A decade ago, Aspen Leadership Group (ALG) started its journey of supporting exceptional careers in philanthropy. From the beginning, ALG has relied on a foundational ethos of Relationships Matter to guide its endeavors and work in strengthening the advancement profession, enhancing philanthropy’s impact on society, and partnering with nonprofit organizations to build diverse teams and inclusive cultures that enable them to engage all their potential stakeholders and raise their largest gifts.
ALG’s ethos of Relationships Matter remains as deeply infused in its day-to-day work as it was a decade ago, and its success is owed to those who make up the ALG Community; our executive search and team-building partners, our Philanthropy Career Network members, our peers who engage with and contribute to our thought leadership on the ever-changing landscape of philanthropy, and all those with whom we have been lucky enough to form enduring and productive relationships across experience levels and backgrounds.
In gratitude for the ALG Community, and in reflecting on the past decade, the entire ALG team is looking forward to what the next decade will bring. ALG Co-Founders, Ronald Schiller and Jeff Hanavan share their answers to 10 Questions for 10 Years – inviting you to reflect, look ahead, and celebrate with us.
“In the years and decades ahead, we will continue to expand our impact on leadership in the field…”
What inspired you to found Aspen Leadership Group a decade ago?
We love working with philanthropic people and those who facilitate their generosity. We felt that there was room in the marketplace for a firm, focused on searches in the world of philanthropy, that approached search in two fundamentally different ways than other firms: advancement peers would lead searches, able to talk in greater detail and depth with clients and candidates; and the focus would be on the future rather than the past—on what advancement professionals want to accomplish in their career rather than on what they have done in the past. To accomplish this, we had to hire highly effective and experienced fundraising leaders to be our lead search consultants, and we had to build our own software in which candidates would be in charge of their own materials and their own profiles. We strongly believed that there were new and powerful ways to have a positive impact on the non-profit sector using software.
How has ALG evolved from your founding vision?
Our founding vision remains the same, but we found that we first needed to establish ourselves as a known brand with a focus on search. In the years and decades ahead, we will continue to expand our impact on leadership in the field—with search at the core, but with more attention to the preparation and support of leaders. We continue to have far too much turnover in the advancement profession, including in leadership roles, and our vision is to do much more than place people into these positions, helping them be much better prepared as they step into positions, and providing more support once they get there.
What advice would you have given yourself a decade ago?
Buy stock in Zoom! We were on the Zoom platform from the beginning, long before most other people had heard of Zoom. Who knew it would become part of just about everyone’s weekly if not daily life?
What is your proudest moment in the decade since ALG was founded?
There have been so many. But they have all been about seeing the impact of our work on people’s lives – starting with the impact on the lives of our own ALG colleagues, to the impact on career trajectories of old and new friends in the profession, to the impact of their work on the constituents that their nonprofit organizations serve. Watching, for example, the ability of the All Stars Project, Inc. to expand their impact across the country, and knowing that we were able to play a part in shaping their philanthropic team and culture, has been immensely rewarding.
Tell us about one of your favorite “firsts” at ALG!
Our first client, Tom Herbert, who has now become a member of our team, ten years later! Early on, the team adopted Relationships Matter as our core value statement. Our relationship with Tom led to his becoming our first client, to his referring us for one of our first vice presidential searches, his hiring us repeatedly over the course of ten years, and eventually to his selecting ALG as his new home after retiring from his service in the role of chief development officer. He is now working with clients and candidates with whom he has built relationships over decades, and he is investing in new relationships, all rooted in his love of the advancement profession and desire to help philanthropists make their best contribution.
What is one standout lesson you’ve learned from the past decade?
Trust can get you through a lot of big challenges. Starting a business is difficult – financially, intellectually, and emotionally. The trust between us as partners, and among Shelley, Michael, Tim, Anne, Susan, and the many who’ve joined us since those earliest days was and is the #1 ingredient—by far—in whatever success we’ve had.
What would you say is ALG’s biggest accomplishment?
What is ALG’s most important contribution to the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors?
We’ve only just begun. We hope that we have helped advance the profession through our emphasis on valuing relationships over transactions, and through our many efforts to encourage and support the nonprofit sector in building more inclusive cultures.
What would you consider to be the biggest change in the industry?
The biggest change is in the explosive growth in the use of quantitative metrics without the harder work of establishing and implementing qualitative metrics. Nonprofits are under tremendous pressure to increase fundraising revenue to replace other revenue streams that cannot grow fast enough to keep up with costs, and fundraising leaders are under pressure to deliver short-term results that increasingly threaten the overall value that is derived from long-term relationships. Larger gifts meet short-term goals faster than smaller gifts, but smaller gifts lead to larger gifts over time. Visiting more donors leads to a higher volume of gifts in the short-term, but building deeper relationships built on shared beliefs and mutual objectives leads to much greater giving over time. The pressure to meet often-unrealistic short-term objectives also leads to greater burnout and turnover, which further reduces the potential to build the highest-value long-term philanthropic partnerships that will be required to sustain nonprofits over time. Part of our job is to put a spotlight on those who take the time to invest in relationships and partnerships—internally and externally—and on the return on those investments, which is not only financial, but also reputational and, ultimately, a return that increases impact on society.
Where do you see ALG going in the next decade?
We will go deeper, rather than broader, to have an even greater impact on the profession through preparing, placing, and supporting advancement professionals and other nonprofit leaders who believe in the power of philanthropy to improve all of our lives. The world of philanthropy continues to change, and Aspen Leadership Group will engage an ever-larger, ever-more-diverse community of advancement professionals, other nonprofit leaders, volunteers, and philanthropists to identify and foster the skills and workplace cultures—existing and new—that will be needed to sustain and strengthen the impact of philanthropy on all of society.
Aspen Leadership Group thanks you for being a part of our journey. We are thrilled to continue our work in partnership with the extensive network of experienced leaders that comprise the ALG community and look forward to the many decades to come.