Have you ever watched the reality show Undercover Boss? In the show, a CEO or another high-ranking corporate executive leaves behind his or her corner office and works alongside his or her low-level employees. These CEOs hear stories of individuals who juggle multiple jobs or single parenthood. Despite these challenges, these individuals perform their work with passion and integrity. The undercover boss becomes inspired by this individual’s work ethic and usually provides monetary assistance to reward him or her. This experience allows the executive to empathize with his or her employee base as he or she understands the challenges and motivations of his or her workforce. Ultimately, these undercover bosses become servant leaders – a leader that listens, understands, and responds to the needs of their employees. This same mentality and style of leadership can apply to philanthropy.

What is a servant leader?

Servant leaders approach their roles from a position of service. These leaders step into the offices, shelters, and community centers of the individuals they serve. They listen and respond to their needs. As leaders, these individuals enter into partnerships from an inquisitive position. They ask questions and put aside any preconceived notions of an individual’s or organization’s needs. The servant leader recognizes and celebrates the differences of the individuals his or her organization supports. They inspire and empower beneficiaries to provide for themselves in a way that allows them to reach self-fulfillment and independence.

Why does servant leadership matter?

In an age when everyone wants to be a thought leader or influencer, it’s less common to encounter an individual with humble motivations to lead. Servant leaders refreshingly respond to the needs of their subordinates while placing their needs on a back burner. These leaders empower the individuals in which they serve. They provide these individuals with the tools necessary to build lives they are proud to live.

Not only will the individual served benefit from a renewed sense of hope and trust, the servant leader will also benefit as he or she develops more holistically. Servant leaders live virtuously and incorporate their passions and values into their work. When passion and work align, great progress and change occurs.

As funders who seek to create sustainable and lasting change, the best way to accomplish this change is through servant leadership. Our nonprofits will more effectively and efficiently accomplish their missions. Additionally, they will view the funder as a valued partner.

How do we act as servant leaders?

1. Listen

Go out into the communities in which your organization serves and listen to your beneficiaries. Learn their stories and determine how your foundation serves their unique needs. You may meet these needs either through funding or another form of support. (Read our blog and guide about how to provide support beyond funds).

2. Provide others with decision-making capabilities

By providing individuals other than executives with decision-making abilities, you display a level of trust and respect. This capability will diversify your decision making. Furthermore, it allows your organization to develop even more powerful responses to current social and environmental challenges.

3. Practice empathy

Inquire about the lives and backgrounds of the individuals you serve. Enter into partnerships from a place of understanding, trust, and openness. Allow each partnership to be a learning opportunity to more effectively provide funding that improves lives and empowers change from within.

Robert Greenleaf, the founder of the Servant Leadership movement asked, “do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will he benefit, or, at least, will he not be further deprived?”

As servant leaders, we must consider the entire spectrum of our beneficiaries’ needs. We must ensure they grow and prosper as individuals and organizations. We know we will succeed when they in turn become servant leaders themselves. To learn more about servant leadership & philanthropy, click here.

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