Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Daring to lead in philanthropy

Written by: on April 11, 2019

Hats off to Jason for putting Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead at the end of another semester of study, smack dab in the middle of when most of us are feeling exhausted, dry, and depleted. I know I am! It’s a great reminder of the qualities that I need to nurture in my own leadership, and of how far I have yet to travel.

At the beginning of this semester, I took on a new challenge in my consultancy work and agreed to assist our local university in its development efforts following the departure of the former president. I stepped outside my comfort zone and agreed to assisting in a bit of a crisis moment for the school. I saw it as a matter of being a good neighbour and raise money for the institution or sit back and watch the university die before your eyes. Our management team had to raise donation revenue and increase fall enrollment. Time was short, and yes, it really was that serious. Board meetings this weekend will determine how successful we have been.

I’m glad I dared to lead, and things seem to be turning around (God willing), but the demands of this semester have messed up my own balance, rhythms, and stability. Sometimes life’s like that. We know what we should do for emotional and spiritual health, but we get off track when surprising demands crop up and life gets way too intense. I say all this to preface this week’s post with the admission that I am depleted. I dropped the self-protective barriers and dared to became vulnerable.

This contrast between armored leadership and daring leadership is one which Brown highlights in her research.[1] Consider the self-protection mechanisms Brown names: perfectionism, numbing, hustling, weaponizing fear, and avoiding. In contrast, she enthuses about the vulnerability of empathy, gratitude, learning, embracing diversity, and leading from the heart. As I read through this section, I was reminded of Richard Rohr and his description of the difference between a false self and the true self. The false self attends to the ego’s needs, and is a voracious consumer, while the true self is learning to let go. Rohr’s true/false selves is another lens to use when considering Brown’s vulnerability approach.

Rohr states, “Meister Eckhart, the German Dominican mystic (c.1260-c.1328), said that spirituality has much more to do with subtraction than it does with addition. Yet our culture, both secular and Christian, seems obsessed with addition: getting rich, becoming famous, earning more brownie points with God or our boss, attaining enlightenment, achieving moral behavior. Jesus and the mystics of other traditions tell us that the spiritual path is not about getting more or getting ahead, which only panders to the ego. Authentic spirituality is much more about letting go—letting go of what we don’t need, although we don’t know that at first…. Once we’re connected to our Source, we know that our isolated, seemingly inferior or superior individual self is not that big a deal. The more we cling to self-importance and ego, the more we are undoubtedly living outside of union.”[2]

I see yet another correlation to Brown’s leadership model in the work of Ronald Heifitz from Harvard Business School. His adaptive leadership approach, like Brown’s, is one that does not seek position nor authority with a command-and-control approach, but rather leads from the side. One of the books I’m reading for my research is Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World. This work encourages the use of Heifitz’ approach as applied to philanthropy. I see this approach as especially well-suited to next generation givers who are the focus of my research.

Adaptive leadership will go against the grain of how philanthropy is normally conducted. The authors state, “Many donors have long tended to adopt a low profile and shy away from controversy. But when they are leading adaptively, they must learn to influence those beyond their control… [T]his work requires a time commitment that is much longer than the typical grant cycle – often requiring years of sustained effort before any conclusive results are known.”[3] Moving into adaptive leadership as a funder requires abandoning one’s reserve and comfortable place of privilege, learning to open up to conversations and opportunities, and becoming part of the solution rather than resting on the sidelines of society writing cheques with lots of zeroes.

“Catalytic donors are inordinately influential – not because they hold the formal authority afforded to leaders who hold a C-suite title at a corporation or a high military rank but because they are adaptive leaders. They see social and environmental problems for what they are – emergent, complex phenomena that require adaptive responses, rather than issues that can be resolves simply by making a grant to a nonprofit.”[4] Philanthropists can be catalytic, but they must dare to lead and not just assume that sending money is enough.


[1] Brené Brown, Dare to Lead (London: Vermillion 2018), 76-77.

[2] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation website, “Letting Go of the False Self”, December 12, 2017, accessed on April 11, 2019, https://cac.org/letting-go-false-self-2017-12-12/.

[3] Leslie Crutchfield, John Kania, and Mark Kramer, Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 160.

[4] Ibid., 220.

About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

12 responses to “Daring to lead in philanthropy”

  1. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thank you, Mark! Wow, for a depleted, dry guy, you sure brought out a rich variety of resources in this blog post! 🙂 I hope you will fill us in with the final report from the board meeting– and how all of your stepping in with vulnerable, yet vital, leadership has turned out. Thanks for your work on this.

    • Well, the result of the board meetings were that we are turning a corner and moving ahead. Thanks be to God.

      This weekend was also filled with our graduation ceremonies and assorted celebrations. And we launched a crowdfunding campaign for the university. After 48 hours we are now at 20% of our target! June 30 is the deadline, and I worked with some large donors who are ensuring that any donations received before then will be tripled.

      I’ve never done this before. It is such a rush and extremely humbling to have a window seat to individual gifts coming in from people you know and people you don’t, as God moves their hearts.

  2. Mike says:

    Congratulations on making it this far with the elite 8’s! Praise the Lord. I’m glad to make this journey with you and our team.
    Thanks for your “hear I am, send me” lived theology by stepping into and assisting the development of your local university. You say you are spent, but how did you like it? Fulfilled, inspired, satisfied? I hear and contextually understand Brown’s vulnerable language but believe that is best shared between me and the Holy Spirit.
    Great post. I like your adaptive leadership for funder discussion. Your ministry to the rich is a niche ministry market, and you are the right leader for the spiritual calling.
    Stand firm,

  3. Jay says:

    Hi Mark!

    Thanks for your honesty, and for your dedication. I will be thinking of you and your board meetings. You are important to us and me!

    I like how you connected this to your dissertation topic. Well done!

    Keep looking up and keep the faith. And rest when you are able, maybe on your next Sabbath, and maybe take a Sabbath from any draining technology as we learned earlier…we don’t want you to burn out.

  4. Great post, Mark!

    Amen! I know exactly what you mean. This past year has been exhausting, challenging, frustrating, and fulfilling, all in one breath. Reading Dare to Lead was the perfect book to end the semester because it reminded us that God uses imperfect people to display His glory.

    I’m a BIG doer. I love to network, grow, attend events, and see LOUD touch lives through different events. However, I have a difficult time sitting still and leaning into the silence.

    You rightly assert, “Authentic spirituality is much more about letting go—letting go of what we don’t need, although we don’t know that at first….” All of us need a solid dose of Marie Kondo – we need to minimize our calendars and minimalize our own expectations for our performance.

    What ways can organizations create more spaces of vulnerability with catalytic donors? How have you stopped from being depleted? I feel like I’m constantly running on empty fumes and barely making it to the gas station sometimes.

    • I’m only a novice in learning how to stop being depleted…! But one thing I’m trying to pay attention to is to say ‘no’ more often, and drawing the line by saying ‘this is enough’. This really helps me get off the hamster wheel and rest.

      I pray your Holy Week will find meaningful connections to lifelines of grace and beauty. xoxo

  5. Dan Kreiss says:


    The ‘seasons’ we have in our lives frequently get in the way of what we anticipate the rhythm to be. These periods of pressure and stress do leave us feeling depleted and exhausted. That is why I find your efforts on behalf of the college so compelling. Your willingness to be vulnerable provides for others and demonstrates leadership that looks completely different from most. I think we can sustain these things temporarily and if we take the long view recognize that they are often short periods that generate unanticipated results if we know how to get off the treadmill when it’s time. I think too often we stay in the stressful place because we enjoy the sense of being needed. I hope that as your season winds down a bit you will get back into a more sustainable mode so that you can reflect on the growth that may have occurred through this most stressful season.

    • Yes, Dan, I agree. I have been a bit annoyed with myself for falling into this ‘season’ of overcommitment, but life IS like that, and if we are living out our commitment to following Jesus, there will be times of depletion. I see it as a short term season, and, boy, am I looking forward to rediscovering fruitful life-giving rhythms again.

      May your Holy Week have space enough for you to pause and listen. Thanks for your friendship.

  6. Jean Ollis says:

    I can’t wait to hear more about your experiences in the higher ed arena. It’s a challenging culture for sure! Kudos to you for adding that to your plate. I am sure you were best person for that role. Your blog was excellent – as always – and pulls together so many excellent thoughts! How will you apply Brown’s concepts to your own personal journey – I sense you already do/have been embracing her work.

  7. Shawn Hart says:

    Mark, your post encouraged me to share something. I used to hate to share any kind of weakness with the church; okay, the fact is…I still do. However, I have started forcing me to do so, because I was frustrated by how few members would let the congregation know that they were sick, having surgeries, or struggling with things in their life. Then, I believe the Holy Spirit slapped me up side the back of my head…He does that from time to time. I had a surgery coming up and was actually trying to figure out how to plan my schedule so that no one would know I was out of commission. There it was!! Well, duh Shawn, if you aren’t willing to drop your guard for them, then how do you expect them to drop their guard for you. I still don’t like it, but I force myself to ask for prayers when I am struggling, sick, weak, or facing surgery (I have 3 scheduled over the next 3 months by the way…please pray for me). It is slow, but I am starting to see little changes in others; they are starting to share more and step out of that comfort zone.

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