• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


The Grateful Dead as a Guide for Nonprofit Leadership

Want to run an organization well? Look to the Dead -- and listen to their music!

October 28, 2019

I lead an organization called IFYC that works with college campuses and higher education networks on religious diversity initiatives (curricular, co-curricular and strategic). Before starting IFYC, I thought that the idea itself mattered most, that it would naturally move into the world, like fog coming into San Francisco. I know now that good ideas are a dime a dozen, and that the hard part is building the kind of organization that can advance an idea. A force to propel the fog, so to speak. And so I think a lot about what it looks like to build an effective organization.

Lately, my mind has turned to a question: What’s the best metaphor to describe how a good nonprofit organization ought to function?

Is it like a professional athletic team, where the staff are like different players competing, year after year, for starting spots and high salaries? Is it like a law firm or a consulting firm where partners generate the business and associates do the grunt work and hope one day to make partner? Is it like the military, where the generals call the shots and the soldiers go where they’re told?

I’m not crazy about any of those models for the kind of organization I run. They might be perfectly fine for their particular line of work, but I’m looking for something different as I build IFYC.

Lately, I’ve settled on the Grateful Dead as both metaphor and organizational model. Let me take you through my whole line of thinking.

Dead shows are unique. Most bands on tour play the same 20 songs night after night, switching maybe three or four out, max. This is true for even exceptional bands like U2. The Dead never played the same show twice. Their entire songbook of several hundred tunes was available to them, and they basically played 20 different songs every night, rarely repeating the same song during the same week.

And the Dead never played the same song the same way twice. They basically invented the live, extended rock and roll jam.

Think about how well you have to know your songs to be able to riff and jam on any given one at any given time. Think about how well you have to know your songbook to play 20 different tunes a night, night after night, for an entire summer. Think about how well you have to know your fellow musicians to pull any of this off.

I’ve long looked to Dead shows as a model for how I approach public speaking. I have a set of 40 or 50 stories about interfaith cooperation in my head, and when I’m keynoting at a campus or a conference, I’ll string six or seven different stories together into what I hope is a coherent whole. I approach my speeches in this manner because it’s a way of proving to myself that I fully understand IFYC’s vision, mission and strategy. If I have to constantly find stories that illustrate our work, string several together into a speech that inspires other people and do it night after night without too many repeats, well, then, I feel comfortable with my own mastery of our work.

But the most important reason I do this is because each audience and context is different. My goal is to get across the same basic vision -- America as an interfaith nation, defined by religious pluralism, built by civic interfaith leaders -- to audiences that range from presidents of foundations to college freshmen. It is my job to string together the stories -- think of it as a concert set list -- that communicates the interfaith vision to that particular audience.

But here’s the rub: I’m not a solo act. What made the Dead special is that they were a band. They all had to know every song, they all had to be able to jam and they had to have the combination of individual virtuosity and group chemistry to be able to do it together.

That’s how well the leadership of a nonprofit organization should know its songbook -- its mission and strategy, its core concepts and theories, its signature programs and key partnerships.

One of the great myths of a nonprofit is that the mission gives the staff a natural focus, the way the profit motive naturally focuses a lot of companies. The truth is much messier. That’s because any mission has a hundred interpretations, and any strategy can lead to a thousand possible jams.

The Dead had hundreds of songs and thousands of jams, and yet, they always sounded like the Dead.

A nonprofit has to reinterpret its mission and strategy as times change, but through it all it has to know and retain its identity.

Our vision at IFYC is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm by advancing the ethos of religious pluralism through the vehicle of civic interfaith leaders.

The song of pluralism and civic interfaith leadership was all around us in the Obama years. We simply had to play along with what we were hearing on the radio.

Not so in the Trump era. As the cycle of racism/resistance started to fill the airwaves, it confused the song of pluralism that IFYC was founded to play. Discordant notes became more common. Instead of respect for identity, there was finger-pointing and calling out. Instead of relationships across lines of difference, there were temptations to tribalism.

The first task of people who are part of an organization with a mission is to learn the songbook. This is not easy, and it is an absolute requirement.

If you want to play different music (in the IFYC context, if you want to do diversity work that takes an approach that’s different than what we call pluralism) then you should go join a different band. That doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t make us a bad organization. We know the music we want to play. It’s folk rock. I like heavy metal, too (kind of), but that’s not what we play here. If that’s what you want to play, you should go play it.

The second task is to get good at playing the music. Again, think of the Dead. Think about how exceptional you have to be to play 20 different songs a night, jam style, for an entire summer, with only occasional repeats. You are constantly reinterpreting the music with your band mates depending on the city, the venue, the weather, the day of the week, how you happen to feel, the groove you catch or don’t -- and you are doing it on stage, live, night after night, in front of tens of thousands of people.

A nonprofit organization is the same. Which program do you expand, and which program do you close? What new partnership do you launch, and which relationship do you end? What stories do you tell to explain your mission? This, collectively, is the songbook.

The band has to know these things in its bones (it’s not enough for only the leader to know it) and have the virtuosity and chemistry to jam on stage, in any type of weather, with authority.

You can take this songbook analogy one step further -- to the roots. The Grateful Dead studied and played country, blues, rock, jazz and bluegrass. These are the roots of the music, the literatures and traditions that shaped the Dead’s music.

IFYC comes out of a variety of literatures as well. Social capital theory. The branch of political philosophy that asks how you build a healthy, diverse democracy. The parts of social psychology that explores how to build spaces that encourage different identity groups to cooperate. To really understand our songbook (our vision, mission and strategy, as it manifests in key concepts, core programs and significant partnerships), you should acquire a fluency in these literatures.

Thus far, I’ve focused on live Dead -- how their concerts can serve as a metaphor for the leadership of an organization really understanding its work. But I think there’s a lot to be learned from how the Dead wrote songs, too.

Here’s my understanding of how that went. Some member of the band -- typically Jerry Garcia, but also Bob Weir -- would come up with the core and feel of a new song (Robert Hunter would write the lyrics), and then play it for members of the band. Those members would then figure out their part in the song -- Phil the bass line, Mickey and Bill the drums, etc. There was an initial essence and shape that gave focused guidance, but there was room for the other band members to create their own role. Again, think of the virtuosity this demanded of different band members, and the chemistry that it required of the group as a whole.

In my mind, here’s the crucial thing: everybody had to have a bone-deep sense of what constituted a Grateful Dead song. The part that you are creating is not principally about what you feel like playing, but rather what you are adding so that the whole comes out to a Dead tune. The only reason that the figure-out-your-own-part approach worked is because everyone had such a deep sense of what defined “the whole,” of what a Grateful Dead tune was.

I’m going to repeat the main lesson because it’s so important: the part that you are creating is not principally about what you feel like playing, but rather what you are adding so that the whole comes out to be a Dead tune.

One of the things that has struck me about many nonprofit organizations is that lots of staff think of themselves as solo acts. They run their initiatives the way they want to, relatively unconcerned with the whole. I understand this. Nonprofits attract people who care about the mission of the organization and have their own creative ideas about how that ought to be expressed in the world. And because hierarchy and internal order are generally far more fluid than at a for-profit company, many nonprofits turn out to be a physical space that holds together a set of solo acts running disconnected initiatives.

That’s like a band being a set of musicians each playing what they feel like playing, unconcerned about the whole that is the song.

I don’t like the military command-and-control approach, where one person makes the decisions and everybody else has a hyperspecific prescribed role. But it’s also true that a bunch of solo acts don’t make up a band.

That’s what I love about the Grateful Dead approach. Garcia (who famously hated telling people what to do) or Weir would come with the core of the song, other people would be invited to create their own part, and there was a total dedication to the end product being a Grateful Dead tune.

This leads to the next point. Everyone plays a crucial role in the operation, but not everyone is in the band. Not everyone writes songs, plays on stage in front of tens of thousands of people, etc. Some people organize the tour, some people set up the stage, some are backing musicians on certain songs. These are all important roles, but they take their lead from the band.

Part of what made the Dead special is that not only did they change how concerts were done, they changed the whole way a band approached its fans and the world. They were one of the first bands to start a mailing list and sell tickets directly to fans. They allowed people to tape their shows. They famously had a world-class speaker system called "the wall of sound."

Certainly, the band members didn’t come up with all of these ideas -- other people in the broader Dead operation did. But those people took their lead from the band. If someone in the broader operation had said, “Hey, we should do a laser show at our concerts,” someone in the band would have probably said, “Look, we’re not Pink Floyd, we’re the Grateful Dead.”

You have to take your lead from the band.

At a nonprofit organization, a big question is always "Who gets to be in the band?" Meaning, who gets to create the strategy, launch new programs, bring in partnerships, shape key concepts, etc. Hierarchy and order are much more clear, and much less questioned, in other types of organizations.

So, what determines it at a nonprofit? I think knowledge of the songbook, musical virtuosity and group chemistry are all important factors. But I think something else matters, too: the people who are best at playing for the highest stakes are the ones in the band.

One of the things that I’m trying to be more and more clear about at IFYC is how to help new staff learn the approach that will help them thrive here.

To thrive: learn the songbook, become excellent at playing this music, take your lead from the band, be curious about the literatures that we come out of, get a bone-deep feel for what “our song” is, learn how to create your own part so that it contributes to the whole.

People who don’t work out don’t learn the songbook and show no curiosity about where our songbook comes from, want to play different music or simply can’t get proficient at the music we play, want to lead their own band or be a solo act or just don’t want to take their lead from the people in this band.

The Dead created a new genre of American music and a new way of being a rock band. A million musicians were impacted by the way they did things, and whole traditions were invented along the way. No Grateful Dead, no Phish. And that’s just the most obvious example.

They had a commitment to excellence that was second to none without a command structure or a profit motive. They embodied one of their most famous song lyrics: “Without love in the dream, it will never come true.”

Can a nonprofit organization do the same? I think it is certainly worth trying.


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