5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization
Yitzi Wiener | Mar 17, 2021
Medium.com’s Authority Magazine catches up with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s President & CEO Stuart Graff for a Q&A on leading a successful nonprofit organization.
Growing up in Chicago, Stuart Graff was introduced to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work at a young age, evolving into a lifelong passion for 20th-century architecture and, in particular, Wright’s focus on organic and sustainable architecture that was broadly accessible. Stuart studied engineering at Northwestern, and received his JD from Loyola University, and his MBA from Emory University. After practicing both intellectual property and corporate law for many years, he went on to lead businesses with Newell Rubbermaid and Valspar. In addition to his career activities, Graff has an extensive history of board leadership, volunteerism, and fundraising for arts and social justice organizations. Stuart believes Wright’s constant experimentation and innovation, and his unwillingness to rest on laurels, inspired him to live his own life professionally and personally by always exploring, learning, experimenting and growing.
Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
From an early age, I had an interest in architecture. The marriage of functional structures and aesthetics fascinated me, and I would often doodle floor plans and elevations while sitting in class. Unfortunately, as several teachers noted, I had very little drawing talent, so I chose to make architecture my avocation and not my profession. That avocation manifested itself in visits to interesting buildings around the world; in a large library of books and museum visits; and even serving as a docent to give tours of Chicago architecture as a relief from the effort that was three years of law school. This lifelong passion was transformed into a second career for me when a friend — who happens to be one of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s attorneys — told me that the Foundation was looking for a new CEO that understood strategic planning, IP licensing and fundraising. I’d had a life of experience in all three areas, and decided that the time was right to leave corporate life behind and pursue a passion by creating passion for architecture in others.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to join your nonprofit?
I had achieved many professional goals as an attorney and as a leader in global businesses, and I had always planned to end my professional life taking any skills that I had to do work in the non-profit sector. Serving others has always given me a bigger “buzz” than anything else in my life, and I had spent a few decades volunteering and serving on the boards of human services and arts organizations. In those roles, I learned a lot about the non-profit sector from really brilliant leaders. I expected to look for something in the human services space, where my background as a lawyer would be relevant. I didn’t expect to find a job in the cultural sector where that would be the case, let alone a role in the Foundation formed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a lifelong interest of mine. But I figured that if nothing else, exploring the opportunity would get me to write a resume for the non-profit space, and it turned out that the resume worked. It meant a big cut in pay, but when offered the role I couldn’t say no because I thought I could make a positive impact for an organization, and an artistic legacy, that I really care about.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
As a cultural organization, social impact isn’t the first thing people associate with us. But, social impact is what every cultural organization does every single day, if it does its work well. The cultural sector allows people to gain experience through the eyes and stories of others — and in doing so we create an empathy across cultures, experiences and even history. I try to summarize this in a short credo — “museums exist to change minds.” If we don’t impact the way people think, we’re just a really expensive pastime, and we can and need to be so very much more than that.
At the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, we use Wright’s ideas to inspire people to live better through connections with nature, art, and each other. Wright’s architecture wasn’t only about buildings; his architecture of ideas — meaningful connections — transcends buildings and elevates lives of individuals, families, and entire communities. Wright’s visionary work isn’t something from the past; instead, it’s a set of ideas that evolve to meet the changing needs of society, to embrace new materials and technologies, and to address problems like climate change and even the COVID-19 pandemic. This evolving set of principles are the core of what makes his architecture “organic” — a living thing and not a relic of times past.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
One of my favorite examples occurred with a group of children who visited Taliesin West at our invitation. The group is called “2E” by education experts — twice exceptional, because they are academically advanced even as they face severe challenges like autism or ADHD. We learned from our school partners that this group literally doesn’t get to take field trips because of others’ fears that they will be disruptive, a notion that offends me deeply, because I spent much of my youth in a school program centered on museum visits and cultural participation.
So, we invited these wonderful kids to visit Taliesin West, and we tailored the program to meet their needs without compromising content. These kids were entranced by the experience of the place. One decided to take up painting then and there, while another explained that his mind was at peace (which his mother said “never happened”), all in a place filled with visual stimulation yet where everything makes sense because of the connection with the landscape around us. I’m no expert in working with these kids, but it was clear to me that just like every other child, they crave that sense of connection with nature, maybe more than others do. And that connection with nature is at the center of Wright’s work.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The Foundation can’t bring Wright’s work to life on its own, so we work with partners in design professions, higher education, school systems, and government as we try to influence future building and planning to embrace Wright’s work as an architecture for better living. Everyone should embrace design thinking to look at how buildings and landscapes and the creative sector all work to elevate (or impair) our lives. In the same way that we are learning to think of product lifecycles so that we aren’t creating waste streams that pollute the oceans and toxic land masses, we need to think of the ecosystems of buildings and cities to make sure that we aren’t killing ourselves and each other. So I’d say the three things we can all do are (1) act like we need the natural landscape around us to thrive, because we do; (2) establish policies that favor development that enhances, rather than destroys, the landscape; and (3) design cities, buildings, and other places of interaction in a way that encourages connection with each other and with the world around us. I’m not religious, but I love Wright’s statement that “Nature is the only body of God we will ever see.” Let’s treat it that way, because that’s to our benefit and the benefit of future generations who depend on us.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is about motivating others to give their very best in the service of a common purpose. That doesn’t mean commanding (though at times, leaders have to be directive); in fact, most often it means serving others from whom you need intelligence, effort, or other resources to achieve a common goal. It means inspiring people with a compelling vision, but also inspiring people to believe in themselves and their own capabilities. Which means leaders should listen to and serve the front line of their operations — people who interact with customers/clients daily — and empower them appropriately with training, information, and resources to do their jobs well. Senior leaders may need to defer to junior team members who have superior knowledge of new technologies and methods, especially in an era of rapid change through new media and customer empowerment. Most importantly, good leaders understand that they have to make the case for change — they can’t just demand it — and create followers. You’re not a leader if no one is a follower.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”? Please share a story or example for each.
Let me start by saying that starting a non-profit is no different than starting any other business: you have to align interests among customers/clients, funders, staff, suppliers, and perhaps distribution partners, and tie it all together with a brand that represents that aligned commitment to achieving an objective. Breaking that into some specific pieces:
First, you have to be able to offer something that people want or need, and that others (donors/funders) are willing to support. Philanthropy is the support of people who want to make a difference and the world, and who look to your organization to help them make that difference. Do you know who will fund your work sustainably, and what level of support you can develop from those sources? Is it enough to meet your goals? I did some work with an organization many years ago that dealt with social problems — mental illness, addiction, homelessness — that people didn’t want to talk about. Asking individual donors for money to support that effort was tough, because people didn’t want to talk about our work. It had an “ick” factor. So we supported this organization through government payments for the work we did, and through foundations with professional program managers that understood our clients’ needs, rather than trying to fund the work through individual donors.
You serve many others as a non-profit leader. At the head of this line should always be your customer/client, but defining that customer/client isn’t easy. Sure, the people for whom you render services are your customers, but so are your donors. Your board is also a customer, they’re volunteers who provide support for your mission, for whom your efforts at care and feeding are critical. Each of these groups are stakeholders, and your job is to align those stakeholders. That’s far from easy, and sometimes near impossible. Your mission is the touchstone to which you can always return, because it’s the aligning tool on which every stakeholder should agree. If they aren’t aligned in supporting the mission, they probably aren’t the right fit for the organization.
Treat your non-profit as a business and make sure others do, too. I recently listened to the board chair of a non-profit say, “it’s not like it’s a business.” Well what exactly is it, then? The fact that he and his board don’t think of their organization as a business means that they aren’t raising money for the organization — and in some cases not even donating themselves. They aren’t living up to their fiduciary responsibilities to the mission, and therefore to the community. Sometimes I wish we could do away with the term non-profit altogether because it suggests that we’re not doing serious work; instead, we should just refer to these organizations as tax-exempt and be the envy of other enterprises that would love a tax exemption. When stakeholders treat non-profits as if they are “hobbies,” they fail in the same way any business fails — for lack of commitment to their success.
Make sure you and everyone involved in your work understands that non-profits require superior talent and extraordinary effort to run well. Every single day, we receive resumes from people who have no experience for the position that they’ve applied for, but they are “really enthusiastic about our mission.” That’s terrific, but we need talented, experienced people for our organization to perform well; good intentions just aren’t enough. And because non-profits, more than many other businesses, operate with tough resource constraints, doing more with less is an imperative we live with every hour of every day. I’m happy to have a team that’s smart and experienced, but I’m in love with my team because they are determined and resourceful, too. Resourcefulness may be the most important skill of all.
Non-profits thrive on the generosity of others, so be generous in what you do. When you need funding and resources and talent and a million other things, it’s very easy to become focused only on those needs. But mission-driven organizations work well when they collaborate with others who have complementary missions, when they share resources, and when they act with the same generosity they depend on from others. One of our best partnerships came about when a local theatre company needed a space to perform. I had dark theatres on my campus and wanted to bring them back to life, so we could have charged a rental fee; instead, we donated use of the space at first, and as their company gained financial success, we provided the space at cost. Now in our fifth year of partnership, we’ve brought new audiences and donors to both organizations.
Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the ideas behind your nonprofit?
That list would be exceptionally long, because there are so many inspiring leaders from whom I could learn, so that we can do our work better. From early days in my corporate life, I’ve admired Warren Buffett for his no-nonsense approach to business. He means what he says and says what he means — and he’s been successful because of it, rather than in spite of it. I marvel at the work done by Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation, and the shift in focus toward questions of equity in an organization established by individuals who weren’t exactly interested in equity. Rabbi Sharon Brous fulfills the social justice work inherent in Jewish culture through her work, and not just in the synagogue; she reminds me of where I come from and what I am here to do. And Terry Tempest Williams, whose writings on the western landscape make my heart beat with greater passion — I’d love to brainstorm with her about preserving this fragile landscape in balance with human development. That is, after all, what Frank Lloyd Wright was attempting to do in his work, and what we are trying to do at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
Joan Didion once described packing up her mother’s fine china, crystal, and silver when her mother was moving out of her house, surprising herself with the observation that her mother used these special things every day and not just on rare occasions. Said Joan’s mother, “every day is all there is.” Now I’m not sure that I have the circumstances exactly right, but the quote is spot on. I’ve carried that quote with me since I first read it, and I don’t think truer words have ever been spoken.
This Q&A with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s President and CEO Stuart Graff originally appeared in Medium.com’s Authority Magazine in an ongoing series by writer Yitzi Wiener about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact.”