Diversifying Leadership and Philanthropy: Key Steps
Charlie Nelms grew up in picking cotton in Arkansas, never making it to school more than five months a year. When he decided to go to college, he got four on his first attempt at the ACT college entrance exam. But Nelms persevered, eventually graduating from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a historically black university. He earned his master’s degree and doctorate from Indiana University and was the first African American to be appointed chancellor of an IU campus and vice president of the university.
Nelms recounted his career trajectory both at CASE’s Diverse Philanthropy and Leadership conference, co-sponsored by CASE and the African American Development Officers Network in April, and in his newly published book, From Cotton Fields to University Leadership. Nelms is donating royalties from the sale of the book to the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Funds for scholarships.
Nelms offered advice on two key topics from his conference address: diversifying leadership and empowering a new generation of philanthropists.
Here’s how to diversify leadership:
- Demystify the notion of traditional leadership. “We keep putting leaders on a pedestal as if they’re untouchables. There are lots of leaders in our communities. We have to recognize and hold them up so young people can see themselves as being leaders. You don’t have to be wealthy, you don’t have to own, X, Y, Z to be a leader,” he says.
- Early identification and nurturing. “Nurturing is not the same as telling people what to do. Nurturing them is embracing them in a community of support. I had a village long before Hillary Clinton said we needed a village [in her book, It Takes a Village]” he says.
- Mentoring and coaching. “I don’t want a role model. I want a mentor,” says Nelms. “I don’t care if my mentor is my color or my gender. All I want my mentor to do is to be concerned for my well-being. [I want] someone who will speak for me when I’m not even in the room, who will tell me what I need to hear whether I want to hear it or not.”
- Incentivize participation in leadership development programs. “We need paid internships and externships, ones where they get academic credit, and a co-curricular transcript that shows not just classes but experience gained outside the classroom,” he says.
- Experiential leadership through job shadowing. “Don’t tell me the attributes of a leader, let me experience them,” he says. “Don’t tell me a leader is someone who communicates effectively on an interpersonal level. Let me see you do that.”
Here are his strategies for creating a new generation of philanthropists:
- We need to debunk the view that one must be wealthy to be a philanthropist. “A philanthropist is really all about capacity: your time, your talents, and your dollars in proportion to your capacity. If you give $1 and spend 100 hours of your time working with young people or older people, you’re just as much of a philanthropist as Michael Bloomberg,” he says.
- Incorporate service learning throughout the curriculum, whether it’s a single lesson plan or a full course.
- Provide early and recurring glimpses into the work of nonprofits. “They are some of the best-kept secrets out there,” he says
- Provide opportunities for children to invest time and money. So much is about “me,” he says. “What do you want for your birthday, for Christmas, your bat mitzvah? Help them give back.”
- Publicly acknowledge the contribution of children and young adults and others who engage in philanthropic work.