Learning to Lead from the Inside

Suzanne Skees
Chair and Director
The Skees Family Foundation

Upstairs in small room at the Common Hope Center (Familia Esperanza) in Antigua, Guatemala, my friend and TPW cohort Gary Tabasinske (2011-2012) and I perch on couches draped in vibrantly colored woven cloths. We're interviewing Alva Batres, who rode a bus for seven hours to tell us about her work as a teacher, citizen mobilizer, and women's rights journalist.

Alva sits tucked into herself, almost clenched. She's trying to explain why, at age six, she had to leave her family to go and live with her abuela (grandmother).

“I had been sexually abused for six years,” she says. Her face crumples, and her large brown eyes spill over with tears. “I sort of blocked everything out, and I didn't even begin to remember any of it until I was 21 . . . But everything about my life's work since then has been 100 percent related to my own personal healing as a woman.”

Alva has served as city mayor and now heads the national commission on women. She's recently been named Woman of the Americas and Guatemala's journalist of the year. Yet she credits the Association for Leadership in Guatemala for saving her life.

“Two years ago, my favorite sister was killed in an auto accident,” says Alva, who's now raising her young niece and nephew as her own. “I was in a deep depression. I just wanted to disappear. And that's exactly when they called to recruit me for this program. It literally saved my life. My cohorts became my family, and Gary has become like a father to me. Coming here [to the Center] feels like crawling back into a mother's arms.”

As she looks over at Gary, we are all three in tears. She's not the only one who has benefited from ALG.

“I am constantly stopping to ask myself,” Gary tells me later, “why the hell I've this chance to be a part of this organization?” He shakes his head. He tells me about a serendipitous chain of events that led to his enrollment in The Philanthropy Workshop.

Having inherited wealth from his late wife (“my soulmate”), Gary strove to discern how best to deploy his resources to end poverty and heal human-rights violations, especially for women and girls, a cause close to his heart. One thing led to another and Glen (Galaich, CEO of The Philanthropy Workshop) convinced him to try the 8-month, 4-module-week TPW program.

“All of it was interesting,” Gary recalls, “particularly the Washington, DC module on advocacy. But truly, I would not have gotten anything out of the year if I hadn't been forced to come up with my Theory of Change presentation at the end.”

Scrambling to figure out his project, Gary tried to get out of his Theory of Change presentation . . . but no dice. Then he hosted a local Seattle event for Central American leadership training and met Rocio Gonzalez, who would become the cofounder and executive director of the Association for Leadership in Guatemala, for talented, heretofore siloed managers (from NGOs, public and private sector) with no access to programs in the region.

Now three years later, Gary's visiting his third cohort of 20 local leaders in a 9-month program that they report is profoundly changing them, from the inside out.

Gary, who visits the program in the beautiful city of Antigua a few times per year, believes now more fiercely than ever in the power of leadership.

“There's a huge synergy in funding leadership development,” he says. “If you give a grant, you're enabling just one organization to keep the lights on for another year. But when you provide transformative change to leaders, you have impact on that organization for the rest of time—times twenty participants. And it doesn't stop there; these leaders will take their skills with them wherever they go for the rest of their lives. I'm just now realizing how much more powerful it is to invest in people than in programs.”

Enrollment grows each year and he's thinking to scale ALG into other places that lack leadership development—in his view, the most critical tool in social change.

“Everyone has what it takes to become a leader, if given the tools they need,” asserts Rocio. “It turns out that we each have a specialty and when it comes to your skill, you lead; when it comes to mine; I will lead.” Like TPW, ALG has a growing network for further engagement, support, and education for and by alumni.

Alva is a 2013 graduate of the ALG program, and she has since gone on to serve in roles from local to national in women's rights and citizen activism. Her story takes us through incest and rape, hunger and child labor, to university and professional leadership, motherhood, and home ownership. Not only will Alva be featured in an upcoming book that I'm editing, My Job: Real People at Work Around the World, but she's also compiling a memoir of her own about her life—with the sole purpose of empowering others through her own example of survival.

As we listen to Alva, Gary and I feel both inspired and humbled to be in the presence of this woman. We try to explain that we wish nothing but to support her work in small ways; that we feel lucky just to be affiliated with her and her activism and art.

Gary, who does grantmaking elsewhere in Latin America and Africa, believes in what he calls, “giving with open hands,” expecting neither control nor obligation in return. He tells the ALG cohort, “I want nothing from you. Just take what you need from this program.”

For me, gathering material for my forthcoming, fundraising, job-creation book (which will be an engaging collection of first-person stories of real people at work around the world) is a direct application of my own TPW Theory of Change. Here in Guatemala, we find the intersection of Gary's philanthropy and mine. The reason we're both here is due to a connection through our other TPW friend, Barb Jones.

Three years ago, almost to the day, Gary and I sat with our Cohort, nervously outlining our grandiose plans for changing the world. Now, we're in the field, and with increasing impact, we find that we're collaborating with those who certainly are. 

Suzanne Skees works in international development as director of the Skees Family Foundation, which supports innovative self-help programs in the U.S. and 37 developing countries in education, enterprise, health, infrastructure, and peace. Suzanne studied English literature at Boston College and world religions at Harvard Divinity School. She travels from schools to slums, prisons to farms, serving as a storyteller for nonprofit workers, social entrepreneurs, and their courageous clients who toil every day to end poverty and create equality. Find Suzanne’s stories on the blog “Seeds of Hope” and The Huffington Post. For more information, visit and follow Suzanne on Twitter @MyJobStories.

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