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The Age of the Strategic Follower

A few years ago I was introduced to my now favorite TED Talk: Derek Sivers on “How to start a movement.” In two minutes he explains how a movement starts using some amusing footage of a spontaneous dance group. If you haven’t seen it, it is worth the break. What captivated me was his conclusion—and it wasn’t about the leader.

Rightly, much has been made of the importance of leadership—be it in business, government, nonprofits, or online. In the nonprofit sector, starting with the dooms-day scenario of mass baby-boom retirements that was the rage in the early 2000’s, through today’s steady drumbeat of leadership training and development, leadership is on the minds of philanthropic sector professionals.

What is largely missing from the conversation is a slightly different leadership conversation, highlighted effectively in the TED Talk (spoiler alert: it’s the first follower): how do you develop the skills and strategies to be a good follower? Such a question requires some radical rethinking of roles and responsibilities in philanthropy. While many espouse a “don’t reinvent the wheel” approach or even indicate that philanthropic giving is all about following by giving support to nonprofit leaders doing the work – leadership, leading, piloting, jumpstarting, and demonstrating remain the dominant paradigm for exciting developments in the sector.

The article When Families Lead Themselves Out of Poverty by David Bornstein in the New York Times quoted Lim Miller, a leader in the field of social services saying, “all of us who want to make a difference need to learn how to be follower leaders — to use our positions and our privilege and access to money in a way that actually bolsters the initiative that the families take. But not to lead. It’s hard to stand back and trust families”. The same could be said of a number of different outcome goals. Vu Le, the nonprofit director and humorist (, once said, “I’d like to propose we skip the next several iterations of Capacity Building and get back to basic with Capacity 9.0: Fund People To Do Stuff And Get the Hell Out Of Their Way, or FPTDSAGTHOOTW for short”. It stung when I first read it, particularly as the 9.0 reference was in response to a paper I had helped author on how capacity building had changed. On reflection, however, I realized that in his wonderful, humorous way he was underscoring a key argument of capacity building in an ecosystem environment—that organizations, including (or especially) funders, need to figure out not just where they fit, but how to support and follow others around them. In other words, lead where you are best positioned and be a good and strategic follower where others are best positioned to lead.

We at TCC Group recently grappled with this in regard to how do we respond to horrific events like what happened in Charlottesville. We set aside some time to discuss how, in the future, we could respond to events that horrified or moved us as an organization in ways that were authentic, reflected a commitment to our values and would not be self-serving. We discussed how we were inspired by the statements that some of our colleagues in the field had put out and that in some instances our best contribution as an organization would be to lift up and further amplify the words of others, something we created a policy to do. This isn’t “the right” approach, but one where we considered how we could be a good follower for others speaking out and doing great work that we admire.

If you are on social media, chances are you have given some thought to your “following” strategy. Perhaps it is time to elevate the “following strategy” conversation in our discussions about leadership skills and investment at a broader scale. Perhaps we can commit to being active followers and celebrating that role. Leadership is, and always will be, a critical aspect of making the world a better place and we need to continue to support and resource new and existing leaders. Let’s add to the bank of resources a cadre of well-prepared, thoughtful, and strategic followers.

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