Here's How Alaska is Building a Pipeline of Innovative Nonprofit Leaders

The Anchorage-based Rasmuson Foundation has announced New Pathways, an initiative to enable growth and boost innovation across Alaska's nonprofit arts community by building executive leadership skills.

As cliche as it sounds, success within any nonprofit organization begins at the top. And while it would be nice for every organization to be blessed with a visionary and experienced leader, these types of executives can be difficult to find, particularly in emerging or underdeveloped areas of the country. As a result, nonprofit arts organizations, much like their for-profit counterparts, are faced with the classic "build or buy" question.

On one hand, innovation, financial acumen, and strong leadership can be built or taught at the graduate level and on the job. On the other hand, organizations can simply "buy" the talent from elsewhere. There's no shortage of accomplished nonprofit executives who'd be willing to move across the country to accept a pay raise and a new challenge.

The case of Alaska, however, is a unique one. Many aspects of the state's arts scene are still in their formative stages. There isn't a deep "leadership bench" across the state, especially compared to places like New York or Chicago. Sure, it can be easier, at least in the short term, to poach executives from elsewhere, but there's only so much money organizations can offer. And Alaska needs as many executives as it can get. Its population is expected to surge from 700,000 in 2010 to just under a million by 2030.

Ultimately, Alaska's nonprofit arts community was left with no choice but to build its leadership bench, and so with some help from the Rasmuson Foundation, it created New Pathways. And how, exactly, does one build a leadership pipeline from scratch? The first critical step was to assemble community stakeholders. The Alaska Council on the Arts, for example, is one of the preeminent organizations of its kind in the state. Yet no single entity could do it alone, so other nonprofit groups like EmcArts and the Foraker Group were brought on board.

Next, stakeholders identified the ways and means by which participants could "learn" innovation. Programs include a sequence of nine virtual workshops, three face-to-face forums, and on-site coaching. And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention cold, hard cash. Thanks to the foundation, New Pathways offers "Continuing Innovation" capital grants of up to $75,000 for selected organizations. 

Lastly, the stakeholders established guidelines and submission rules. The program is open to all Alaska arts organizations and winners will be announced across two cohorts. The first, which will kick off in 2014, is still accepting applications, and the aforementioned activities will be rolled out across three years. Organizations may submit for the second cohort beginning in May 2015. 

For a more California-centric look at what constitutes a nonprofit "leader" check out IP's take on the Irvine Foundation's work in this area here.