An Interview with Karen Mangia
Published in Authority Magazine
“Develop an organization-wide culture of gratitude. Say thank you all the time! Thank your donors, your volunteers, and your staff. Anyone working or engaged in a nonprofit is probably trying to solve a thorny problem, and nobody working on it is getting rich doing this. Be grateful and express that gratitude to everyone making your mission happen.”
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 Gretchen Grad.
Gretchen Grad is the visionary founder of Hands of Peace, an interfaith, international nonprofit organization that empowers American, Israeli and Palestinian youth to become agents of change.
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?
Like many people, I was horrified and perplexed by the events of Sept. 11th, 2001. I felt so helpless. And I began to take notice of the widening gulf between east and west, the divisions being drawn along religious lines, and the fury and lack of understanding everywhere. My frustration occupied many of my thoughts all day and night. During one of my sleepless nights in the wake of 9/11, as I wrestled with ways to bring about meaningful change, I had the idea for a program like Hands of Peace that would bring Israeli, Palestinian, and American youth together and help them become agents of change. There were no brainstorming sessions or focus groups and certainly no master plan. There was simply a rough concept emerging from someone looking for a little hope and a nagging question that would not go away, even in the morning light — What if? I was not searching nor intending to become personally involved in something like this, but there were forces at work inside of me. These forces might have existed before Sept. 11th, but that tragedy and the sorrow and fear of the days that followed brought them to the surface. When my idea was still stuck in my head 48 hours later, I decided to mention it to my best friend. I am Christian, she is Jewish, so I thought her perspective would be helpful. To both my relief and dismay, her reaction was: “Yes! We must do this!” That was the first of the key affirmations that sparked my evolution from a corporate executive to a nonprofit activist and led to the birth of Hands of Peace.
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.
For me, stubbornness is at the top of a list of character traits important to building and sustaining my nonprofit, Hands of Peace. It has been essential to have an unflinching belief that what I am trying to do is important and matters. This has empowered me to pursue the mission no matter what obstacles may come in my path. Starting any new initiative involves a lot of uphill challenges, so I think having a strong belief that what you are doing is important will help you get over those inevitable bumps in the road.
The willingness to ask for help is also essential. This wasn’t really in my DNA makeup before I started Hands of Peace, mainly because I had worked in the corporate world — in finance and on a trading floor, which was about as competitive as you can get. I had an independent mindset. So when I started building Hands of Peace, it was a shock to me when I would reach out to people in the field, and they would readily share advice or help. This was a refreshing and wonderful experience and a complete 180 from my corporate life. I had to change my mindset and become more open to seeking and receiving assistance.
A third trait is optimism. We can read the news every day and find a bottomless pit of things to be depressed about. But having an optimistic mindset and remembering that there can still be good in the world will keep you going. We must focus on what we can do to shape the future.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
It’s hard to pick one discovery because this entire journey has been 20 years of near-constant discovery. One thing that stands out is that I originally had the naive belief that all we needed to work collaboratively was to find people who believed in the Hands of Peace mission, which is empowering young people to make substantive change in the world. But I soon discovered that this was not enough. People bring their whole selves wherever they go. What that means in an organization that deals with conflict is that people who are working on the mission, whether they are staff or volunteers or board members, bring their own lived experiences to their role, which can create its own kind of conflict, specifically along religious lines. We engage Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of all backgrounds. When you bring those constituencies together, often, there are sensitivities from one group that may not be understood by another. Belief in the mission alone is not sufficient. You also have to create space for people to be able to express when they feel they’ve been misunderstood, their feelings have been hurt, or their tradition is not being respected. So we’ve grown in depth over the years in terms of learning to handle those kinds of issues. I think that initially, my naivete caused me to sort of gloss over the differences. But you can’t do that. You have to stop and embrace them.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
It’s more than an intention. It’s a reality. We are making a significant social impact because we engage with youth. We start with 15, 16, and 17-year-olds from Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. Many come from areas experiencing extreme conflict. Through our 19-day Summer Program, we open their eyes to the power of using their own voice in their own communities, and we provide them with the tools they need to be active and engaged citizens when they see something they find unjust. We have more than 750 alumni who have taken that initial Hands of Peace experience and used it to work for change around the world. We support them for years after the Summer Program, as they work in diplomacy, education, healthcare, nonprofits, and more. Those ripples have been spreading out for 20 years and making a significant worldwide social impact.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
It chose me. I didn’t go looking to start working with Israelis and Palestinians. It was a cause that found me in the wake of the events of September 11th, 2001. It’s not an idea that I feel I generated internally. It was something that showed up on my doorstep and asked me to pay attention to it. I thought, “I can’t turn away from this because, for whatever divine reason, it appeared in my consciousness. I feel an obligation to pursue it.” This cause and this mission have shaped my life ever since then and my family’s life as well. It’s who we are. It’s part of the air we breathe and the water we drink now. I can’t imagine life without it.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
There are many individuals who come to mind. One man in particular has a story I like to share. He is a Palestinian who is now in his thirties. But when he came to Hands of Peace, he was young, high energy and a bit distracted, and he had a somewhat high-risk background in terms of his willingness to push boundaries. He went through the first year of the program, and I wondered what was going to happen to him later in life. The next year, my husband and I met up with him during a trip to Jerusalem, and he was charming. We had dinner, and he showed us around the old city. When he left us, he said he was going to go meet his friends in the desert and they were going to do something with firearms. Once again, I worried about the direction this young person might go as he grew into an adult.
Well, it turned out that he did, in fact, make his mark. He went on to university, then law school and then was accepted into a prestigious diplomatic program in Washington, D.C., the John McCain Institute for International Leadership. He is now back in Palestine and has an impressive career in diplomacy. I love the arc of his story and how he went from being a 15-year-old Hands of Peace participant with an uncertain future to a man in his mid-30s who is an incredibly thoughtful and influential leader. His Hands of Peace experience inspired his journey and helped prepare him to make a difference as a leader and changemaker today.
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 think the most important thing we can do is educate ourselves. America is deeply involved in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, and yet very few Americans have more than a rudimentary understanding of its causes. So I think since we are so deeply involved in terms of financial support (largely for Israel), Americans have an obligation to understand where that money goes and how it is used. Pay attention to political dynamics between Israel and Palestine, and for those who are able, go and see with your own eyes. I know that’s not feasible for everybody, but for those who have a curiosity and really want to understand the dynamics of life beyond the headlines, I would encourage them to attend the kind of multi-narrative trip that Hands of Peace offers for adults. These trips enable us to see what both Israeli and Palestinian life is like. We can meet the people who live on the ground and hear about their issues and concerns. This gives us a much more nuanced understanding.
In addition, I think we all need to truly listen to each other and work to accept our differences. We are stronger when we come together than when we are divided. This is especially true when it comes to violence — it is blinding and only begets more violence. We can all raise our voices and take non-violent action to promote peace locally and globally. Finally, we can support Hands of Peace and other organizations that promote peace, justice, equity, respect and safety for all — whether financially, by volunteering or by learning about their mission and speaking out in 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.
- A nonprofit founder absolutely must attend to building an organization that can go on without them. I call this the “what if I get hit by a bus?” question. If you were to perish today, would your organization still survive and thrive? If the answer is no, then figure out why that is. What are the crucial things that other people need to know about and have responsibility for so the organization can continue in your absence? This can be a hard thing for founders because in the initial stages, the idea lives in their head. It’s the founder’s belief and commitment and tireless work that gets it off the ground. But if you want your organization to exist in the long term, you have to build it so it doesn’t exclusively rely on you for survival. That means delegating. That means giving up power, essentially, which is challenging for a lot of founders to do but is essential.
- Have an awareness of what others are doing in your field or similar areas. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. Perhaps another organization has creatively solved a problem that you have struggled with. Apply other people’s successes when you can, and learn from their challenges. Similarly, your organization might have something to offer others as well. There is probably something unique in your approach. For Hands of Peace, the unique aspect is that the participants who take part in the Summer Program live with host families, and we deeply involve the local communities in what we do. This has had tremendous benefits, and there are key learnings that other organizations can apply as they grow.
- Develop an organization-wide culture of gratitude. Say thank you all the time! Thank your donors, your volunteers, and your staff. Anyone working or engaged in a nonprofit is probably trying to solve a thorny problem, and nobody working on it is getting rich doing this. Be grateful and express that gratitude to everyone making your mission happen.
- Know what you don’t know. Because of my business background, I had some experience in building an organization. Yet, the heart of our organization is the dialogue that takes place among the youth every day during our Summer Program. That’s not my expertise — I didn’t know anything about how you create an environment to produce effective dialogue. So it was essential to seek expertise. Knowing what you don’t know is as important as knowing what you do.
- Engage the constituencies you serve in the decision-making process. Hands of Peace is an American-based organization, but we work with Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians. I can’t presume to know what life is like as an Israeli or Palestinian, so engaging with other ideas and voices is essential. We are constantly asking questions like: How are we doing? What can we do better? From your perspective, what are we missing?
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
Every organization is interested in measuring metrics of success. Everyone, from donors to staff, wants proof that you’re achieving your mission, and metrics are usually the best way to provide that proof. That’s why we’ve always measured and assessed our success using a variety of methods. But the pandemic brought about many changes for nonprofits and forced us to track our progress in new and different ways. Often, we were merely focused on survival. Unfortunately, many nonprofits did not survive the pandemic. So to be able to come out on the other end and still be a viable entity is something we don’t take for granted. In our case, we rely heavily on donations, with about 90 percent of our budget coming from individual and family foundation donors. So it was critical to keep the picture of what we do in front of our supporters, even though we couldn’t have our in-person Summer Program in 2020 and 2021. Keeping the mission alive is where our development and marketing teams have excelled, even during the pandemic. They kept everyone engaged and connected to our mission. So to survive the pandemic and actually come out stronger is the greatest success I can think of.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
I have learned over 20 years that nonprofit work in itself is challenging. But nonprofit work that engages in conflict — especially one as contracted as the Israeli / Palestinian conflict — is a constant challenge with many setbacks. I think the way we continue to persevere is that people believe in the mission. They can see its impact on the young people who come through the program. But what is really important is that we as leaders lift each other up. What helps me bounce back is when I see the enthusiasm and the commitment of other people on the team I am working with. You can’t have a situation where everyone’s bio-rhythms have gone to depression mode at the same time. You need to have people who are in different places at different times, so that those who are feeling particularly demoralized at any point can be lifted up by others who are feeling more optimistic and energized.
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. 🙂
The person who comes to mind is Michelle Obama. For one, there is the Chicago connection because Hands of Peace was founded on the outskirts of Chicago, and I’ve lived in Chicago for 30+ years. We are both similar ages. I followed her trajectory with great interest, and she’s someone who has managed to rise above constant challenges, criticism, more than criticism even, personal attack. Yet she always seems to persevere with such grace and generosity and optimism. Her example is one that I lift up to inspire myself, and I would love it if she knew what was going on in her backyard in Chicago.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.
About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.