By Erica Boniface, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Staff
Being a nonprofit leader is not an easy job. In fact, it’s arguably one of the most difficult positions a person can hold, and it’s never-ending to the leaders that work tirelessly behind the scenes. Just ask Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, “The hardest working people that I know, without exception, lead nonprofits.”
Oliphant rejoined the Heinz Endowments in 2014 after serving as president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation for six years. For nearly two decades, Grant held several senior management positions with Heinz family foundations (including a period working in communications for the late Senator Heinz) before taking the helm at The Pittsburgh Foundation in 2008.
What makes Oliphant such a powerful nonprofit leader? Sure, his years of experience in the sector plays a huge role in his abundant success. But, without a doubt, it’s Grant’s advocacy for making a difference in the world for everyone, his devotion to creating a just world for all that live here, and his defense on issues of equity and social justice – as well as just being flat out brave, courageous and compassionate that make him a great leader. Grant Oliphant leads The Heinz Endowments by fighting for what he believes in and for encouraging his staff to do the same.
“It isn’t just the responsibility of a nonprofit to speak out on issues related to racism, sexism, treatment of immigrants in our society, client change – it’s an obligation.”
His leadership ability is something he’s worked years to perfect, and it’s something he’s constantly improving. When you speak with him, you can’t help but feel a sense of security and ease. He challenges one to think about the future, not just the present. And at the end of the day, he places his family and values at the forefront of everything he does. It’s a careful balance to say the least.
Bonfils-Stanton Foundation is excited to hear what Oliphant has to share with Colorado nonprofit leaders during his keynote presentation at the Celebration of Leadership on Nov. 13, where we’ll announce the upcoming class of the Livingston Fellowship Program.
“Selecting Grant Oliphant as the keynote speaker for Bonfils-Stanton Foundation’s Celebration of Leadership was an easy decision,” says Gary Steuer, CEO and President of Bonfils-Stanton Foundation. “I have gotten to know Grant well through our mutual participation in a foundation leaders program at the Aspen Institute. He is one of the most thoughtful and articulate philanthropic leaders I know, especially around the need to be bold and hold true to our values. I know he will inspire and challenge our leaders in Denver.”
We left our interview with Oliphant inspired, and we hope you have equal takeaways after reading what he has to say.
Bonfils-Stanton Foundation: Hi Mr. Oliphant. Thanks so much for chatting with us today. Tell us a bit about Heinz Endowments and its mission.
Grant Oliphant: The Heinz Endowments is a regionally-focused foundation located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We have $1.7 billion in assets and it’s a family foundation that came from the wealth of Heinz and the food empire. I think what is different for us than other regional foundations is that we have a globally-focused family at the core of what we do. While we have a mission to focus on one community, we also have a mission to focus outward to make sure that we are drawing from the best thinking from around the world and also sharing with the world what we are learning in the community through our work. We make it as locally relevant as we possibly can.
The way in which the foundation focuses our work is the concept of creating a more just community. We refer to this as “Just Pittsburgh.” The notion there is that everything we do should be with the ultimate purpose of trying to create a fair and inclusive community that is accessible to everyone.
We focus on three broad areas of work: sustainability, creativity and learning. We define sustainability as ecompassing both the environment and the economy – and really how they work in concert to be a sustainable form of human prosperity. Creativity is largely the art of culture, but also the intersection of technology in recent years. Learning is about solving the ongoing challenge in our society about making sure the ways in which kids learn are being supported by the educational vehicles that we have in place and that we’re giving kids the start in life that they need in order to be successful in a very different world in which a lot of us grew up in ourselves.
BSF: What is your day-to-day work life like?
GO: It is a 24/7 job. There is no such thing as downtime from it, but obviously I do take time for family, that is really important for me. I have a meditation practice that I do every morning to start the day. But the reality of this type of work today is that there really isn’t a moment where you turn off from it. I am truly privileged to do work that I absolutely love and I feel that this work has never been more important. We are fighting for ideas, issues and values which are core to the future of humanity, and are at serious risk for a whole host of reasons. It really feels like a privilege to be in such a role and I take it seriously and pay attention to it all the time.
BSF: The reason we ask is because of Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and our Livingston Fellowship Program – and how we help advance nonprofit leaders’ skills to better help grow their organizations and the nonprofit sector. How do you suggest nonprofit leaders can find that perfect work/personal life balance?
GO: I think balance is so critical. I have done extensive work both personally and in sponsoring the work in the community on the role of the whole person in leadership. We so often, and America in particular, fall into the pat of thinking there is your work self and your personal self, but the reality is you bring all of who you are to everything you do. That is just a fact. If you are not conscious of that then you diminish yourself as a leader and you’ll not be able to lead as effectively.
BSF: How would you say being a leader is different today as it has in the past? How has it evolved?
GO: Well, you know, first I want to say that being a nonprofit leader is a very hard job. There is still a dismissive attitude in our culture that assumes that nonprofit leaders don’t work as hard as for-profits – and that nonprofits should learn how to run a business from for-profits. And I think they are absurdly wrong, especially today. The hardest working people that I know, without exception, lead nonprofits. I expect, they would answer the question about their work day in a very similar fashion. They are working all the time. Scrambling to get adequate resources. They are struggling with conflicting demands from stakeholders. And they’re mission-driven, so there’s never a moment where they’re not thinking about their work. That is much more a part of the work than even 50 years ago. I think the work is also requiring nonprofits to draw on skillsets that they didn’t need to think about even 20 years ago. Skillsets, like the use of advocacy in their work. The role of their own voice and that of their organization to speak out about the values they care about. They need to help their employees and the people they serve to be served as whole human beings and not as people who need to be fixed. These are all changes in the understanding of the role of nonprofits.
I think the job is harder today. More demanding today. It requires a lot more skills today than a generation ago. Expectations are higher.
BSF:. When you stepped into The Heinz Endowments, what did you change that had the most impact on the organization?
GO: I want to start off my answer by saying this is an institution that has always been fairly aggressive in trying to be a change agent. There is a history in leadership here and I didn’t have small shoes to fill. I took over an organization that for 40 years has been seen in this community as a leading life in regional leadership, period. Not just philanthropic leadership. But, I did a number of things. I worked with the staff and the board, to put this notion of creating a just community in the center of all of our work. We restructured the foundation from five programs that operated independently to three that operate in an interconnected way in almost everything they do. That involved changing the culture of the organization from an independent portfolio mindset to operation and team-oriented approach. Culture change is hard. That was tough. But we successfully navigated that.
Then we very aggressively began to look at what our obligations were around moral leadership during very difficult times. The first things I did was write an op-ed about the city of Pittsburgh needing to save an African American Cultural Center, which at that point was going to be sold as bankruptcy to a hotel operator. I used that opportunity to call out issues of race and neglect that were subtext as a whole community conversation about this issue.
There has been a debate in our community about whether nonprofits should be allowed to speak out on issues related to racism, sexism, treatment of immigrants in our society, client change, a whole list of things the nonprofit sector works on – we took a very aggressive stance that this is not only a responsibility of nonprofits, but also an obligation. We began holding a conference every year on moral leadership and what that means in our sector. Then we began trying to abide that to our own use of voice and the work of the foundation. We began to change the grantmaking that we do so that it was more broadly-focused on working with disadvantaged populations addressing the vulnerable, empowering groups that were not traditionally empowered through philanthropy.
We have to do it responsibility, but we have to accept that some of leadership is about causing discomfort and trying to make a case for change.
BSF: Not to vastly change the subject, but we’re excited to have you speak at our Celebration of Leadership event on Nov. 13. Now tell us a bit more about you. We hear you moved to Denver in 1964 and lived in the Mile High City for 11 years – what do you remember most about the state and city?
GO: Oh yeah! So my folks moved to Denver from Adelaide, South Australia in 1964 when I was almost 3 years old. I grew up in Denver on Lafayette Street and Williams Street in the Cheesman Park area of Denver. I really thought of myself growing up as a Colorado kid and still think very fondly of those days and my roots there. Denver was really a small town in those days, it hadn’t even gone through the first energy boom. It is remarkable to see how much it has changed. I have to say, I am really tickled to be given this platform to come and speak about leadership in Denver. It’s a city that I love and it does feel like coming home for me. It feels really good.
BSF: 11 years of your childhood, it seems like Denver really shaped you as a person.
GO: Oh that was my childhood. By the time we moved to Washington D.C., I was well into my teens. That is a different phase of life. So I think it was a cool place to grow up.
BSF: Was it your father who was a cartoonist for The Denver Post?
GO: So my dad is Pat Oliphant, who was the editorial cartoonist for The Denver Post from 1964 until he left 11 years later, he is arguably the world’s most celebrated cartoonist. He won the Pulitzer Prize a couple years after landing in the country and up until his retirement a couple years ago, he was the Dean of editorial cartooning in America. As a kid growing up he was a celebrity in Denver.
**To hear more about Grant Oliphant’s view on leadership in the nonprofit sector and to meet some of Denver’s top nonprofit leaders, register for Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Celebration of Leadership, which is set for November 13.