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Leadership development

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By Todd Cohen

A new online tool aims to help nonprofit professionals assess and improve their leadership skills.

Developed by Centerpoint for Leaders and focusing on the skills of individuals working for nonprofits, the new tool builds on other online resources the Washington, D.C., nonprofit has developed to improve organizational effectiveness and performance.

“If we can enhance the capacity of the individuals within organizations and build their leadership strengths, we can increase the capacity of the organization and the capacity of the nonprofit sector,” says Sandra Trice Gray, Centerpoint’s president and CEO.

Centerpoint was formed in 2000 as a spinoff of Independent Sector, a nonprofit trade group in Washington, D.C., that had decided to focus more attention on advocacy.

Survey research that led to that new focus also found that nonprofit professionals wanted a “one-stop” source of practical applications and ideas, and networking with peers, to help improve their leadership skills, says Gray, a 17-year veteran of Independent Sector who was its vice president for leadership.

“Leaders feel very isolated and many don’t have access to affordable leadership-development resources,” she says.

In addition to holding workshops and retreats, which generate roughly one-third of its $250,000 annual budget, Centerpoint offers free resources at centerpointforleaders.org, including a “virtual learning community,” “peer learning” and a “leadership toolkit.”

The learning community, for example, features a catalog of multidisciplinary resources on leadership, including publications, bibliographies and links to materials, training and fellowship programs on topics such as coaching, assessment and board-leadership development.

Each quarter, the learning community also publishes a special online feature on topics such as knowledge-management that includes a synopsis and tutorial on the issue, and links to related resources.

The peer-learning resource features message boards, chat rooms, models, promising practices and links to materials on topics such as accountability.

And the leadership toolkit features tools designed to help a nonprofit assess and improve its organizational effectiveness and performance, including annotated bibliographies.

Visitors to the site can take an online survey, and receive an email showing their score and recommending steps to make their organization more effective, such as tying each aspect of the organization to its mission.

Visitors also can use the site to measure and improve the performance of their organizations in a broad range of issues, including ethics and accountability; mission statement; monitoring external conditions; planning, leadership and management; examining the organization’s structure and how it meshes with its goals; human-resources management; internal and external communications; performance evaluation; and information technology.

The new tool, which costs $375 and is designed to track change in leadership behavior, features online courses and workplace mentors and observers.

Nonprofit professionals initially complete an online assessment to determine which aspects of leadership they need to work on through the curriculum, which they can pursue at any time and at their own pace, Gray says.

Based on the results of the assessment, the nonprofit professional is directed to courses contained in 58 modules that can be downloaded and are organized by categories such as “effective personal relationships,” “develop staff and volunteers,” “advocacy,” and “focus on benefactors and stakeholders.”

Participants who take the program with staff, board members or volunteers at their nonprofit serving as mentor and observers can earn a Certified Executive Leader, or CEL, certification.

Critical modules of the new tool that typically are not included in leadership programs, Gray says, focus on advocacy and the “inner work of leadership.”

The advocacy module, she says, “helps people become stronger advocates for what’s needed within their organization, their community and for those who do not have a voice.”

The toughest part of leadership can be “self-development,” she says.

“It takes time to be reflective and build the capacity to minimize stress and to walk through challenges and to be visionary and to help you get the help you need from whatever sources to achieve the goals,” she says. “For one to develop optimally as a leader, one needs to work on this inner component.”

Centerpoint also is considering both becoming a membership organization, with a nominal fee and discounts on its services, and launching a “civil society fellows program” that would that would train people from business, government and nonprofits in local communities to work together on local issues.

The program, which would not begin before 2006 and still is seeking funding, would consist of four three-day weekend sessions a year over two years for up to three teams of three people each from each sector in a single community.

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