The Ian Potter Foundation and the Myer Foundation are actively considering a $6 million investment over five years to improve the state of not-for-profit leadership.
But the philanthropic heavyweights are also in talks with other foundations and hope to significantly increase that funding with their help.
The radical concept would see the foundations fund sabbaticals for up to 20 leaders a year for at least five years.
The focus would be on developing the "soft skills" of leadership through a series of three workshops and retreats that would be "geographically focused" and create opportunities to develop "enduring" networks and collaboration between those leaders.
Ian Potter Foundation CEO Craig Connelly and Myer Foundation CEO Leonard Vary revealed their plans at the recent Philanthropy Australia conference in a panel session about the lack of investment in leadership development in Australia.
The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation has previously been linked to the project.
The plans are yet to be signed off at board level but are well advanced. Last year, Mr Connelly and Mr Vary took a two-week study tour of the US and UK to examine the state of not-for-profit leadership there. And in April this year they presented to a forum of 20 leading not-for-profit CEOs from across Australia who agreed that "there's minimal investment in not-for-profit leadership".
Mr Connelly said the programs would target mid-sized not-for-profits, rather than large or small ones, because research suggested this was an "appropriate sweet spot".
He said the programs may involve supporting other senior staff - the "two, three and four" in the organisations - while top executives are absent, to reduce the impact on the organisation and to create development opportunities for those staff.
It is envisaged that participating organisations would contribute to the cost of the program.
Mr Connelly said the pair's visit to the US revealed that the Australian experience mirrors that of our neighbours across the Pacific, where many foundations are already investing more heavily in not-for-profit leadership.
But earlier plans to send Australians to well-regarded Harvard or Stanford university courses aimed at not-for-profits were adjusted following talks between the lead foundations and local CEOs.
Instead, the program would aim to create something more "bespoke … more about replenishment … than teaching a broad base of generic skills", Mr Connelly said.
Mr Vary said he understood that the program would not end the challenge for not-for-profit leaders in Australia.
"We don't propose that the program that we're imagining is the "silver bullet" but fills a small part of a much greater gap," he said.
"We know it will be a challenge over three months. But it's a matter of cost and benefit. But we hope that it will be of great value to the orgs, and to the sector as a whole."
The focus on investing in not-for-profit leaders is part of the focus on people in the Myer Foundation's five-year strategic plan.