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Transforming Leaders

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Byline: Evelin Montes

As Deputy Director of Training at Liberty Hill, I'm pleased to report on the recently-concluded second year of the Wally Marks Leadership Institute for Change,

The Leadership Institute, named for the late Wally Marks, a longtime Board member and dedicated supporter of emerging grassroots organizations, grew out of an understanding that community-based groups need targeted technical assistance as well as access to experts in order to accelerate their growth and effectiveness. The program combines in-depth hands-on training, peer learning, and one-on-one coaching to build skills and improve organizations. The Leadership Institute focuses on four core skills for advancing social justice: community organizing, board development, communications, and grassroots fundraising. In its first year, the Leadership Institute invited 82 grassroots leaders from 33 community groups to participate in workshops and receive one-on-one coaching.

In its second year, Liberty Hill's staff redesigned aspects of the Institute program based on a rigorous evaluation of Year One. In Year Two, we brought together a smaller group—46 grassroots leaders representing 15 organizations along with coaches assigned to each group—to participate in a three-day retreat-style intensive training experience.  Each organization's team included at least one "senior decision-maker," and each team was charged with emerging from the retreat with an action plan to be implemented with the collaboration of a designated coach over the next six months.

The capacity-building goals each team developed during the training were the goals the leaders worked on with their coaches. Participation in the work by senior decision-makers ensured that important discoveries about improving an organization's effectiveness could be put into action.

In addition to the retreat-style session, there were two additional gatherings for participants to strategize and learn from each other's experiences.

From the beginning of the Institute, it was clear that training should be combined with guidance in implementation of new strategies. We had heard from our grantees and trainers over the years that no matter how inspiring and innovative a training is, the biggest challenge is the implementation of new strategies once one gets back to the office and faces the reality of their day-to-day work load. Indeed, applying lessons learned from a training without an action plan is extremely difficult and at times even futile.

So Liberty Hill's Leadership Institute has a strong emphasis on goal setting and action planning at the training retreat combined with six months of coaching and peer strategy sessions to build the capacity of participants and allow them to do for themselves what a hired consultant would normally be paid to do.

I’ve been witness to many transformative moments during my work with the Leadership Institute. For example, having coaches on-site during the training session forces participants to talk about their organization and reflect on their successes and challenges. So I watched, during the Board Development track, as more than one executive director realized that her/his group's board members were truly committed fundraisers, and that the solution to ineffectiveness in that area wasn’t to change the board but to have the staff equip the board with better information for the pitches.

Another transformative moment for many participants was coming to terms with the fact that long-term planning is an important step to becoming more strategic. The retreat-style training over a course of three days really allowed individuals  time to assess, reflect, evaluate and be exposed to new best practices.

Though the coaches led parts of the training, they were most helpful in the breakout sessions to assist the organizations in working through the training materials and they helped integrate what was being taught in the training into what the organization was actually doing.

What makes our training program different from others is that we bring together community organizing groups committed to social change and provide them a skill-set to make their organizations more efficient and effective in carrying out their missions. Those of us directing the Institute know from firsthand experience that just because you are a community organizer whose title has changed from, say, "lead organizer" to "executive director," it does not mean that— “Voila!”— you will wake up with the ability to manage a board of directors, delegate work, or fundraise.

So Liberty Hill recruits experts in community organizing, board development, communications and grassroots fundraising who not only have valuable experience, but also share a commitment to the Wally Marks Leadership Institute for Change vision of advancing social justice by strengthening the infrastructure and skills of community organizing groups on the frontlines of change.

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