The Annenberg Foundation funds what it considers to be a nonprofit’s most important asset — its leaders, both staff and board. Why? Because it sees a direct correlation between a nonprofit’s results and the strength of its leadership. Eight years ago, to further its mission, the Annenberg Foundation created Annenberg Alchemy, a leadership training program for nonprofit board chairs, board members, and chief executives living, working, and serving nonprofits in the Los Angeles area. BoardSource is an Annenberg Alchemy strategic partner and its consultants are among the program’s facilitators.
Sylia Obagi managed Alchemy for the past eight years. Now in transition between her role as Annenberg’s director of programs and operations and her new role as the first executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation, Sylia sat down with Anne Wallestad, president and CEO of BoardSource, to share her perspectives on the connections between grantmakers, governance, and organizational success.
Anne Wallestad: The Annenberg Foundation has put a stake in the ground that board leadership and governance is something it cares deeply about. Tell us how it came to that thinking, and why it’s so important to the Foundation.
Sylia Obagi: Annenberg’s mission is advancing a better tomorrow through visionary leadership today. It believes that visionary leadership at the CEO and board level will drive impact, results, and sustainability — ensuring that an organization can make the greatest impact with every dollar that it spends. Many staff members of the Foundation have come from the nonprofit side and experienced firsthand what’s possible when you’ve got effective, engaged board leadership and a strong board–staff partnership. We’ve also seen that a dysfunctional board can bring an organization down.
To understand our theory of change, you just have to look at the numbers and ratios as they relate to nonprofit leadership. We’ve got roughly a million nonprofits and a million chief executives in this country. That’s a big pool of leaders, but when you compare it to the 15 to 20 million board leaders who are also closely aligned with the success of our nonprofits (and ultimately responsible for their success), you begin to see that grantmakers have been investing their time, energy, and resources disproportionately. As grantmakers, we need to invest more in board member training — ensuring nonprofit organizations have volunteer leaders who support an organization’s resiliency. Changes in the nonprofit landscape are constant, demand for services is growing, and funding is always fluctuating. Therefore, the resiliency of a nonprofit depends on its volunteer leaders’ ability to proactively navigate these difficult dynamics on behalf of their organization.
In the eight years since we launched Annenberg Alchemy, we’ve seen it really transform organizations. It’s about shifting a paradigm, shifting a culture, creating a new way of thinking about governance and how critical it is to organizational effectiveness.