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Betting on the Jockey

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

When I moved to Pittsburgh in 2015 I needed to get my bearings and scheduled interviews with a number of people knowledgeable in different aspects of the nonprofit landscape. One observation in particular has stuck with me – “Here in Pittsburgh, [funders] bet on the jockey, not on the horse.” It turned out to be true. In this city, foundation cash and attention often follows executive directors or trusted talent as opposed to the broader staff and mission.

We all take this approach sometimes – using the person in front as proxy for the whole. We buy the grill because the celebrity selling it made great choices on the athletic field, or we vote for the candidate because we trust their background, even if we haven’t fully understood their platform. That said, focusing attention and resources on leadership as opposed to the whole organization has serious negative impacts for those on each side.

One consequence is that organizational attention shifts from the mission or role to stewarding a personality, particularly when the leader is gifted at attracting money and press attention. Employees can take less responsibility for their contributions and may fixate instead on their relationship with power, positive or negative. At the same time the leader often feels isolated and burdened with unreasonable expectations. In her book “Emergent Strategy”, adrienne maree brown describes her journey as one of a group of charismatic movement leaders – “People stopped seeing us. We became a place to project longings and critiques. We lost touch with the fact that it’s ok to make mistakes…It becomes its own work, maintaining and promoting the rock star in the organization.”

These dynamics are damaging at a personal and interpersonal level but at worst, and in most cases, also actively discourage nonprofit mission accomplishment. I’ve heard of many groups that want to build capacity or quality of life for a community of many – I’ve not heard of one nonprofit with a mission of raising up a single individual. How can we build a world where marginalized voices are amplified if we can’t even do it within our staff? How can we sustain our efforts for the length of time change needs if we tie all the key relationships and reputation to one person? Inside nonprofit organizations, we need to model what we believe – constantly looking for upskilling opportunities and ways to share leadership. Freely recognizing the gifts and acknowledging the limitations of individuals at every level. Determinedly distinguishing between people and the roles they fill.

If you’re a philanthropist, adrienne maree brown has a diagnosis to watch out for. “If…your primary relationship with those you fund is with the ED, if you have not had a meaningful conversation with other staff members or community members, you may be stricken with charismitis – relational laziness induced by charismatic brilliance.” The obvious remedy is to develop some ways to get to know the horse. Look at leaders - but save your bets for systems.

jockeys racing horses

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