A willingness to evolve. It is tempting to become enamored of one’s own idea of how to make a better world and stick to one approach or vision. But over time we learn more about what is most effective, what is most respectful and empowering to others, and how we can improve. I worked an at organization that kept its overarching purpose intact but evolved its model over time, as its leaders became aware that they could reduce unintentional harm by taking a different approach.

For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristina Graff.

Kristina Graff is a global public health professional with a passion for social justice. Over the past 25 years, Kristina has worked locally and globally to combat inequities and contribute to a healthier, more compassionate world. Through her roles in international nonprofit organizations, city government, and academia, Kristina has led initiatives in policy, service delivery, and research to expand and improve health services in high-need communities.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

There are two experiences that were most pivotal for me in the early years of my career, and though they were very different there are common threads in how they shaped my perspective.

One was working as a weekend counselor at Planned Parenthood of New York City. The other was a year I spent working at a women’s health organization in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In both cases I got an up-close view of how big-picture systems like health policy, transportation infrastructure, and economic assistance directly affected individual women’s ability to make choices about their lives and their health. I also saw how a shortage of resources — whether money or otherwise — fed directly into social norms and connected deeply to survival.

After these experiences I became much more interested in the role of governance, economic incentives, policy, and systems. I also came to believe that we as humans act in response to our environments much more than we might think, and our choices and actions are hugely influenced by our circumstances. I came to see the reason behind things that previously looked “illogical” to me, and I realized how we adapt our behavior to survive within dysfunctional or under-resourced systems.

So now when I think about access to health and wellness, I think about whether a government invests in healthcare in a way that truly strengthens health equity: ensuring that the most resources such as transportation, food security, and access to care, get to the communities that most need them. I’m most interested in solutions that address underlying sources of a problem — because a shift in prevailing circumstances or environment can change incentives, actions, and outcomes. And I know that any durable solution needs to come from within a community, and not imposed from the outside.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

I think my three most powerful traits are curiosity, compassion, and drive.

My curiosity pervades pretty much everything I do, and I am constantly wanting to deepen my understanding: of the roots of social problems, of what the knowledge base or research can teach us about successful problem-solving strategies, of human behavior, of an individual’s life story. I am also regularly taking in new information and perspectives and evidence, re-examining previously held notions and past conclusions, and expanding my thinking and ideas. It shapes how I work: my biggest interest is to find the best solution to a problem, even if that runs counter to what I previously thought or wanted or believed.

My curiosity also includes a lot of deep listening. I tend to ask lots of questions to everyone I meet, in all kinds of settings. Those inputs then feed into my understanding and re-analysis of so many different things, and most of all they shape my future work.

Compassion is my anchor trait. It’s why I chose work in social impact. I think it is fundamentally wrong that some communities have an excess of opportunities and resources, while others do not have enough — and I see how those inequities are present when people are born and thus shape their life courses. The empathy and care I feel for individual humans, regardless of their circumstances and without judgment, is what motivates my work, because all people experience suffering and struggle. I hope that by also paying attention to the needs and wants of those who hold power, I will be more able to help shift the balance — by understanding why they fight to hold onto it, and by learning what drives people to perpetuate inequality.

A final trait that has fueled my work is drive. It has manifested in different ways at different stages of my career. Early on my drive showed up as working as hard as I could, taking on as many projects and opportunities as possible, striving for perfection and top-quality work products in every dimension. Then as my career evolved and I moved into leadership, I faced a new set of challenges, and my drive transformed in response. I had to be willing to fail and keep getting up again, to make difficult decisions and sometimes unpopular decisions and commit to them, to stay in a field of work that will break your heart every single day and not succumb to cynicism but also accept hard realities, and to be a steady and calming support to a team or an organization through periods of chaos or crisis.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

I’ve been inspired and excited by the diversity of individuals and communities where yoga is offered and practiced — beyond fancy studios and retreats that are only accessible to a small share of the world’s population. Although yoga is much less available in some places than in others, I’ve seen the practice offered as a critical part of addiction and recovery programs, services for unhoused communities, rehabilitation facilities, refugee mental health services, correctional facilities, programs for persons living with disabilities, PTSD support, and communities enduring economic and social crisis. My hope is that these beyond-the-studio yoga classes can become available, accessible, and welcoming to all people — and especially within communities that face barriers to access.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

We believe that if more people have access to the practice of yoga, this can lead to a more peaceful, more compassionate, and healthier world. There is ample evidence already of yoga’s positive impacts on health and overall wellness, but there are many barriers, and many people experience discrimination within yoga spaces. We are working to amplify and help scale the work of those who are bringing yoga to communities around the world — taking the practice beyond commercial studios and into parks, hospitals, schools, senior centers, and more.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

I’ve spent most of my career as a global public health professional, working for equitable access to preventive and curative care. I am an advocate for use of medicine — whether preventive or curative — for those cases where medicine is the best way for someone to get or stay healthy. But I also recognize the power of non-medical interventions, and yoga is an amazing tool for building and maintaining health and wellness.

Yoga is a completely portable, low-cost intervention that has consistently been proven to positively affect one’s health. After spending many years working with communities that have an array of unmet needs in both physical and mental health, I am inspired by the yoga’s potential to address some of these needs.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

During the pandemic we did some short-term initiatives to assist yoga professionals in difficult circumstances, especially those who were continuing to offer yoga as a needed service to their communities even when they weren’t getting paid. We provided stipends as bridge funding and for small-scale investment in their yoga business, and we brought them together for community and supportive services. We also offered business development workshops and media promotion opportunities to help them sustain their work after the program.

Here are a few highlights of the impacts of this initiative, which helped individual yoga teachers to keep their business alive and continue serving their communities:

  • Several teachers taught yoga in communities experiencing social and economic crisis, offering a space of calm and self-care amidst turbulent times.
  • Several teachers offered yoga to children and adults with special needs, innovating on how to reach their students virtually or outdoors in the face of pandemic lockdowns.
  • Several teachers were profiled in their local media, increasing the visibility of their work and stoking potential for expanded opportunities.
  • One teacher used a portion of the funding to help feed his community, combining yoga classes with a bit of food security.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

Listen to the perspectives of someone experiencing the problem. Look to direct sources as much as possible, and listen enough to enough voices that you might hear conflicting ideas — but learn to discover the common threads.

Donate your time, your skills, or your money to a trustworthy organization working on this issue. It’s worth doing at least a little bit of homework to identify those who are credible leaders in their field. Some recommended sources include Charity Navigator, GuideStar, CharityWatch, and GiveWell.

Talk to people you know, and correct misconceptions when you hear them. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what drives social inequality, and people often thing it’s because some people work or try harder than others. The reality is that circumstance and the community into which one is born are some of the biggest drivers of a person’s life chances. Seek to dispel the notion that inequity is about personal responsibility; it’s not. When you hear people say this, tell a story that may broaden their perspective. You’ll get those stories from your listening and from the organizations that you support.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Continuous listening. An openness to different perspectives — and most importantly, to voices of the community where your nonprofit focuses its efforts — is essential. Deep, authentic listening to a range of stakeholders can keep us more honest with ourselves and more aware of when we may be going off-course from our original goals. In particular we should listen to those who disagree with us or challenge our assumptions; valid criticism can make us better, even when it’s hard to hear. In one of my leadership roles we got feedback that we could do more good over the long-term by shifting away from resource-intensive curative programs to lower-tech, preventive, education-focused interventions. The team developed a strategy to test out a new approach, fitting within the confines of our existing infrastructure and financial model, and in a manner that contained risk to a manageable level.
  2. A willingness to evolve. It is tempting to become enamored of one’s own idea of how to make a better world and stick to one approach or vision. But over time we learn more about what is most effective, what is most respectful and empowering to others, and how we can improve. I worked an at organization that kept its overarching purpose intact but evolved its model over time, as its leaders became aware that they could reduce unintentional harm by taking a different approach.
  3. Delegation and trust. Consolidating leadership and decision-making in one person can undermine the long-term sustainability of an organization. An approach that focuses on durable values, principles, and systems has more staying-power than one that relies on specific individuals to keep the work going over the long-term. By identifying trusted people to work in partnership, committing together to organizational practices and principles, and then empowering them to lead, the legacy is best positioned to sustain and flourish. In one organization where I worked, the what and the why of our work stayed consistent, but the how of implementation varied significantly across different settings and needs — resulting in more empowered staff and more responsive programs at the community level.
  4. Acceptance of hard realities. Every social impact venture will bring forth impossible choices, where a leader must decide between two or more imperfect options. In those instances, leaders need to take a pragmatic look at how to achieve priority goals while minimizing negative impacts. I often say that when faced with two lousy options and no obvious “right” choice, I want to at least know the downside of each, so I can be prepared to deal with it. I’ve had to sunset initiatives that were needed and wanted, in favor of larger purposes — such as ensuring that a program or organization could serving its most essential purpose over the long-term. These were painful moments, but I navigated them by identifying and comparing potential impacts, and by recognizing that these difficult decisions are a part of a leader’s responsibility.
  5. A sustainable funding mechanism. There are multiple models for how to finance a nonprofit, and they can all work in the right circumstances. But many nonprofits find that maintaining funding takes an outsized proportion of energy and time, undermining capacity to pursue their mission. Sustainable funding is a common challenge, but addressing it makes a critical difference — and resisting the urge to grow too fast without long-term financial stability is another essential part of sustainable funding. For example, I’ve experienced how a grant for work that falls outside the scope of an organization’s core mission can create more challenges than it solves — because it can undermine focus and detract from the core mission.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

The pandemic gave me an opportunity to slow down and reflect. I paid attention to where I chose to spend my time, what carried me through periods of stress and uncertainty, and what I cared about the most. I stopped seeing success as maximum productivity. I used to live my life in a crazed sprint-mode, and I felt like I’d underperformed if I had down-time in my day where I didn’t do anything measurably productive. Then I noticed that having periods of rest had positive effects on my well-being. I started to protect my time more, stopped packing my schedule with commitments, and honored the space needed to pause and re-set. Now I see success as balance, and I recognize that endurance derives from careful and measured allocation of energy. I feel most successful when I allocate my time and energy in a way that I am not totally drained all the time.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

I re-find inspiration in remembering that my small actions matter. When I think about a time that I made a really modest but positive difference in someone’s life, whether that’s being present for a loved one going through a tough time, or giving moral support to a colleague, or showing care to someone when they most needed it, that helps me find my center and rev back up to keep going.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Here are a few people we’d be interested in sharing our ideas with: Sheryl Burke, Senior VP, CSR of CVS (https://www.linkedin.com/in/sheryl-burke/); Cynthia Cifuentes, Regional VP, Community Health and Engagement at Kaiser Permanente (https://www.linkedin.com/in/cynthiacifuentes/); and Angela Eifert, Global Connector Lead,Alight (https://www.linkedin.com/in/aeifert/).

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

Yoga Alliance: https://www.yogaalliance.org/

Yoga Alliance Foundation: https://www.yogaalliance.org/foundation

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.