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Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Great Man Theory of Nonprofits - Tori

In the 19th century, historians such as Thomas Carlyle posited that history is driven by the actions of ‘great men.’ Leaders endowed with charisma, personal magnetism, intelligence, or other traits are able to sway the masses and alter the arc of history. While the ‘Great Man Theory’ has its methodological shortcomings, the theory does prompt one to examine the degree to which individual effort and leadership traits can influence organizational behavior.

The leaders of many of the Roanoke Region’s top businesses belong to the Business Council, a bi-monthly forum for discussing critical issues facing the business community. A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Cabell Brand at a Business Council meeting. As an organizer of the meeting, I knew that Mr. Brand represented the Cabell Brand Center but knew little of his personal achievements or even the purpose of the Cabell Brand Center. When Mr. Brand entered the room, I was struck by the amount of attention he received from other members of the Business Council. Why were the presidents and CEOs of some of the largest companies in the Roanoke Valley flocking around this elderly but rather distinguished looking gentleman?

I quickly learned that Mr. Brand has a resume of personal accomplishments that any individual in the business community and nonprofit realm should strive to emulate.

This week, I was given a copy of Mr. Brand’s book If Not Me, Then Who?, a personal reflection on how his core beliefs about social justice were formed and how they shaped his mission as a philanthropist. I was particularly impressed by how Brand’s commitment to his ideals provided a compass for decision making as he straddled between his business ventures and his work with nonprofit organizations.

While this forum is not designed for a comprehensive account of all of Brand’s work with nonprofit organizations and his philanthropic endeavors, a quick overview of some of his most important achievements will provide readers with enough context to understand why his mission driven life is so compelling. Returning from military service after World War II, Brand purchased a door-to-door shoe selling business from his father. Over the next several years, Brand would alter the business model and experience significant success taking the company public in 1970. During this time, Brand also became heavily involved in a number of local organizations, including the Salem Rotary Club, the Torch Club, and the Council of Community Services of the Roanoke Valley. Beginning in the 1964, Mr. Brand realized that the Council of Community Services should focus on alleviating poverty and began to explore how new federal legislation, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, could be used as a source of funding. Over the next several months, Brand was the driving force behind the creation of a new social services agency, TAP or Total Action against Poverty. In addition to his work several programs designed to alleviate poverty like Head Start and C.H.I.P., Brand has served on countless other boards of prominent organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the World Resources Institute, and the H. John Heinz Center III Center for Science.

At the heart of his work with these various organizations is a pledge he made after returning from Europe in the late 1940s. As a witness to the devastation wrought by the Nazi regime, Brand was struck by the important role that the Marshall Plan played in the rebuilding of Europe. Brand decided that moving forward, he would devote 20% of his work week to building a strong civil society for his family, friends, and neighbors. In addition, the inhumanity of the Nazi regime along with his encounters with racial discrimination in the American South forged his commitment to promoting social justice. Brand recounts a story of resigning from a leadership position of the Salem Rotary Club when an African American candidate for membership was blackballed. Brand would eventually rejoin after the group accepted black members and women. In another one of his stories, Brand details how he was the driving force behind the Roanoke Touchdown Club’s decision in the 1960s to include black players as award nominees. Brand believes that human nature dictates that everyone wants a better life. His career in working with nonprofits was guided by his core ideals and his realization early on that concerned and dedicated people through their commitments to improve society can make an immense difference in the lives of others.

While many factors influence the behavior of nonprofit organizations, Brand’s truly intriguing personal narrative illustrates that a driven leader with a passionate commitment to his ideals can play a decisive role in shaping organizational behavior.

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