Children Center, a child and family service agency that offers residential treatment and other services to children aged six through seventeen who have been abused and neglected.

After working with the Leadership Education and Development Institute – which trains leaders in nonprofit organizations in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito counties – Ellis says he realized that a lot of the growth in leadership skills involves reflection as much as anything.

“There’s a lot of internal work, thinking about ethics, morals, and respect,” says Ellis, who came to the center ten years ago and is largely self-trained. “And I’m thinking more about how I supervise the people working for me. For one thing, it really opened my eyes to the need to stick to a regular schedule of supervisory meetings with staff.”

The center serves children from throughout California who have experienced severe levels of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, many of them from low-income homes.

“Maybe it was just a natural ability to work with the kids,” says Ellis, who joined Chamberlain’s right out of high school ten years ago and learned through experience. “I realized I really enjoyed the work and the philosophy of the place, which is based on positive discipline.”

According to Ellis, the center’s clients are dependents of the juvenile court who have been deemed incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong as a result of the abuse they’ve experienced. He and his staff assess the children, setting behavior goals and goals for later placement in foster care or group homes that take them a step closer to reentry into the community.

Nurturing Leaders in Unexpected Ways

In Oakland, attorney Cherri Allison is executive director of the Family Violence Law Center, which is working to eliminate domestic violence in Alameda County. She has a somewhat more wry take on the virtues of leadership training.

“Being in leadership training gave me someplace to go and have a meltdown,” she says with a laugh. “I can’t do that with my staff. I have to say, ‘I have a plan. Don’t worry.'”

Allison’s leadership training is through an Oakland-based organization called LeaderSpring. She says it is the first time she’s been involved in a training program where all the other participants also are executive directors of nonprofit organizations.

“You can talk about all the issues executive directors face, like dealing with staff and boards of directors,” she says. “There really is no place I know of where you can discuss all of that in confidence with others who share those concerns.”

The intensive once-a-month meetings have not just nurtured leadership through sharing, but nudged participants to work together to help each other in other ways. Allison, concerned about the effects of a stressful working environment, says she has asked the head of the Niroga Institute, which teaches well-being through yoga, to offer instruction to her staff. And Allison has taken on a mentoring role with a younger executive director, Mirella Rangel, recently named to her post at Oakland Leaf, which offers youth development programs.

“My agency’s work to eliminate domestic violence intersects with all these other programs,” Allison says. “So this training strengthens the whole nonprofit community here. It’s like a little think tank.”

“You really develop a bond with the other leaders that’s totally different from what I’ve experienced,” Allison says.