Proximate Leadership: What Is It, and Why Does it Matter?

If you work in education, there’s a term you may have been hearing more and more recently: “proximate leadership.” While this term is becoming increasingly common, its meaning and importance are not commonly understood. To better define proximate leadership and why it matters, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation engaged in a targeted research project with education strategy and policy organization Education First.

Below is a summary of Education First’s research findings, as well as an interview with Gates Foundation leaders on the subject of proximate leadership. The full research product, including citations, is here

Education First uncovered the following findings in its research:

  • Proximate leadership is multi-dimensional and vaguely defined. The research on organizational leadership is surprisingly vague on the definition of proximate leadership in the nonprofit sector and the field of education. Studies tend to focus on diversity, a term that blurs together types of leader difference and their proximity to the population the organization serves. We uncovered three common, though often implicit, definitions of organization leaders’ proximity to the populations their organizations serve, which have significant intersectionalities. We found that leaders are proximate through shared experiences, identities, and/or geographic communities with their populations served. 
    • Shared lived experience. This type of proximate leadership is clearly defined in the literature. Proximate leaders who have lived experience have been directly, personally shaped by the social issue(s) that impact their organizations’ primary population(s). They have knowledge, insights and expertise because they’ve lived it. For example, a leader who has experienced homelessness running a nonprofit organization focused on providing after-school tutoring for homeless youth. 
    • Shared identity. While not formally defined as such, the literature and discourse on proximate leadership often implicitly define proximate leaders as those who share one or more of their identities with their population served, like race or gender. For example, a woman-identifying leader running a nonprofit organization focused on STEM education for girls.  
    • Shared place. Another implicit definition is shared place: some leaders are proximate by virtue of them growing up in or currently living in (for a significant period of time) the geographic community of the population served. For example, a person born and raised in New Orleans running a New Orleans-based education nonprofit.
  • Organizations led by proximate leaders are stronger. Studies in the for-profit sector show over and over again that more diverse organizations (typically defined by race and gender who are proximate by shared identity) perform better financially. There is also emerging evidence from the for- and non-profit sectors that proximate leaders are more innovative, better at problem-solving, have higher employee satisfaction and retention rates and are able to attract top talent.
  • Proximate leaders face significant challenges. Only 11% of funder investments in the U.S. are directed to social sector organizations led by people of color, often proximate to their populations served through shared identity and/or shared lived experience. The data tell a story of a stark gap in leadership, funding and networking opportunities for proximate leaders, which results in limited access to resources, influential relationships and promotional opportunities to support mission-driven work. 

These findings have sparked a lot of conversation within the Gates Foundation and among other funders. Education First’s principal consultant Lisa Towne had the opportunity to sit down with Isa Ellis, the Senior Program Officer on the Pathways team and Ellie Klein, Program Manager in the Office of the President for the US Program to hear their perspectives on how this research came to be, what they’ve learned and how it’s shifting their work.

EDUCATION FIRST: Let’s start with you, Isa. Why did you commission this research?

Isa: As a Senior Program Officer on the Pathways team at the foundation, I am focused on expanding and creating more quality education and career pathways that lead to economic opportunity and upward mobility for student populations that have been most historically marginalized by system inequities, specifically Black and Latino students and students experiencing poverty. This work involves partnering with and investing in organizations that can drive improved outcomes for students, but too often the usual suspects–those organizations and/or leaders who are most familiar to funders–are tapped for these opportunities and those leaders most proximate to the population we want to serve are overlooked or engaged in extractive ways. 

I try to find prospective partners with a deep understanding of the complexity of the work who demonstrate impact with our target populations and are well-positioned to expand that impact.  Intuitively, I knew that these partners may likely be proximate to their population served, but I was not clear what exactly it meant to be proximate, and more specifically, how this proximity influenced the impact of their organizations.

EDUCATION FIRST: Ellie, tell us about your role and how you came to be a part of the team leading this work.

Ellie: In my previous role as a Measurement, Learning and Evaluation Associate Program Officer on our K-12 team, I was lucky enough to join this work at the tail end as Education First was finishing their research. I immediately saw the resonance in my own life and career, as well as how this research would be helpful in advancing equity work and impact across the foundation.

Early in my career, I worked in education research institutions in D.C. where teams were not staffed with people who were proximate to the populations we were serving. There was always something that struck me as off about that, but I didn’t have the language to express it at the time. In contrast, in my role as an AmeriCorps member in Federal Way, WA, I and other AmeriCorps members were encouraged to live in the same community we were serving, which was a nod to the proximity of shared place; we also had weekly professional development sessions and conversations around shared identity and lived experience and we had a very diverse set of 70 volunteers, many of whom were proximate to the students we served. Those like me who were white and grew up with relatively easy paths to and through college were taught through this program to explicitly acknowledge that we lacked the assets of proximity, and that we needed to maintain awareness of how that could impact our ability to serve students. 

Reflecting on my previous work experience through the lens of the proximate leadership definitions has helped me understand what felt so different between my AmeriCorps experience and some of my work in DC and has given me the language to name proximity or lack thereof when I see it in my work today. I come to my work at the foundation now with the orientation that if we do not seek and elevate the expertise of proximate leaders, we are more likely to ask the wrong research questions and get results that don’t lead to the greatest impact possible.

EDUCATION FIRST: What struck you most about the research findings on proximate leadership?

Isa: The intersectional framework for thinking about what proximate leadership actually is has provided a lens for more nuanced conversations, in contrast to the common default of thinking about proximity as simply meaning minority-led organizations. We need to not only fund a more diverse set of grantees, but also need to think more critically about the assets that proximate leaders hold and how to understand those assets in terms of race/shared identity, place and experience. 

Ellie: I agree. This definitional framework has really resonated with those we have shared it with. When we can break it down in this way, we can start to more intentionally reflect on whose voices we are elevating and how we gather information about grantees. If we don’t see and fund proximate leaders, what do we miss in terms of authentic truth, data, storytelling and impact? We may continue the pattern in philanthropy of underfunding proximate leaders if we do not make space for research and reflection.

EDUCATION FIRST: You’ve both made reference to ways in which this research has shifted your and your colleagues’ thinking. Say more about how you and your colleagues have used these findings at the foundation.

Isa: The research has informed my work in several ways. 

As Ellie and I have both emphasized, it has provided definitional clarity to support conversations about proximate leadership when engaging with colleagues, peers and partners. Since this research was conducted, the Early Learning and Pathways Team decided to center proximate leadership as a core value we wanted to practice and landed on the following definition to guide our actions: We center the humanity, voice, and power of the individuals who we seek to ultimately benefit with our investments. This includes lifting up stories and lived experiences of youth and systems change leaders and seeking their wisdom and input on our strategies and investments.

The research has also helped to inform my partnership strategy. I have decided to more intentionally focus on investing directly in organizations led by proximate leaders. For example, we recently held a RFP process to identify a consulting firm to provide financial analytical support to a cohort of existing partners. There were a number of well-known large national firms that applied, but in the end, the team and I decided to partner with a local New Orleans-based firm that was new to all of us, because the firm not only had the expertise and capabilities to lead the work, but also had a leadership team with shared lived experience and expansive regional and contextual understanding of the systemic inequities and complexities that often get in the way of sustained solutions.

Another example that comes to mind is work that I have done co-leading a learning community of national funders who meet monthly and invite experts from across the field to present and share recommendations on philanthropy’s role in the education and employment pathways space. When generating the speaker list, I make sure we invite and showcase proximate thought leaders and practitioners who are traditionally less seen or heard as peers and experts in the field. This helps bring notoriety to their leadership and work that too often goes unnoticed or under-resourced. 

Ellie: In my work at the foundation, this research has had immediate resonance and applications, and as Isa has already described, it has started popping up in lots of different contexts at the foundation. As mentioned, in our internal research and evaluation work, I see more recognition and action as we seek to recognize the importance of engaging proximate researchers to study the impact of our investments and inform our strategies. Another place I recently saw proximate leadership surface is when the foundation recently had a 20-year anniversary where our previous CEOs came and spoke about the importance of investing in those most proximate to the problems philanthropy seeks to solve. Beyond the Gates Foundation, I am seeing this issue more and more in the sector’s discourse overall: a recent influential SSIR article also makes the case that “Leaders who arise from the communities and issues they serve have the experience, relationships, data, and knowledge that are essential for developing solutions with measurable and sustainable impact.”

EDUCATION FIRST: Let’s end with a look to the future. What are your hopes for how this research will help shape and propel your and the foundation’s equity work going forward?

Isa: When I’ve shared these definitions with other funders and colleagues at the foundation, they immediately resonate: all of them have said that they value proximate leadership, and lots of them are measuring proximity in some way to hold themselves accountable. My hope is that these conversations continue and spread throughout the field of philanthropy. Philanthropy is very relationship-based, so if we don’t have robust measures and aren’t intentional about who we invest in and partner with, we will unconsciously continue to fund the traditionally-funded organizations who are led by non-proximate leaders, the majority of whom are White. I think this is something our sector has been painfully slow to realize, acknowledge and take action on. My hope is that we will continue to see more consensus that this needs to change, and that momentum builds across the funder community–including the foundation–to change it. 

Ellie: My hope is that this research can be used as a gut check and framework for self-reflection leading to improvement. Funders can use this to reflect on: where they and their partners lack proximity; their day-to-day choices in selecting and funding grantees; and the decision-making tables within their philanthropic organizations. I think the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us” is key to understanding the importance of proximate leadership: If a philanthropic organization is truly in support of and in partnership with a community, how does it ensure that the decision-makers in research, funding, and evaluation for that project are proximate to that community in order to achieve the greatest impact? 

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