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Servant Leadership – what’s in a name?

In a recent discussion of the concept of servant leadership in fundraising, the observation was made that the words, servant leadership, are wrong. The argument presented was, that in the context of a fundraiser’s relationship with a donor (aka philanthropist), the term reinforced an imbalanced, even inappropriate, power dynamic.

The argument also identified that the idea of fundraising being a servant of philanthropy also reinforced an imbalanced relationship. One where philanthropist’s needs are met without question and the fundraiser does as they are told. In this context, the fundraiser is certainly not the leader.

And a suggestion was also put forward that the concepts of relationship fundraising, and philanthropic psychology offered us all that is contributed through the framework of servant leadership. Therefore, servant leadership offered nothing more.

There was recognition that the idea of servant leadership might help donors have different conversations about power and privilege. However, the essence of the argument was that the name, servant leadership, is wrong.

Put simply, I don’t agree. I do understand the overt focus on the word servant. I’ve observed this to be a common reaction over the years that I have studied and spoken about servant leadership. However, the word and the concept warrant deeper examination.

Having been invited to respond to this discussion, I want to try and clarify what I see as a few understandable misunderstandings.

From my reading of the argument put forward, I think the issues and understandings are being conflated. Servant leadership is much more about leadership than fundraising practice. That said, I have argued over decades that it is a relevant leadership framework for fundraising practice. But that’s a different conversation.

So, let’s look at this proposition more closely.

Is the word servant wrong?

I would say no – when we understand the context in which we are having this conversation. And I think that’s been misconstrued as I read the argument that the idea of ‘serving philanthropy’ means doing what the donor wants. It really doesn’t – or at least shouldn’t.

I would offer the view that fundraising being a servant of philanthropy does not mean that the fundraiser is beholden to the donor. That mixes a good explanation of the role of fundraising with a poor understanding of the role of the fundraiser.

Yes, I know that’s not how things always play out. But that is also a different conversation. Or at least one that really isn’t influenced by the focus on the idea of service.

If we truly believe that serving a donor’s interests is ‘doing what are told,’ then I think we have a vocational challenge on our hands. I would argue that meeting the needs of those who give can only be seen as a bigger part of serving a broader set of needs, including communities, beneficiaries, and more. And that definitely doesn’t mean settling, or compliance, or being servile.

Yes, I do understand that there are all sorts of power imbalances in relationships, and that this creates a range of pressures and expectations. Some of which are awkward, and some just plain wrong – and even worse! And these issues absolutely warrant attention, challenge, and change.

However, the ideas around fundraising serving philanthropy and servant leadership don’t reinforce these issues. The opposite would be true if we look past assumptions about the words and dig into the meaning behind the ideas.

And yes, the concepts around relationship fundraising and philanthropic psychology offer excellent insight and understanding of relationships in the context of fundraising. However, servant leadership offers something entirely different from these ideas.

Let’s look more closely at servant leadership

A closer view will help us have a more balanced discussion. To that end, I have offered a few observations on servant leadership.

Servant leadership addresses multiple relationships, so there is greater complexity than just attending to just one relationship element. To spell this out, a servant leader will not just be attending to the needs of a donor, or philanthropist, or whatever we want to call someone who gives some form of support. They will consider communities, beneficiaries, donors, and other stakeholders as a connected system.

Servant leadership is not about being servile, or a mendicant, or about acquiescing to what others want. That’s not service or serving multiple interests and the common good.

Servant leaders say no, make tough calls, and stand in the way when it’s the right thing to do – often when others won’t. Servant leaders will balance humility with a steely resolve. A servant leader is not meek or timid.

And here’s the kicker … servant leadership is about service, not power. Yet, in giving service, there is a key to power in its most positive form.

None of this means that the servant leader is always heard, or acknowledged, or respected. It doesn’t mean that the servant leader doesn’t face challenges, obstacles, discrimination. It doesn’t mean that others who hold power and choose to use it in ways that diminish or distort the experience of others will behave any differently with servant leaders.

However, it does give a leader a way of dealing with those things that challenge us in one way or another. There is a liberation when leadership is not all about you.

In servant leadership, the focus is on others, not the leader. It’s a leadership approach that builds communities, people, and futures. And it’s uncomfortable. It challenges a leader to be focused on more than themselves. To manage their ego. To think beyond the immediate.

Let’s be blunt. The term challenges people. We get uncomfortable about being a servant. I understand the implications in some interpretations. But does that mean the word servant is wrong? In the context of servant leadership, I would say absolutely not.

I suggest reading the literature to examine what the concept of servant leadership is really about – and clearly isn’t. If you haven’t already, then look at the work of Greenleaf, Drucker, Collins, Rosso, De Pree, Heskett, Spears, Grant, among others. In these works, it is evident that idea of being a servant in leadership bears no resemblance to any negative stereotypes of servants or servitude.

And servant leadership is not a one speed leadership framework. It’s not an absolute position. It provides a good platform from which situational leadership responses can be taken or adopted. But it’s not one thing. And it’s certainly not about being meek, nice, or compliant.


Looking to the literature

Peter Drucker identifies “that the leaders who work most effectively, never say or think ‘I,’ they think ‘we’ and they think ‘team’”. He adds that “a leader has responsibility to their subordinates, to their associates” and calls on leaders to “keep your eye on the task, not on yourself … you are a servant.”

Hank Rosso specifically identified the concept of servant leadership and referenced its originator, Robert Greenleaf, explaining that “… he believed that servant leadership tends to draw allegiance from others in response to the clear servant status of the leader. The best leader, in his view, is the one who leads not from power but from primary motivation to serve. Thus, the leader who begins with a genuine desire to serve others is the one who demonstrates sterling qualities of leadership.”

Rosso drew a strong link between servant leadership and fundraising practice with these comments and challenging questions.

“As fundraisers, we are sensitive professionals, not just technical practitioners. We are reflective in our service, and we are servant leaders to the community, to the donors, to the clients who need the services of our organisations. The word servant in this context is not demeaning; it does not diminish our professional image. It does require us to ask ourselves at regular intervals those penetrating questions: Am I doing my job right? Am I fulfilling my responsibility to the institution?

While Rosso specifically addressed a connection between servant leadership and fundraising practice, he did so from a leadership context. It is a context that I would argue remains highly relevant to the question of where fundraising practitioners put themselves in serving a community of interests.

With that perspective in mind, Larry Spears’ identification of servant leadership as bringing “increased service to others, a holistic approach to work, a sense of community, and a shared decision-making power” offers a critical insight to the concept of servant leadership. And why the term remains relevant and valid.

Spears also describes servant leadership as “a long-term transformational approach to life and work, in essence, a way of being that has the potential to create positive change throughout our society.” Perhaps this is the most telling observation as we think about the connection between servant leadership and fundraising practice. It describes a leadership approach that supports a vocation that exists to serve positive societal change through a long-term transformational approach.

As a final observation, Spears names ten characteristics of the servant leader; listening; empathy; healing; awareness; persuasion; conceptualisation; foresight; stewardship; commitment to the growth of people; building community. Once again, in each of these characteristics we see leadership traits that resonate with the vocational emphasis of fundraising practice.

Don’t misunderstand servant leadership.

Doing so, risks not seeing the wood for the trees when the distinctions and connections between a leadership framework and fundraising practice aren’t examined completely.

Perhaps, rather than getting lost in words and meanings, and forming a position around a literal view, we could explore the bigger ideas behind the words. And then use these ideas to frame our attitudes and behaviours as we serve the common good – as our vocation of fundraising calls on us to do.


Nigel Harris

Managing Director

Nigel Harris & Associates

March 2022