William E. Strickland, Jr, President & CEO, Manchester Bidwell Corporation and Russell Willis Taylor, Chair of Center for Nonprofit Excellence

A MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award-winner warned the Charlottesville philanthropic and nonprofit community Monday that the status quo wasn’t going to cut it when it comes to the way we view and support at-risk youth.

“We are not going to make it the way we are going, we are going to lose this country,” said Pittsburgh native William E. Strickland, Jr, President & CEO, Manchester Bidwell Corporation. “I think people are born into the world as assets and not liabilities. It’s all in the way that you treat people that drives behavior.”

Strickland keynoted the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s seventh annual Philanthropy Day luncheon which drew more than 400 attendees to the Boar’s Head Inn.

“I was a public school kid once upon a time, flunking out of school I might add, and an art teacher actually saved my life,” said Strickland. “A guy named Frank Ross, he got me excited about clay, and I got pretty good at it.  He said I needed to go to college in spite of not having any grades to support that.”

Strickland, 67, was admitted to University of Pittsburgh in 1965. Today he’s a member of its board of trustees.  He received the MacArthur “Genius” award in 1996 for his leadership and ingenuity in the arts.

Strickland has built in Pittsburgh what he hopes can become a national model for arts education and vocational training for at-risk youth. The students in his multitude of after-school programs find their calling in everything from music, to ceramics, to horticulture and medical technology.

Strickland said arts is a strategy to get students engaged in their learning. 

“In Pittsburgh’s case, they spend $20,000 per year on these kids [in public school] and fifty percent of the minority kids don’t graduate [from high school],” Strickland said.  “I take the same kids and for $2,500 per year per kid and 99 percent of them graduate.”

“We can change the conversation in this country about poor people,” said Strickland. “We know that environment drives performance.”

Strickland’s learning environments are inspired by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. His high school teacher took him to Wright’s famous Falling Water residence where Strickland said he was fascinated by the home’s incorporation of water. 

“The other thing that fascinated me was the light that enveloped the house, and I said if I can get that light into my neighborhood, then I am half way home,” said Strickland.

Strickland hired one of Wright’s students to build his first learning center in the highest crime-rate neighborhood in Pittsburgh.

“I am a big believer in beautiful environments,” said Strickland noting that his learning center has no metal detectors, security cameras or problems with theft. “Beautiful environments create beautiful people. Prisons create prisoners.”

The Center for Nonprofit Excellence also hosted a breakfast with Strickland attended by about 50 non-profit leaders and University of Virginia students and faculty.

Christine Mahoney, Associate Professor at the U.Va Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy asked Strickland how he had brokered public-private partnerships.

“By staying as far away from the government as I can,” Strickland responded, “and going right to the employers….I got very smart about how to work with corporations to customize training specific to their industries and adapt it to the population I work with.”

Strickland offered numerous examples of corporate CEOs and philanthropists that he had won over to his mission getting their support to build and expand his educational centers.

The Center’s executive director Cristine Nardi asked Strickland about the key traits of a social entrepreneur. 

“Curiosity is certainly important, but having bulldog determination is very helpful,” Strickland said. “You have to stay with the idea for a long time to start getting any traction. You also have to build a board with bright and innovative people around you and you have to build a culture of excitement every day.”