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Podcast | How Servant-Leadership Can Boost Philanthropy

In this episode of the Go Beyond Fundraising podcast, we spoke with Evan Wildstein about his new book, The Nonprofiteer’s Fundraising Field Guide: 30 Practical Ways to Boost Philanthropy Through Servant-Leadership. In it, he lists the 10 traits of a true servant-leader. The core philosophy is that to hold up others, you must also take steps to support yourself.

Servant leadership is a concept that’s often reduced to a simple definition of putting others first. But based on Wildstein’s review of the existing body of work on the topic, it can be an incomplete view. The word “servant” describes a type of leadership. That’s why author and self-proclaimed nonprofiteer Evan Wildstein always adds a hyphen. “Servant-leader” puts equal emphasis on each word. You’re both a servant and a leader.

The book’s goal is to show how learning about and practicing servant-leadership can boost philanthropy and help nonprofits grow their missions. 


The Origins of Servant-Leadership

The idea of servant leadership originated with Robert Greenleaf, a long-time in-house management consultant at AT&T. According to lore, company executives kept trying to promote him to senior-level positions. But what Greenleaf really enjoyed was “gardening people” — making everyone around him better.

Greenleaf retired in 1964 and began his second career as a writer, thought leader, and consultant. In 1970, his ground-breaking essay, “The Servant as Leader,” was published. It was here that he suggested that the best leaders are servants first. His work is continued through the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

What set Greenleaf’s work apart was a focus on concepts like listening, empathy, and healing. Other thought leaders like Brené Brown, Jim Collins, and Simon Sinek have built upon this work in their research and writings on leadership. 


The 10 Traits of Servant-Leadership

Greenleaf identified 10 traits of servant-leadership, which Wildstein discusses in his book:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Foresight
  6. Persuasion
  7. Conceptualization
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of people
  10. Building community

Wildstein considers these traits as cyclical — they start over as you grow your team. But he says another way to look at them is with a continuum mindset. In this case, conceptualization would come first.

Conceptualization is about taking a step back to see what can be improved upon so you can pinpoint the ultimate outcome that you’re trying to achieve. Then, you would work your way through the list, from listening to building community.

By approaching servant-leadership as a continuum, Wildstein says it becomes an exercise that you can do with your team, your board, or other stakeholders. 


The Impact of Servant-Leadership on Burnout

Burnout has become a hot topic over the last few years, especially in the nonprofit sector. With fundraisers being asked to do more with less, many are foregoing vacation days to work. They’re guided by the intrinsic feeling that if they don’t lead the work, those who benefit from the organization won’t be served.

Wildstein says this is where conceptualization can be especially helpful. Say you only have two program officers, but you’re serving a community that could really use four. Through conceptualization, you would sit back and ask, “What are we passionate about?” Then, the work becomes finding a way to equitably reach that moment.

By practicing the 10 traits or behaviors as a continuum, you identify a systemic issue to address. If your team is short-handed, in what areas can you scale back? Don’t look for major cuts — rather, try to find two or three practical changes. 


Servant-Leadership as a Verb

Ultimately, servant-leadership is for everyone. It’s also action-oriented. Everyone in your organization can use their influence for good. Remember, not all leaders manage people — and we all know managers who aren’t leaders.

In addition, not everyone on your team will possess all 10 traits of a servant-leader. What’s important is that you make space in your organization for each person to come in with their different strengths. And then, look for ways that you can develop the other traits within your team. In the end, the community you build will continue growing.

Want to hear more? Listen to the full episode:


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