An enabling environment for leaders to thrive in development and philanthropy

‘Leadership for what? Leadership for whom?’ These questions seem to be uppermost in conversations with colleagues. We all seem to be feeling that we have not perhaps done enough, or are not doing enough, in our respective leadership roles to feel like we are making a difference.

We are all constantly bombarded with books, articles, research, Ted Talks and the like on the issue of leadership. Despite having access to all of these resources, at the end of the day it still comes back to making personal choices and decisions in any given situation. PSJP’s new paper on Leadership and Development resonated with me and gave me cause to reflect on the lessons I have learned as the leader of a small philanthropic organization in South Africa.

However, I do think we need to talk a bit more about the attributes and characteristics of good leadership in development and philanthropic organizations. Here I wish to talk about the enabling environment in which individual leaders or leadership thrives, drawing on my own experience in organizations as well as in the communities we work with. There are at least four factors that have aided my journey as a leader.


One thing that was really important for me in my emerging years as a leader was the people I chose to surround myself with. These were already respected leaders in their own right and were willing to mentor, coach and accompany me along the way. These leaders had different areas of skills and expertise but the most important thing about them was that they were willing and committed to allow me to develop at my own pace with gentle prodding from behind. They were always available to me and no question was a stupid one. They continue to be my ‘critical’ friends and sounding board even today. I am paying this forward by offering the same kind of support to younger leaders in my field or in communities where we work.

Peer support

The PSJP paper talks about the role of ‘peer support’ in leadership development. I was afforded the opportunity of shadowing leaders who hold the same position many years ago and it proved to be an invaluable experience and something I feel has relevance for today. It exposed me to different organizations and different people at a young age and allowed me to learn from peers about all different aspects of leadership, including how to respond to different contexts. This relates not only to philanthropy but often also to the leadership required in all aspects of our lives.

I feel that established organisations could create space in their organisations where they offer peer learning and support. An idea that I have been mulling over is to invite peers to spend time with an organization where they could learn a new skill, be exposed to how organizations operate or even sit in at board meetings to see how these structures operate. We have on more than one occasion invited associates into our learning spaces where trustees and staff meet and they have found this to be an invaluable experience of learning and knowledge sharing.

Developing trust and moral courage

As a pioneer leader and someone who has been in the field for a long time, the most important value and principle for me is to be trusted and to trust myself and my own capabilities. Trust is earned and requires ongoing work on myself and among the people around me. If there is trust I believe that one has more courage to take risks and to test uncharted waters. Failure is actually an opportunity to do better and the enabling environment should be such as to enable learning and personal growth.

I came to appreciate the importance of moral courage through a meeting with the late Rushworth M Kidder, who was a board member of the C S Mott Foundation many years ago. According to him,

 Moral courage is the courage to be

  • Honest
  • Fair
  • Respectful
  • Responsible
  • Compassionate

I feel that maintaining trust in oneself and moral courage is a lifelong aspect of leadership, but having peers to hold you to account is also important. Dual or mutual accountability ensures that you constantly keep yourself in check and that you allow yourself to be called out if your peers feel that you are not staying true to yourself and your work.


Ultimately holding the tension between personal and organizational life is critical to effective leaders and their ability to use creative tension to manage both ends of the spectrum. While different circumstances may require different styles of leadership, it is ultimately about the balance that needs to be maintained between personal and organizational life and understanding that the two things cannot really be separated.

I hope that as development and philanthropy leaders we can create such opportunities and an enabling environment where leadership can thrive within our own organizations as well as among those we work with and support.


Bernie Dolley is the Director of Ikhala Trust, South Africa.