American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault means business when it comes to investing in leadership. Known for his commitment to leadership development within the company, Chenault and his company’s philanthropy arm have always had a commitment to the nonprofit sector.

“The nonprofit sector is growing and the need for nonprofit leaders is growing,” says Richard Brown, vice president of Philanthropy at American Express. “But investing in leadership is difficult for nonprofit organizations.”

To help nonprofits overcome hurdles to leader development, American Express provided the needed funding and its business expertise with CCL providing customized leadership development training. Four years later, the American Express Nonprofit Leadership Academy has helped more than 300 emerging leaders in not-for-profit organizations build the personal, business and leadership skills needed to run and lead a successful organization.

Richard Brown of American Express interacts with a small group at the White House Nonprofit Forum.
Richard Brown of American Express interacts with a small group at the White House Nonprofit Forum.

Emerging leaders from community, environmental, international relief and cultural organizations are nominated to attend the weeklong Leadership Academy, held at American Express headquarters in New York City.

During the program, senior executives from American Express provide training in career development, business strategy, customer service, brand management and marketing. CCL works with participants on the skills they need to lead more effectively. Through 360-degree assessments, information sessions and interactive exercises, they gain insight and start to build new skills. Leaders meet one-to-one with an executive coach, hear from guest speakers (such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) and take time for goal setting and action planning. A highlight of the week is the Authentic Leadership discussion led by CEO Chenault.

When the week is over, participants have access to online networking tools, webinars, coaching calls, goal checkpoints and a one-year review of their process. They can also apply for a continuing education grant for additional coaching and other learning opportunities.

“The commitment and collaboration from American Express has been extraordinary,” says Shera Clark, manager of CCL’s nonprofit work. “It is clear this is a personal and institutional commitment, not just a chance to write a check to a deserving nonprofit.”

While the Leadership Academy has become “the signature program of the company’s grant-making efforts,” according to Brown, American Express is determined to push for more of what is needed — and what is possible — when it comes to developing nonprofit leaders. The company is supporting research [see sidebar] and offering localized leadership programs in England and India, where it has business operations.

In November 2011, over 200 cross-sector leaders joined Chenault and Brown, along with CCL’s CEO John Ryan, at the White House Forum on Nonprofit Leadership in Washington, DC. The Forum launched The Initiative for Nonprofit Talent and Leadership, which aims to better prepare, train and sustain leaders to constructively and collaboratively address the complex challenges our society faces.

“Through the Forum and the Initiative, American Express is able to be part of the bigger conversation about developing nonprofit leaders,” says Brown.

Meanwhile, the company will continue its “stellar” relationship with CCL, with two more years of the Leadership Academy in the works. “It is critical that we continue to invest in and train emerging nonprofit leaders,” Brown stresses. “Our commitment to the Leadership Academy is ongoing.”

What’s Next for Nonprofits?

The shape of the nonprofit sector is shifting as needs emerge and missions evolve. Faced with complex socio-economic challenges and limited funds, nonprofits will need a strong pipeline of emerging leaders to deliver innovative services well into the future, according to a new report by American Express and CCL.

The report, Emerging Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations: Myths, Meaning and Motivations, is based on responses from 3,874 leaders in the U.S. surveyed by CCL from 2008 to 2011. It also draws on small group interviews involving more than 50 nonprofit leaders and graduate students with experience in the sector.

“Boards and funders often balk at spending admittedly precious dollars on something as intangible as leadership and talent development,” says CCL’s Kelly Hannum, a senior research scientist and one of the report authors. “This report provides insight and guidance to help the nonprofit sector break out of that mind-set and build greater leadership capacity at all levels.”

Emerging Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations: Myths, Meaning and Motivations. Access the full report for details about the research and practical advice that nonprofits can put to use immediately in building their leadership pipelines.

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