Community//

Greg Propper: “A leader without any followers is just a person taking a walk”

My dream is that someday one of the most commonly asked questions in this country will be, “Where did you do your service year?” When Bill Clinton created Americorps, he believed that if 1 million people were serving each year, we could change the world. Not only would communities benefit by receiving corps members, but […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and though they are reviewed for adherence to our guidelines, they are submitted in their final form to our open platform. Learn more or join us as a community member!

My dream is that someday one of the most commonly asked questions in this country will be, “Where did you do your service year?” When Bill Clinton created Americorps, he believed that if 1 million people were serving each year, we could change the world. Not only would communities benefit by receiving corps members, but the members themselves have the opportunity to better themselves by being around people that are different from them, building empathy. With national service, people with different lived experiences work together to achieve a common goal; people receive educational awards and receive stipends to apply to their education, and communities receive aid and human capital investment. As more people serve and enter into other communities, we also begin solving our perceived sense of partisanship and foreignness between US communities. This is a crucial step in solving national challenges and problems and repairing our government systems. Finally, service is proven to create a populace that is more civically engaged. Once you serve, it turns on your justice nerve, and you become a more active citizen for life — more likely to remain informed, vote, and volunteer — which is what we need to drive progress.


Aspart of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Propper.

Greg Propper is President of Propper Daley, the nation’s first social impact agency, which fuses ‘left-brain’ strategic expertise with ‘right-brain’ creative execution to help foundations (W.K.Kellogg Foundation, Clinton Foundation, George W. Bush Presidential Center), nonprofits (Everytown for Gun Safety, Girl Scouts, GRAMMY Museum), brands (Activision, Viacom, SoulCycle), and individual philanthropists (John Legend, Shawn Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Kerry Washington, and Lady Gaga) to accelerate their purpose. A social impact innovator, Greg has worked at the intersection of public policy, nonprofit leadership, philanthropy, and entertainment for over 25 years. Greg served as Executive Director of ServiceNation and Managing Director of Be the Change, Inc., leading the effort to pass the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act during the first 100 days of the Obama Administration — the largest expansion of national and community service since the Great Depression. As an advocate and organizer, Greg helped lead the “Save AmeriCorps” campaign of 2003 that successfully restored funding to the marquee national service program. He is a member of the board of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, LIFT Los Angeles, the New Politics Leadership Academy, and serves as a board member and President Emeritus of the Social Impact Fund. He holds a B.A. with high honors from Tufts University and a J.D. from Cardozo School of Law in New York City.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s an honor to be interviewed! Thanks so much for having me. My background is in the political and philanthropic space — I was helping to lead a campaign to dramatically scale national service in the United States — programs like AmeriCorps, City Year, and Teach for America. Along with many other partners, we helped get a piece of legislation passed — and signed by President Obama in his first 100 days in office — that authorized the expansion of AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 young people a year. This would have been the largest expansion of national service in this country since the Great Depression. Unfortunately, the expansion was never fully funded by Congress. Afterward, we realized that we had done a really effective job reaching the “grasstops”- members of Congress, the President, editorial boards, CEOs, etc. — but we hadn’t built public will for the idea of a service year as part of what it means to grow up in this country. We hadn’t popularized it or normalized it. With this insight, I moved to Los Angeles to engage with content creators and influencers — arbiters of culture — that could really activate groundswells of public support. It’s at this point I became really interested in figuring out what it takes to change social norms through culture- how to effectively shift attitudes and beliefs.

The experience with the national service initiative taught me that to generate real and lasting change, you have to raise awareness to shift perceptions and move hearts and minds. Once you shift perceptions, behavior change will follow. Once behaviors begin to change and you’ve experienced a groundswell of perception shift, you can then shoot for policy change. Through this process, you can create a powerful and effective roadmap toward positive social impact. Equipped with this theory of change, I wanted to apply this concept to help other organizations, brands, and individual philanthropists realize the change they wanted to see in this world. That’s how I started on this career path, and that’s why I founded Propper Daley, a social impact agency.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In 2012 we were part of a collaborative campaign called “Got Your 6” which was looking to move the needle on the perception of post 9/11 veterans — working to position them as the valuable and desirable source of skilled labor that they are — to help ease the veteran reintegration process. Learning from the experience with the civilian national service work, we knew we had to raise awareness and change perceptions with the public. To achieve this groundswell of support and reach a critical mass, we decided to launch the campaign with the creation of a celebrity PSA about the issue and explaining the significance of the name, Got Your 6, which is a military expression meaning, “I have your back.”

We determined the best place to gather celebrity PSA messages was backstage at the Oscars, and after reaching out to many, we were thrilled by the number of celebrities that were kind enough to participate. One of those individuals was Tom Hanks. We asked him to wear a Got Your 6 pin on his lapel while we filmed the PSA, and he was so touched and moved by the Got Your 6 mission that he asked to keep the pin. We, of course, said, “yes.”

The next night we tuned into the Oscars only to see Tom Hanks walk out on stage as the first presenter wearing the Got Your 6 pin. The internet went wild, wondering the pin’s meaning. We were flooded with orders for the pin, and I actually had to call the Livestrong organization for advice about order fulfillment, logistics, and process. This action propelled us quickly into the rest of the Got Your 6 work, effectively launching a five-year campaign that raised many millions of dollars for post 9/11 veteran serving organizations and resulted in over 500,000 veterans hired, 36,000 chronically homeless veterans housed, and 100,000 student veterans completing their education.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Always. Double. Check. The. Mute. Button. I will leave it at that.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

For many years, if you were a brand, organization, or individual philanthropist trying to create an outcome-oriented impact in the world, you had to hire either a philanthropic advisor, marketing advisor, PR firm, etc. to help you with your mission. The work was extremely siloed, slow, and expensive. All of these services are pieces of the puzzle, but because the work was so siloed, you had to choose one lever of change, and the outcomes were narrow because of it.

At Propper Daley, we set out to change this. We pride ourselves on being issue-agnostic, and what we truly care about is the process — how we are helping brands, foundations, organizations, individual philanthropists fulfill their full potential when it comes to generating positive social impact in the world. We help changemakers think differently about approaching social impact. We work with them by starting with the outcome, defining success, and then working backward to create meaningful campaigns and activations that can shift hearts, minds, and perceptions, change behaviors, and ultimately generate policy change.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Leading up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014, we ran a campaign called Uprising of Love that worked to put pressure on the Russian government to reverse their anti-gay propaganda laws. One of the outcomes in that project was that we met a young, gay, Russian man and LGBTQ activist, named Vlad Slavskiy, who’s life was in danger for his own work against anti-gay Russian policies. We helped get Vlad asylum in the US, and when he got to the states, we put on a big Broadway show fundraiser that raised money for other marginalized and persecuted people like Vlad. I’m happy to say that Vlad is now married and living his own American dream. You can read more about Vlad’s story here.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I believe that our system of government — our democracy — was set up to allow us to self-govern and solve any type of issue. The challenge, however, is that our political system is broken and the public will no longer translate into political will- and so we are unable to solve the many urgent problems we are facing as a country and a world. Moreover, we are stuck in a vicious cycle- our broken political system will only ever be fixed if we have a strong middle class and a fair and equitable economy, and we will only ever have a fair and equitable economy if our political system can be fixed.

That is why we desperately need leaders, advocates, and activists to step up and demand that either our political system be rebuilt to reflect the will of the people- gerrymandering, campaign finance, the filibuster, the electoral college, etc.- or that we fix our economy so that more people have greater access to economic opportunity. In an ideal situation, we would do these things collectively and then use that momentum to solve almost every other problem that we face.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Quoting John Maxwell, I once heard President Clinton say, “A leader without any followers is just a person taking a walk.” This phrase embodies my leadership philosophy- a leadership position is useless unless people are inclined to follow you. I believe that happens through a clear vision, but also kindness, empathy, and positivity. If you can inspire and empower people while having integrity and honesty you will get a reciprocal reaction — if you respect others, they will respect you.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I was actually lucky to receive lots of great advice from folks…all of which proved to be sage. Some of the things that stand out for me:

  • Don’t try to grow too quickly overnight, pick one or two clients that represent the type of work you want to do and go deep with them. We really did this for our entire first year. We spent all of our time- making very little money- building and running two clients that ended up being our calling card for the next decade.
  • Keep your head down and the work will speak for itself. It is tempting to want to generate a lot of publicity, sit on a lot of panels and get a lot of attention for your work, and that does become important if you want your business to scale. But, in the beginning, at least, we spent most of our time just creating proof points and hoping that that would build our reputation.
  • Hire brilliant, talented people. This set us free! Early on, we took a big risk and invested more significantly than I thought we could in a couple of senior leaders who balanced out my strengths and weaknesses. They ended up transforming our company and we wouldn’t be where we are without them. The investment paid off in spades.
  • Be a pragmatic idealist! It is important to never stop thinking big and creatively, but that is only half the battle. I know a lot of brilliant thinkers and consultants who have massive ideas, but don’t pay as much attention to the work plans and memos. Having come from the nonprofit sector, I have a high BS meter when it comes to consultants. I think attention to detail and process is just as important, if not more important, than the transformative idea.
  • Be kind and collaborative, your reputation is everything. My Dad was in the retail business his whole life and never told a lie. At one point, later in his career, he was under financial stress. A business associate of his lent him 100,000 dollars without so much as a written agreement- and it saved his business. He, of course, paid it back shortly thereafter. I truly believe if you treat others with respect, kindness, and honesty, it will always come back to benefit you in the end.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My dream is that someday one of the most commonly asked questions in this country will be, “Where did you do your service year?” When Bill Clinton created Americorps, he believed that if 1 million people were serving each year, we could change the world. Not only would communities benefit by receiving corps members, but the members themselves have the opportunity to better themselves by being around people that are different from them, building empathy. With national service, people with different lived experiences work together to achieve a common goal; people receive educational awards and receive stipends to apply to their education, and communities receive aid and human capital investment. As more people serve and enter into other communities, we also begin solving our perceived sense of partisanship and foreignness between US communities. This is a crucial step in solving national challenges and problems and repairing our government systems. Finally, service is proven to create a populace that is more civically engaged. Once you serve, it turns on your justice nerve, and you become a more active citizen for life — more likely to remain informed, vote, and volunteer — which is what we need to drive progress.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Margaret Mead said, ”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. It is easy to be paralyzed by the enormity of problems, and when problems feel too big and unwieldy, there is a natural inclination to let others solve those issues. The truth is that most major movements and achievements have been started by small groups of people. The root of this is that problems are not as difficult to solve as people think. Everyone has the ability to solve problems; you simply have to begin working towards solving them.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Mayor Pete Buttigieg! I think it was Einstein who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Just like Presidents Obama and Clinton, who I have tremendous respect for, Pete has the ability to look at large systems and problems and clearly and articulately define the problem and the solution. Also, like those leaders, Pete does an amazing job at bringing people along with him in his thinking, guiding them to a solution. When thinking about the complexity of the world right now, I believe Pete is one of those people who has the ability to break the vicious cycle and paralysis I described earlier. During breakfast with Pete, I would be really curious about his take on the world today and what he plans on doing next. I really believe he is going to continue to change the world and solve big problems. He has been involved across so many organizations and systems in both the public and private sectors. I was really proud to support his presidential campaign. What I would love to learn is which lever of change he views as the most effective next step of progress.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @propperdaley

Website: propperdaley.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PropperDaley/

Instagram: @propperdaley

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

Class of 2018…the Future is Yours…

by Patty Brown
Community//

How to solve America’s biggest national security threat

by Bishop Garrison, Mary Beth Bruggeman

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.