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To Follow is to Lead

Thursday, July 11, 2019
Heather Jaconis, Gateway Center for GivingAs we get ready for next week's 2019 Forum Annual Conference in Cleveland, we look back at one attendee's reflections from #ForumCon18 in a guest post by Heather Jaconis, Center Manager, Gateway Center for Giving.

The philanthropic sector often looks toward program, membership, or policy staff to be the changemakers. The influence of nonprofit staff members who work in administration, human resUnlinkources, or finance is easy to overlook. For small PSOs like my own, Gateway Center for Giving, it is especially important to identify ways that all employees can help further the organizational mission to positively impact the sector. For this reason, I jumped at the chance to meet with my PSO peers, particularly those in similar roles, at #FORUMCON18.

From the first day of the conference, it was evident how much growth the field and the Forum network have undergone in the past few years. The Forum network expanded its community to include national PSOs, giving more organizations a chance to learn, connect, and support one another. Each organization with which I spoke seemed to be growing as well; exploring opportunities to expand their work, add new staff, or think through unique ways to solve old problems. It was inspiring to see how philanthropy is responding to emerging community needs with courage and character.

I quickly learned that with just one year of experience in philanthropy under my belt, I wasn’t nearly as new to the work as many of my peers. Several attendees I met with had been in their position a number of months or weeks, but with just as much vigor to dive into the issues. I found myself giving out advice more often than I expected, even to those who did not hold administrative roles like myself. Without knowing it before arriving in Boston, I had knowledge I could offer as guidance to others! There I was, explaining to a peer how our organization tackled a specific challenge they were also facing. That was the first instance I discovered how quickly one’s position can change into leadership.

In the pre-conference Emerging Practitioners Conversation, we heard from young professionals in the field about their journeys to becoming leaders. Even the framing of their stories, calling it a journey, is a reminder that leadership is never set in stone. It’s not an outcome of a completed checklist. It’s a process that requires multiple players, both leaders and followers.

In preparation for this session, we were asked to watch Derek Siver’s TED talk on how to start a movement. He explains that the act of “following” is often an underestimated form of leadership. In order to lead, an individual has to have followers who can show others how to walk the same path. “Have the courage to follow and show others how to follow,” Siver explains. Similarly, during the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) session, presenters explored the idea that professional development does not occur in a vacuum. It is often the result of uplifting others and using one’s power, knowledge, or influence to provide opportunities for others to practice leadership.

On the final day of the conference during the Emerging Practitioners & CEO Conversation, the facilitator began by leading us through an exercise where we wrote out the issues preventing each of us from being a leader. Although many found it difficult to articulate the roadblocks stopping us, I saw deep courage demonstrated by my peers who recognized the external and internal influences preventing our growth. Through this exercise, I recognized the deep commitment of heart that philanthropy requires. In my experience, I often stop myself from taking leadership opportunities because I worry about adding more to my plate. The facilitator asked us to commit to ourselves a few things we can do to begin dismantling these barriers. Here are my commitments:

  • Set aside time to decompress by myselfHere is a picture of me putting the first commitment into practice – relaxing by the Boston waterfront after conference sessions!
  • Recognize others are not entirely dependent on me
  • Don’t take on more problems than would be possible to tackle
  • Maintain the courage to continue to try, even if I don’t see the fruits of my labor

This session helped me identify what is standing in my way of holistic leadership and why I’m allowing those roadblocks to continue diverting my path. Without attending this session, I would not have paused to write out these reminders.

So how does all of this reflecting show up in my daily work? Recognizing my own voice allows me to use it to amplify the voices of those making changes in the St. Louis community. For example, Forward through Ferguson released the State of the Report, which highlights their regional “Calls to Action” for progress on racial equity. As a leader, I can follow their expertise and demonstrate to our Membership how to answer the call to serve.

Leadership comes in many surprising forms. I am grateful to have had the opportunity at FORUMCON18 to interact with my peers and advance my journey to leadership. I now recognize how far I have come, how I can further develop myself professionally, and what I can do in my role to lead.

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