Academy helps emerging leaders from international nonprofits

Nonprofit leaders and managers study organizational charts

Vanessa Chauhan wants to eradicate all forms of human trafficking.

Mera Granberg works hard to turn archeological sites into economic assets.

Aaron Walling has dedicated his career to supplying children in South Asia with clean drinking water.

What these three individuals have in common – beyond their desire to help others – is the fact that the nonprofit world often lacks leadership development; all three came to Arizona to receive guidance and training.

The seventh annual American Express Leadership Academy, held May 18-22 at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, provided the tools for Chauhan, Granberg, Walling and 27 other representatives from 10 international nonprofits and social-sector organizations to become more effective in their roles as emerging leaders and build their global networks.  

“The social sector suffers from a fundamental shortage of leadership, and they have a very thin pipeline,” said Dr. Mary Teagarden, a professor of global strategies at Thunderbird who developed the course curriculum seven years ago.

“They’re in a sector where corporate development doesn’t happen. This academy gives them a chance to step back and take stock, start breathing a little bit, and go back to their organizations rejuvenated.”

The academy is funded through American Express’ Corporate Social Responsibility program with a three-year $750,000 grant. Participants engage in team exercises, case studies, class discussion and leadership style evaluation – the Global Mindset Inventory assessment, which is used to measure the Global Mindset profile of each member.

The program is practical and interactive, and it can be immediately implemented into the workplace.

“We’ve been around as an organization for about five years, and we’re at an interesting place in our critical development,” said Granberg, director of development at the Los Angeles-based Sustainable Preservation Initiative, which seeks to preserve cultural heritage by providing sustainable economic opportunities to poor communities around the world in which archeological sites are located.

“We can no longer manage our business in an ad-hoc, ‘I’ll get ya on the phone’ kind of way any longer. Thunderbird is helping us create structure so that we can grow.”

The selection process for academy participants is rigorous and strategic, according to Dr. Doug Hoxeng, Thunderbird program director for the American Express Leadership Academy. Executives must propose a project for their team to develop while at the academy.

“Each team project must have the potential for significant results within the team’s organization and benefits for those the organization serves,” Hoxeng said. “During the academy, our faculty provides thought leadership and coaching to each organizational team to turn insight and good intentions into meaningful outcomes.”

Walling said his lightbulb moment came in a May 18 academy class called “The Business Case for Servant Leadership.”

“Oftentimes in the nonprofit sector, we tend to take a soft approach to things when we need to be a bit more forceful in our leadership,” said Walling, who is the South Asia manager for Splash, a social-justice organization that focuses on children in need of clean water at institutions in urban areas of Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, India and Nepal.

“I certainly saw this as an area where I could improve.”

Walling said his organization is making strides in providing clean water to children in schools, children’s hospitals, orphanages and shelters. They do this through a variety of measures, including water-filter systems, hygiene education, sustainable sanitation and innovation. 

Chauhan works for Polaris, which serves victims and survivors of human trafficking internationally. She said the academy helped her realize her organization’s biggest deficiency is the lack of data and getting Americans to understand that the crime also hits close to home.

“Data is a big need in this field because there’s not many numbers on human trafficking,” Chauhan said. “It’s a very covert crime and goes underreported. It gets conflated with other issues. With data, we can find trends, see if we’re dealing with the same people and identify recruitment tactics.

“It’s also been issued as a crime that takes place somewhere else, like Southeast Asia … that it’s somebody else’s problem. In order to show it’s happening in the United States, you have to show it’s happening in their communities.”

Teagarden said that the results of the academy are impactful on an individual and organizational level. Many participants are given higher levels of responsibility from their organization’s senior leadership soon after the Thunderbird Academy experience.

“At its core, we’re making a big difference because the people who graduate from here move up in their organizations and get promoted quickly,” Teagarden said. “We’re building their individual talents but we’re also building a resource network for them because they have 29 other people in the class to tap into.”

With the May 2015 academy completed, more than 200 emerging leaders have participated at Thunderbird in this program since its inception in 2009.

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