Back to the future: Reaffirming our mission

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By Dan Wyant

Reexamining our mission has become a front-burner issue for me since I became chairman of our board of trustees a few months ago. As a past board member of the Council of Michigan Foundations, I’ve seen other nonprofits change over time and stray from their founders’ original intent. Although I didn’t think this was the case with us, I wanted to be sure. Fortunately, we have an extensive archive that includes a number of videos capturing Ed and Darlene’s thinking in the foundation’s early days.

Historically, our primary focus has been on entrepreneurship. When Ed and Darlene started the foundation in 1985, we were a grant-making institution, and initial awards were given to academic institutions for research on various challenges that entrepreneurs faced. In 1991 we switched our structure to an operating foundation, which meant we could create and run our own programs. At first, we experimented with a lot of different programs, ranging from youth entrepreneurship to policy conferences and publishing venues. Then in the late 1990s under executive director Mark Lange’s guidance, we began to focus narrowly on second-stage entrepreneurs. Although Ed didn’t specifically use the term “second stage” in the videos, he frequently stressed the need to help already successful businesses grow larger as opposed to helping startups. Listening to him assured me that we were spot-on in the entrepreneurial space of our mission.

Another major theme addressed in the videos was our property. Big Rock Valley was extremely important to Ed and Darlene, and Ed also felt strongly about taking care of the environment. Over the years, conservation has emerged to become a secondary mission for the foundation. In addition to hosting entrepreneurship programs on the property, we are recognized for applying conservation best practices, and we invite academic researchers to conduct environmental studies at Big Rock Valley.

Yet as I thought about our 2,000-acre property and its woodlands, prairies, ponds and streams, I realized what also makes Big Rock Valley special is the unique look Darlene has developed for our facilities and grounds. Her aesthetics enhance the natural beauty found here, and in tandem they create an environment that is simultaneously relaxing and recharging. My takeaway was that the property component of our mission should extend beyond land stewardship. With that in mind, we’ve created a committee to see how we can enhance our guests’ experience at Big Rock Valley, so they not only benefit from our educational programs but become inspired by interacting more with the property.

My second aha was gaining clarity on something Ed often said — that he wanted the foundation and his name to go on forever. I had always taken this literally, which is a tough thing to wrap your head around because eternity is difficult to deliver. However, as I watched the videos from our archive, it hit me that because of the work we’re doing, Ed’s reach is extending beyond his lifetime. His name will go on forever and be synonymous with championing the entrepreneurial spirit and the contributions second-stage growth companies make to our national economy and local communities.

In summary, watching the videos was time well spent. I came away feeling really good. Not only are we still aligned with our founders’ intent, but we’re evolving and doing an even better job of serving entrepreneurs and managing our property.

Your mission impacts people both inside and outside your organization. Clarity on that mission is important to help people understand why you do what you do — and in our case, what Ed and Darlene felt so strongly about. Besides helping future generations of entrepreneurs be successful, their legacy might also inspire other entrepreneurs to give back.

(Published April 26, 2021)

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Dan Wyant
President of Edward Lowe Foundation
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“To me, leadership is about building a team, trying to get the best out of others, and helping them be successful,” says Dan Wyant, president and chief operating officer of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“If done right, the impact should be lasting.” In this series of articles, Wyant shares insights about leadership gleaned from more than three decades of managing entrepreneurial and conservation organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.