Mark Graham to retire from Tulsa Area United Way

The longtime president and CEO looks back on his storied career with the organization.



As a newly minted volunteer for the Tulsa Area United Way, Mark Graham’s first assignment was to gather donations door-to-door. This was the early ’80s, and the bright-eyed, 20-something banker was assigned to a part of town he had never visited. The native Tulsan took the experience to heart.

“It was one of those life lessons that stayed with me the rest of my life. I think it helped, in some way, guide me here,” says Graham, who will retire as TAUW president and CEO April 1. “With few exceptions, every person I asked gave money. I was convinced, and still am to this day, that because they were making the decision to give a dollar or five dollars, meant that something else didn’t happen in their life,” whether that was food on the table or filling the gas tank.

That sacrifice resonated with Graham, who had volunteered to help the United Way to impress his banking bosses. But, what resulted was more than three decades of dedication to an organization that has left an indelible mark on the community.

Graham's early career

Graham, a University of Oklahoma journalism school graduate, helped put himself through college working as a bank teller, so it was a natural fit when he moved back to Tulsa for a job with Sooner Federal Savings and Loan.

It was Sooner Federal’s bank chairman who asked for volunteers that fateful day — the day that eventually put Graham on the path to philanthropic work. Throughout his for-profit career in banking and in health insurance at Blue Cross Blue Shield, Graham joined and led TAUW campaign teams. The connection remained.

Graham leaves the financial world — then what?

As Graham saw his time in the for-profit world coming to a close, he and his wife, Kirsten, spent two years contemplating the family’s next move.

“I knew that I had done what I wanted to do: check all those boxes in my career in the for-profit world,” Graham says. Ultimately, he knew he wanted to become fluent, if not very proficient, in Spanish. In April 2007, he left Blue Cross Blue Shield and got on a plane to Puebla, Mexico, where he would immerse himself in the language and culture. That August, Kirsten and he both moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, a destination they had visited previously and loved. It also checked off a personal goal to live in a large metropolitan city somewhere in the world.

Before Graham began his sabbatical, he learned that the TAUW would be launching a search to replace its retiring president and CEO, Kathleen Coan. Graham was “interested in hearing more.”

“When this job opened up, I knew it was what I should do so to make a big impact for the community,” he says.

The opportunity forced him and his wife to rethink the sabbatical, but he was still able to learn Spanish. “I can’t say I’m fluent, but I’m pretty good,” he says.

The 2007 ice storm throws TAUW for a loop

In December 2007, Graham returned to Tulsa expecting a typical 30-day transition with Coan.

But when the 2007 ice storm froze Tulsa to its core, a traditional passing of the baton just couldn’t happen.

The offices of the TAUW and its partner agencies were closed. Tulsans, including those dependent on the services provided by the TAUW and its agencies, were in dire straits.

Graham recalls the challenge: “I’m in as a new leader trying to understand my role, let alone manage and function in a disaster situation,” he says.

It was imperative to look at what the agencies needed to survive: basic needs, food, grant subsidies, client access, technology support. He wanted to assure them that in terms of financial support and emergency funding, the TAUW would stand behind them.

“It was an exceptional learning opportunity for me, someone leading a new organization that the community is deeply dependent on,” he says. “There was a certain understanding that you just had to be successful.”

Amazing accomplishments from Graham's tenure

The trials of that desperate time only set Graham and his team up for success.

During Graham’s tenure, campaigns raised $252,759,483. In those 10 years alone, the organization has raised about a third of what the TAUW had done over 90 years.

Campaign goals met or exceeded expectations each year. In 2012, the goal was exceeded by more than $1 million. In 2014, it surpassed $26 million for the first time in its 94-year history.

Tulsa has changed dramatically in the past 90 years. Graham recognized that from the beginning and has championed diversity throughout the organization, tapping into under-represented community voices and perspectives.

When he came to the  TAUW, only 25 percent of board members were female. Today, the ratio of men to women is nearly equal.

Graham had a direct role in creating three new groups that target different United Way supporters.

In 2011, the Women’s Leadership Council was established to cultivate female leaders to create positive change in the community through focused investment of time, talent and financial resources.

In 2013, the Emerging Leaders Society was created to prepare the next generation of leaders and philanthropists. ELS is focused on identifying those in their 20s through 40s who have a passion for giving back to the community.

In 2016, the Live United Network was created so small businesses can support the United Way.

Graham says he wanted to ensure that the TAUW remained relevant in the community without resting on its laurels and to recognize how the community is changing — including its needs, the donors, those needing help and how to connect people with services.

He also came into his position looking toward the future. An early imperative was to develop a five-year leadership succession plan to not only help the TAUW volunteer leaders plan, but also to help foster and develop relationships that would move it forward. The plan, which involves a year each as incoming campaign chair, campaign chair and board chair, taps individuals up to five years before their roles are assumed.

In 2013, the Tulsa Area United Way launched its Emerging Leaders Society with Over The Edge, a rappelling event that raised funds for the organization. Here, Mark Graham takes the plunge. // Courtesy Tulsa Area United Way

Looking back on the decade

During the past decade, the TAUW’s significant growth has made it among the 30th-largest of all 1,400 United Ways. That growth has led to countless individuals impacted by the United Way.

As Graham closes this chapter in his life, he thinks about how the TAUW has affected him. Seven partner agencies have helped his family over the past decade.

Inspiring friends and powerhouse colleagues

He has made lifelong friends through the organization, including Emeka Nnaka, a “face” of the TAUW. In 2009, Nnaka suffered a devastating neck and spinal cord injury.

“Many people in many different circumstances look to the United Way and our partner agencies as places of hope until they have the hope themselves,” Graham says of Nnaka, who was served by the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges and Ability Resources.

“To me, Emeka exemplifies hope, what we strive to make available to others to run with.”

Like Graham, Alison Anthony, his successor, is no stranger to the United Way. She has served on the organization’s board, helped launch the Women’s Leadership Council and chaired its strategic planning initiative. She will assume the role of president and CEO in April.

“She’s a powerhouse,” Graham says, noting Anthony’s extensive knowledge of the nonprofit world and experience working at Williams, the Williams Foundation and the Tulsa Community College Foundation.

What’s next for Mark Graham?

It’s a question Graham gets a lot.

As he maneuvers through retirement, which he is sure will include travel and volunteering, he knows that a set plan isn’t always followed. Sometimes simply raising your hand to volunteer, as he did back in 1982, takes one on a terrific adventure.

“Sitting here and looking back,” Graham says, “I do think it was a launching pad, unbeknownst to me, that got me involved in community work, got me seeing beyond myself and thinking how you can leverage what you do to do more and be better.”

 

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