Collaborative Learning for Nonprofit Leaders

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Collaborative Learning

Why we invest in the development of high-impact change makers and the organizations they serve.


In 2019, just before the pandemic began, the Mary Black Foundation chose to partner with Heightened Development to launch a yearlong institute for executive directors or chief executive officers (Executive Director Leadership Institute/EDLI). Of course, none of us had any idea what was coming or how important community and supportive professional development would be during this time.

Before talking about the institute, however, it is important to highlight why it matters. I love the term “change-maker”.  I am fully aware that the word “change”, at any given time, can make us more aware of that exhausted, uneasy feeling we sometimes have in the pit of our stomachs.  That is valid.  I feel it too.  And many of the leaders this institute invests in are facing the reality of exhaustion and uneasiness on a regular basis.  But please don’t stop reading just yet. I get it.  Again, I often feel it too. But it is important to acknowledge why digging into change efforts matters, even if we don’t have the energy to go there all the time.

Nearly all of the nonprofit sector is about solving a problem that impacts humanity in one way or another.  They solve problems that no one can turn a profit on. Almost always, it is a problem with deep complexity; there are many things influencing it, and when one digs deeply into the root cause of the problem, it is so complex with so many influences, it seems entirely overwhelming. THIS is the job of a nonprofit executive. 

Nonprofit leaders not only manage all the typical challenges of a business (workforce development, managing risk, process improvement, budget management, etc.), but they do within much complexity.  For example, a leader in early birth outcomes or early childhood education, has all of the root causes below to think about.

Complex problems nonprofits solve

And this is only up to birth.  Where does one start with minimal resources?  It is exhausting.  But it matters.  These leaders are solving the most important problems of today.  They are helping to build equity, to level the playing field, to improve our workforce, to improve well-being population-wide.  How could we not invest in them? HEAVILY?



This first institute began in March of 2020 and was an day long virtual format.  We had no idea at the time that every gathering that year would be virtual.  Sitting through a full day of “training” is difficult even in-person, and much harder virtually.  I remember wondering if it would be successful, but the leaders quickly forged supportive, open, relationships and were deeply engaged in each session.  At the end, one leader said, “I have been in this position for 20 years and I have never participated in something that challenged my learning this much.” At graduation, another leader noted how she’d grown more comfortable with having conversations around difficult topics like employee accountability, racism, etc.

In 2022, the Mary Black Foundation supported a similar institute for “high potential leaders”.  Most of these participants were chief operating officers or the second in charge at their impactful organizations.  This year, we launched a new cohort of executive directors, and the Spartanburg County Foundation came on board to co-fund the institute with the Mary Black Foundation.

Each year, leaders of nonprofit organizations have invested one day a month in their own professional development, and in a one-hour of peer coaching session in between monthly leadership sessions.  We typically started by allowing leaders to reflect on their own communication styles, to learn about other communication styles and to reflect on their professional and personal values.  This is the foundation from which the rest of the learning evolves because as leaders, any strategic plan their organization adopts will be no more than paper unless aligned with the culture of the leader.  See below. leaders influence strategy


This year, similar to other years, we covered the important topics pictured left, often devoting time to individualized planning during the sessions.

The institute design is influenced by findings from the Center for Creative Leadership and the Corporate Leadership Council, which show that effective leadership development is 70% on-the-job learning, 20 percent coaching and mentoring, and 10% classroom learning. Essentially, learning happens when adults are supported to apply it in their setting, in real time. Certainly, the bulk of participant time is spent “on the job”, and the institute seeks to find ways to help participants reflect on field experience and apply their learning. The design utilizes peer coaching and also allows time for executive directors to begin applying the content and tools while in session.

A few quotes from learning at last year’s session, attended by high potential leaders were:

“One of my favorite sessions focused on various communication styles and the behaviors that typically accompany those styles. I have become more aware and intentional about understanding these differences as I approach work and life experiences while continuing to self-reflect so that I can become a more effective leader.”  Savannah Ray, Spartanburg Academic Movement and United Way of the Piedmont

” I feel more confident leading our organization towards success and I have more clarity of my role. I want to motivate my team to perform better, to make better decisions and to reach their full potential. “ Nora Curiel-Munoz, PASOS SC and Upstate Family Resource Center

“I have acquired an immense amount of training that will aid in sustaining my role as a leader. One of the things that I really enjoy is the peer-to-peer support (iron sharpens iron). It is not just a training for me; it’s a community. I have developed relationships with my cohort members to build partnerships to better serve Spartanburg County.” Amber Pendergraph-Leak, BirthMatters

“One thing that has truly impacted how I operate in the workplace was our discussion regarding the level of information that we have and are given regarding decision making and employee input. I believed this helped me as both an employee and as a leader. As an employee, it helped me realize and understand that just because I’ve been asked for my input does not mean that I get to make the final decision nor does it mean that I have all the information I need to make a final decision. As a leader, it helped me realize and understand different levels of transparency we as individuals all have.” Channing Houser, GLEAM and PALS

“Participation in the leadership institute led by Heightened Development, has increased my knowledge of ways to coach staff and have those difficult, yet necessary conversations with staff. As well as coaching staff to help maintain a healthy work relationship and environment.” Rosalyn E. Splawn, First Steps of Spartanburg

Learning with leaders