Wednesday, October 23, 2013

An Extraordinary Fellowship Program - Extraordinary Leaders

I have just returned from the annual Livingston Fellows Retreat, a component of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation 9-year-old Livingston Fellowship Program, and can't resist posting a quick summary of my reaction/perceptions.

This program was launched nine years ago in honor of Johnston R. Livingston, who was Chairman Emeritus of the Foundation, and passed away in 2008. He had a personal passion for leadership in the nonprofit sector, and was deeply invested in this program. Even as the Foundation has shifted its grantmaking entirely to arts and culture this year, there is a steadfast commitment to retaining the larger nonprofit sector reach of this program, including arts as well as other nonprofit leaders. I believe this is extremely healthy as it integrates arts leaders into larger conversations about leadership, making a difference in our community, balancing personal and professional obligations etc.  These problems are not "special" in the arts and benefit from being part of a larger conversation and network. Read Laura Zabel's great and provocative blog post on why "artists are ordinary."

So exactly what happens in the Livingston Fellowship program, and why do I think it is pretty unique and special? Each year, five Colorado nonprofit leaders (most from the Denver area) - generally executive directors who are mid-career - are selected to participate through a nomination process. They are given consulting time with a leadership consultant as well as an organizational psychologist, AND a commitment of $25,000 towards the execution of a personal, customized leadership advancement plan. The class of fellows then comes together in a retreat to share their early thinking about the goals and basic outlines of their plan, guided by Foundation staff and a consultant, but largely sharing and learning peer-to-peer. Following this they develop a formal plan that is then reviewed and approved by the Foundation, with a two year window for completion. The plans vary as much as one individual varies from another. There is an inherent recognition that sometimes to grow as leaders we need to grow as human beings, so plans may involve efforts to get "out of the comfort zone" - learning a new skill, sport, hobby or artistic practice; they may involve traditional executive coaching or seminars and conferences; they may involve travel, whether for self-exploration, or to be exposed to new cultures and languages.

And like a good approach to strategic planning, the Foundation has always recognized that sometimes plans need to change mid-stream, so there is an openness to revisions along the way - and many if not most are revised.

Livingston fellows (l-r) Erin Pulling, Project Angel Heart (2010), Chip Walton, Curious Theatre (2005), Sharon Knight, Warren Village (2012), Mike Yankovich, Chidren's Museum of Denver (2011) Heather Lafferty, Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver (2013)
It is clear that participation in the program has had a profound impact on the participants, creating a diverse nonprofit leadership cohort in Denver like I have seen in no other City. Part of the effectiveness of the program is that the participation does not end with the completion of one's Fellowship plan. No, once accepted in the program you are part of a "club" that just keeps growing ever year. A regular series of lunches is held with special guest speakers or issue discussion topics. And each year the ENTIRE group of all current and past fellows are invited to gather for a retreat, which is what took place last week. In the end, about 1/2 - 2/3 of all Fellows participated, still pretty remarkable given that they were committing to two days and nights out of the office and away from family, in some cases nine years distant from their original fellowship experience.

And because all the fellows have in common having gone through the fellowship process, which forces deep self-examination, merging personal and professional issues, the level of openness, sharing and trust among the group is striking. Participation in the retreat becomes for many, I think, a way to reconnect with that journey they went on through the fellowship, and to keep that striving to be the best leaders - and human beings - that they can be, part of their life and daily practice, not something that fades like an old photograph.

As the "new guy" I have the opportunity to engage in some tweaks to the Fellowship program going forward, to look at it with fresh eyes, and with ten years coming up I am sure we will do a ten year assessment. I do hope, for example, to add to our Web site some of the stories of the Fellows experiences and learnings that could be shared. That said, I want to take this opportunity to say how honored I am to now lead a Foundation that could create and sustain a program like this - it is a gift to me and the community from my predecessor, Dorothy Horrell, from the consultant on the program Jesse King, from the Bonfils-Stanton Board, and most of all from John Livingston.

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