Opinion & analysis
By Laura Bacon

Addressing leadership challenges and opportunities through coaching

With our Coaching Stipends programme, Luminate supported over 200 leaders at more than 80 organisations. Great leadership can help an organisation thrive, and under the right conditions, an executive coach can be transformative.

Executive directors and senior management teams in our portfolio strive to build resilient, healthy, inclusive, well-networked organisations in order to be effective and impactful. However, nonprofit leadership is a tough role, especially during a global pandemic while navigating funding shifts and amidst shrinking civic space and increasing authoritarianism.

In 2021, Luminate’s Partner Support team launched a “Coaching Stipend” programme, which distributed funding dedicated to coaching, one of the most effective ways to support these nonprofit leaders. Through a partnership with a credentialed coach, leaders can learn more about themselves, and discover new skills and resources.

We’ve found that even when leaders know they could be helped by a coach, they often are unwilling to prioritise this cost over competing programmatic and organisational priorities. This is especially the case when much of their funding comes from restricted grants. The objective of these dedicated coaching stipends, which were approximately $2,500 per recipient, was to give our partners’ leaders (executives, as well as senior- and mid-level managers) the ability and license to advance their professional development.

Nonprofit leaders face unique challenges

In David Coleman’s article, ‘A Leader’s Guide to Coaching’ in Nonprofit Quarterly, he identified five challenges nonprofit leaders experience, which coaching can help support. Below is an edited excerpt from that article:

  1. Accidental managers. Visionaries, advocates, or policy experts find themselves managing people who have little training or experience. Because their rise to leadership is accidental, these leaders often lack the skills that one might expect of a seasoned leader. 
  2. Job complexity. Many nonprofit leaders are tested daily in responding to the demands of multiple stakeholders—with consequences for missteps. When done right, coaching can be tailored to account for the particulars of a leader’s situation while also bringing perspectives from others with whom a coach has worked.
  3. Feedback deserts. While performance feedback is in short supply in all organizations, it’s especially absent from smaller and mission-driven nonprofits. These organizations may fear that providing constructive feedback destroys their “family” feeling. In these situations, a coach can work with the sponsoring manager to convey constructive, actionable feedback to a coachee in a meeting with the three parties. 
  4. Leadership transition. Organizations must develop leaders in-house and cultivate outreach to attract the right kind of leaders from other sectors. Executive coaching helps minimize the time needed to prepare leaders for broader responsibilities.
  5. A culture of scarcity/sacrifice. A tendency to invest in people only during the good times jeopardizes the nonprofit sector, threatening the loss of experienced leaders as well as training for the next generation. 

How we designed the coaching stipend programme

We wanted to keep the application process simple, so we asked partners to express their interest in the programme by sending us a short email answering the question: ‘How will executive coach(es) benefit you and/or the development of your team?’ It was important that this programme could strengthen not just the executive director’s leadership skills, but those of rising leaders as well, helping the organisations to ‘build the bench’.

The Partner Support team reviewed the applications and selected stipend recipients based on:

  1. a demonstrated commitment to the coaching engagement and openness to personal development;
  2. if the leader or organisation would undergo a leadership transition in the short- or medium-term;
  3. if the leader or organisation was facing a pressing need or significant risk to operations or the team; and
  4. if the leader represented an underrepresented group of the population.

As there was considerable demand for this programme, we also considered whether:

  1. the leader was from a small (fewer than 10 people) or new (in existence for less than two years) organisation; 
  2. the leader had received coaching in the past; and if 
  3. the organisation had used a previous Luminate Wellness Stipend for coaching.

We provided stipends to partners, and the partners identified and contracted their own coaches. It was important to us that the organisations themselves (not us) held the power, discretion, and freedom to choose their coaches, especially given the context and confidentiality required. The relationship between the coach and the client is a special one – critical to correctly match. Furthermore, cultural, systemic, and contextual awareness is essential to a productive coaching relationship. 

This programme built upon the work of our existing Wellness Stipends, and we learned a lot from the hundreds of coaching applications we received. We look forward to sharing some of the insights and lessons learned in our next blog.