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ISTR’s 9th Annual Conference: a great platform to reflect on third sector leadership

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Where are Asian civil society organizations going to find good talent to take-up the reign of Asian NGOs? In discussions with Mark Sidel, president of ISTR, the question of leadership transitions and successions came up. Mark’s observations on the problem of succession planning for the top leadership jobs in Asia’s third sector are encouraging and alarming all at once: it depends on the situation and which constituents we think about. If you are a leaders in transition—say the head or the executive VP of programs for instance, the fact that there is very good money to be made out there as a consultant to Asian NGOs is a good thing. But if you are the soon-to-retire CEO or the chair of its board, the situation might pose a real dilemma. On the one hand, the pool of consultants that holds expertise in your issues is growing, but the pool of “long-term” retainable talent, analysis, and governance for the capacity and sustainability of your NGO--which you likely had a hand at founding, is shrinking at a proportionate rate. Though this is not classic “brain-drain” issue, the metaphor is useful for thinking of the leadership cost to gaining high-value short-term consulting support. The consulting may very well energize the NGO around the programs or issues it engages, but suppose it’s at the cost of organizational leadership for sustainable governance and influence in the long-term, then some fast-forward thinking may be needed.

Mark’s not the only one who has vivid examples, stories, and data on leadership in transition issues. ISTR was a great opportunity to meet others who resonate with these concerns. A lively discussion erupted on the topic with Deborah Edward of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at UT Austin and with Benjamin Lough of the Center for Social Development, Washington University in St.Louis. Debora’s research looks at the challenges of leadership cultivation in transnational NGOs, while Benjamin looks at the rates and trends of international volunteering by corporate and Diaspora leaders and concedes possible effects on civil society leadership options. Jenny Green whom I have the pleasure of sharing sessions with, explored differences in perceptions about moral and leadership in a set of Australian NGOs, interviewing the CEO and the Chairs, and discovering that pairings were consistently patterned: either both came out of the private sector or both were insiders to the third sector for very different framings of challenges ahead. Jenny is at University of Technology, Sydney. Jason Kettle and his co-author Triparna Vasavada at Penn State view part of this leadership in-waiting challenge through the lens of gender and entrepreneurship. When I put the question to Jason about how leadership gaps in the next generations of NGO leaders might be understood, he talked to me about on-going research on nonprofit-value statements. We discussed NPO values as possible constraints and opportunities in the exercise of leadership and about it as a possible indicator or constraint to explore variations in distribution of third leadership in the 50 states. As an aside, he his colleagues are using Atlas.TI for coding purposes and they are well versed in contingency theories of leadership.

This was great conference. Hats off to Margery Daniels and her team at the ISTR secretariat, and to Mark Sidel for their leadership and nurturing of third sector research.

Christiane Pagé
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