Respect your team, especially those on the front line. If they don’t do their jobs well, what you do as a leader will never matter. Be there for them, hire and develop the best talent, and respect what they have to say. There will be no success without great people fully engaged to do great work.

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 and leaders 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 Stuart Graff.

Growing up in Chicago, Stuart Graff began studying Frank Lloyd Wright’s work more than fifty years ago, sustaining a lifelong passion for the work of America’s greatest architect. Though a complete lack of drawing talent foreclosed a career in architecture and design, Stuart pursued his study of Wright’s work while earning a living as a corporate attorney and global business executive, working with leading consumer products and technology companies over 30 years. Since 2016, as the President and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, he has stewarded one of the world’s great cultural legacies to ensure its relevance for our time and for the future: teaching us how to build and live better, as one with the world around us.

In 2023, Stuart was named by the UK’s Wallpaper* magazine as one of the “300 talents that are forging new paths through America’s design landscape.” He was also nominated as “Best Activist” by the Arizona Capitol Times for his work as an arts advocacy leader, creating the strategy to reauthorize the Arizona Commission on the Arts and to increase its funding by 250% to a record high.

Stuart studied engineering at Northwestern, received his JD from Loyola University of Chicago, and his MBA from Emory University. In addition to his career activities, he has an extensive history of board leadership, volunteerism, and fundraising in cultural and social justice organizations. He 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.

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?

I attended the Chicago Public Schools, which for a time had a program that allowed non-traditional learners to explore many fields based on their own curiosity about the world, at their own pace. Within this program, students visited cultural institutions, historic sites, sophisticated laboratories and manufacturing facilities, and natural sites. This program was conducted through the public school in a neighborhood that was, and remains, a crossroads of cultures, where people of diverse backgrounds, many of them first-generation immigrants, came together as simply neighbors and friends. The opportunities presented by these explorations, which I took for granted as a kid and expected to live in as an adult — were, in fact, rare gifts. As a result of these precious circumstances, I became a man with broad interests in — curiosity about — the world, with an openness to new cultures and new experiences, and a hunger to explore. Homogeneity is lethal to our humanity; we thrive through the exploration of new terrain, physical or intellectual.

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 can’t think of a more important trait than integrity — which Stephen Carter describes as “discerning what is right and what is wrong [and] acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost.” Even as a kid, I had a strong sense of right and wrong poured into me, by family, by teachers, by rabbis, and by so many others. I was very lucky to have virtuous people around me at every step of my formation (even now). The idea of being willing to take risks, and to sacrifice, for the sake of doing good is a core value that I have tried to impart of every aspect of my life, and to make a consistent value by which to live regardless of circumstance — work, play, romance, everything. As a gay man, I’ve been called on many times to be less than honest about my life (especially back in the earliest stages of my career); but in fact, being open and honest with people about who I am, and what I believe, has served me well, because it was seen as a sign of trustworthiness and respect for those around me.

A second trait is one cultivated from childhood: curiosity. The idea of the “renaissance man” is one that has always intrigued me, as the work of a synthetic mind — one that draws from diverse sources and fields and tries to see parallels and relationships across disciplines — is opportunity to create true insights. As a student, I could take the critical thinking skills from a literature class and combine them with the analytic skills of my engineering degree to understand the world around me; I used these and other skills in my legal career, which offered me the opportunity to work with inventors, creatives in marketing and the arts, and other fields and to learn from experts. Every day, I draw on a wealth of information and knowledge from different fields to do my work as best as I am able, exploring the intersections and juxtapositions of disciplines and cultures to try to achieve real insights.

Finally, there’s grit. I always pursued my own path, often against the wishes of parents and others who hoped I would chart a less risky, less ambitious course. I mostly put myself through engineering school and law school, and worked hard for what I have achieved. I failed at least as often as I succeeded, and even when success came, I used it as the platform to reach for more. I took on powerful interests because I believe that people needed help, needed justice, and angered my law partners when I took on certain pro bono work. But I firmly believe that we’re here to make the world a better place, not for ourselves, but for everyone and everything around us, and those who share that belief know that there will always be more to do, and that the work will almost always be hard. But you just can’t give up — especially at the time when giving up is most appealing because the work feels just too hard. You go back and do the work and try to make a difference until you’ve made a difference.

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

Leading the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is something I never expected to do and never prepared for; I’m a recovering corporate guy who had the opportunity to put years of strategic planning to work behind a legacy that I’ve enjoyed for nearly all of my life. The work has (I hope) not only made the organization more impactful and more resilient, but also has fed my hunger to understand Wright’s work at a deeper level. Yet, Wright’s legacy is known to many, including those who have their certainties about his work and what it means, and who are not open to the inconsistencies, the evolutions, and the trajectory of Wright’s long career. Learning how to embrace those enthusiasts and their certainties, and how to bring them along on a journey into the ambiguities of Wright’s work, has been a real challenge of leadership, and I’m sure I’ve not always done it well. But I will keep trying.

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

Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to create a new architecture inspired by and connected with nature, and in turn connecting us with beauty and with each other. It’s that sense of connection that’s at the heart of his work, and that’s what we try to grow through our work at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. We are gifted with the opportunity to share this legacy at Wright’s most personal constructions — his own homes and studios in Arizona and Wisconsin — and in a broader sense with architects, designers, planners, and students in these fields throughout the world. We explore more than just his buildings, furniture, and other designs; we look at how that work also reveals his activism in living more sustainably with the natural world, living more equitably with other people, and forming communities where we help each other to do and be our best. For Wright, this was the promise of democracy, “the sovereignty of the individual.” In his later years, he explained “If you want a friend and counselor and guide, there is one, and that lies in the heart, not so much in the head. It is the love of beauty, the desire in your heart to leave this place into which you were born a better place to live in because you lived there, and because you have lived as you have lived. When that becomes the motive behind being yourself — and you want to be yourself because you want to see that come true — that is the American spirit.” We try to bring that spirit to life through our work.

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

We can’t take where we live, and how we live, for granted. We live in a time when we urgently need to think, and act, on the issues that have plagued humanity forever. While I won’t engage in a kind of hagiography that suggests that Frank Lloyd Wright had all the answers to the world’s problems, his work gives us a space — and a well-known brand — from which to create and lead conversation and exploration around these issues, about which he wrote and worked through his career. And we get to do this work while offering those who participate with us a sublime beauty that can leave us optimistic about our challenges.

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

I love the moments when people realize that Wright’s legacy matters to them. Recently, we partnered with the KITH® brand to create shoes and apparel inspired by Wright’s Broadacre City — a thought experiment about how we can organize differently from large, dehumanizing cities that connect us with nature without consuming nature. We loved the products, but more important to the Foundation was the opportunity to create with KITH a platform to reach new (younger and more diverse and more global) audiences and share Wright’s ideas about equal access to resources, conservation, and respect for the individual. We held a launch event at Taliesin West, and invited the hundreds of people who lined up to buy shoes to tour the campus and learn about Wright, at no charge; and as we had hoped, we found ourselves engaging with a younger, more diverse visitor group than we usually see.

As I walked around the property engaging with our visitors, I stopped to chat with two Black men in their 20s who were reading some of our educational materials on Broadacre. They were surprised to learn that Wright — a white man from the 19th Century — had spent the last 20 years of his career speaking and writing about these concerns. They had never thought to come to Taliesin West because they didn’t know how Wright’s work — or that of the Foundation — related to their lives or their history. We wound up talking for about 20 minutes, and as we parted company, they shared with me their pleasure in learning about this piece of American history. I’m not sure if it made up for the fact that the shoes were sold out by the time they got there — but I think/hope that they got something that over time will be more valuable in their lives.

That day presented many similar encounters, and many of the people who were there have become engaged with our work. And while the KITH event was remarkable, we have this impact on the people who participate in our work every day. Teaching them something they didn’t know, helping them understand the role that design plays in their lives, and connecting them with nature and beauty.

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?

I don’t think it’s hard, but it does require intentionality: (1) live in harmony with nature, knowing that you and all you do are part of the seamless fabric all around you, and that you need to care for it, rather than consume it; (2) open yourself up to connection with others, especially those unlike yourself, and realize that this connectedness across culture (and time and space) creates possibilities that you can’t imagine; and (3) build and live with sensitivity to the space and people around you. Your individualism should not come at the expense of those around you, nor should it be sacrificed to conform to the needs of others. Seek balance in all things.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?”

First, respect your team, especially those on the front line. If they don’t do their jobs well, what you do as a leader will never matter. Be there for them, hire and develop the best talent, and respect what they have to say. There will be no success without great people fully engaged to do great work.

Second, balance urgent needs and strategic priorities. You will never have the resources to do everything you want to do, so find what matters and what you’re capable (resourced) to do about the things that matter. Engage your team behind that decision and act with transparency toward other stakeholders (donors, beneficiaries, partners) as you execute.

Third, remember that the principal work of leadership is to create followers, not through power, but through engagement. Don’t worry about having your way, because that’s not why you’re in leadership; your job is to find the best way, no matter who comes up with it, and to put your leadership role, your organizational resources, and your team behind the execution of the best approach to your organization’s work.

Fourth, challenge and inspire your team. Over many different parts of my career, I have learned that most people are more capable than they believe themselves to be. But, generally, our society rewards successes and punishes failure, leaving people afraid to take risks, to stretch themselves. Invest your trust and your own energy and intelligence so that they see their potential rather than fearing their limits.

Finally, take risks, but prudent ones. Test, learn, refine, and repeat until you are working at scale — and if something doesn’t work, that’s ok, because you’ll know why and learn from it. Have risk mitigation plans in place, secure the input of key stakeholders, find partners to help; but move forward, always.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

The pandemic reconfirmed my beliefs about success — it’s about people, caring, belief, and connection. The worst of times brought out the best in the best of us.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

I sit back and think about what I’ve learned from it. Did I think about the situation adequately? Did I plan for risks? What will I do differently in the future when faced with the situation? The engineer in me knows that there’s always opportunity to improve, so do it; the lawyer in me knows that risk is inevitable, so manage it. Mourning your losses accomplishes little, so move forward.

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. 🙂

Can I pick two? David Rubenstein has devoted so much effort behind spreading his ideas of patriotic philanthropy in America, and I’d love to see him view this idea expansively. Patriotism doesn’t just exist in the symbols of our government; I think it exists all across the country in our cultural heritage, represented through the ideas and initiatives of people who worked to make our country, and our lives, better. The symbols of our government stand behind the essence of democracy, and that’s the work of people, every day, everywhere, to better our communities.

I’d also pick Michael Bloomberg, whose philanthropies are working to make our cities better for people to live and work in. We need desperately to do this work — our future depends on making housing opportunities affordable, maintaining our climate and our access to nature, and to safety and security. Cities are where unalike people come together to live and work — and when cities work, we can achieve great things.

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

Check out our webpage at, and sign up for a membership or e-newsletter.

Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.