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Get to Know Marcus White, President of the Johnson Foundation

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Marcus White thrives on relationships. He’s the type of person who will remember your name and what you told him about your family, your work, and your interests. He listens attentively and looks you in the eye when you speak.

It’s no wonder that White has been so successful in his role as president of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, one of the nation’s leading organizations creating intimate, inspiring meeting and conference experiences.

White is a passionate advocate for engaging people and partners in efforts to ensure the future well-being of all in our communities.

In 2019, White joined the Johnson Foundation as president of the Johnson Foundation. In this interview with Cory Falter from Lure Agency’s InnSync Show, Marcus talks about the role philanthropy plays in meetings, the art of convening, and the "secret sauce" to success.

What is The Johnson Foundation?

The Johnson Foundation is committed to developing more resilient communities that are socially, economically, and environmentally vibrant and sustainable. Our unique approach brings together the right people on the right topic at the right time to create meaningful results. We call this approach convening for impact, and it’s at the core of everything we do.

What drew you to the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread?

The Johnson Foundation has a long history of convening for impact, and I was attracted to the foundation’s unique approach to problem-solving. Our purpose is to be a catalyst of change for a better tomorrow with thoughtful, intimate conferences designed to foster collaboration and inspire new, innovative solutions with meaningful impact. Wingspread, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, was built for the Johnson family in the 1930’s and as our home, is a cathedral of creativity to all who walk through our doors.  The Johnson Foundation believes in the collective power of human ideas and the force of the human spirit to drive change.

Our conferences focus on engaging people and partners in efforts to ensure the future well-being of all in our communities. We also lend our convening expertise and iconic setting to businesses and institutions looking to host their own uniquely inspiring retreat or meeting.

How can philanthropy play a part in meetings and events?

So we're perhaps unique, maybe not entirely unique, but close to unique because we are 501c3 foundation. At the heart of our mission is convening people, conferences, and meetings, all to strengthen relationships and build relationships so that people can solve problems together.

Philanthropy is probably in an unusual position because foundations and other philanthropists can serve as a convener since they don't necessarily have any self-interest in the topic at hand. And the parties that are coming together aren't wondering if the folks who brought them together have an agenda or are trying to get something out of it.

Philanthropy can bring people together and say, "Look, we really just want this group to form in order to try to solve this problem." It's not limited to philanthropy.

I think many organizations, individuals, and leaders can convene in that same spirit if they've got some of the right pieces in place ahead of that.

Maybe philanthropy has a little bit of a head start because we exist for charitable purposes so convening is part of that mission.

What is the art of convening?

We do like the term art, don't we? And I use it myself and in other ways.

I talk about “at the heart of what we do here”. I like to say that here at the Johnson Foundation, we are about the "art of the possible," and that's why people come here because they believe that something is possible from their convening, from their conference.

So we believe in the art of the possible. Convening is an art.

It takes a good facilitator. It takes a facilitator who can roll with what is happening in the room and perhaps see a little bit of what participants don't even see. And there's a lot of art to that.

We find that many really rigidly structured, every-minute-of-the-day-convenings are not nearly as effective as those with a little more "art" in them.

For instance, we have 36 acres, hiking trails, art works, and beautiful gardens here. That's beauty, which is valuable in and of itself. At the same time, we know that it helps people come here, exhale, and kind of let their hair down, yes, we want people to do that.

We think they get a better product if they've allowed a little air in their day or week and not be so prescribed about what they're going to do and accomplish.

We are all inundated, and part of what we like here is that you can turn all that off. But the other thing, too, and this is about parties other than philanthropy serving as convener if they're authentic about it.

They are then a trusted convener. And I think that authenticity is something we're losing because we get so much pushed at us all the time.

I probably delete ten times more emails than I open, right? Because it's just a flood all day long, and we all wonder, what's authentic, what's real, and we think the way we go about our work here, the experience that people have when they come here is real.

It takes patience, takes time, and it takes authenticity.

So how can groups embrace purpose to maximize their time together?

I do think purpose might be the most important component. I used to do a lot of presentations in some of my previous jobs and a lot of data work. And I would talk about ‘the what’ - sort of the facts, the data - ‘here's what the data tell us about our region’. When I would dive into what I thought was interesting about the data, I found that audiences really want to know less about ‘the what’ and more about ‘the why’ - and that’s what is often more interesting.

But the why really gets to who we are as people and with each other and our communities.

It's the same as a purpose in gathering.

We've all been in meetings, or we've all been at conferences where we're sitting and saying, "why are we even here"?

I think it is it is key for those conveners, meeting planners, and for leaders of any kind to be clear about the "why."

I think if you're clear about the why and the purpose of the gathering, you will get better participation from your team or from the audience you've brought together.

So that's why I think the purpose is perhaps the most important component.

The "what" is interesting. But the "why" really engages people. When everyone understands the why, you can get to the "how." How are we going to carry out this plan? How will we build this plan, whatever it might be that you're doing.

Tell us more about your methodology for convening.

We often advise groups to start backward, which is our starting point.  We ask, "What do you hope to achieve while you're here?"

If this Foundation happens to be the convener and has initiated the meeting or the conference, we try to be very clear with folks and say, look, from the very start, this is what we hope to achieve today so that people understand what we want of them.  They know this is why we have brought this room together. This end goal is why we're here today.

So. I always think there's value in working backward. Here's what we hope to achieve.  Let's talk about how we get there.

Otherwise, again, people are sitting there wondering why they're there,  why they're going to be there all day, why you ask them to turn off their devices.

Share with us a little bit of Marcus White's secret sauce.

I always talk about how everything depends on relationships.

Everything begins with a relationship. It's the relationships that sustain whatever it is you're engaged in.

But as I thought about it, even more than that, it's also authenticity.

Authenticity in relationships, authenticity in the purpose, if you're telling a team or a group or whoever you're convening about the purpose, they will know if it's authentic.

So authenticity in your purpose and the relationships you will rely on to carry out your goals. And then, at a very fundamental level, we say here that every meaningful change begins with a conversation.

Those conversations need to be authentic.

I would love for you to share the most inspiring moment of your professional career.

I have been fortunate to be engaged in really interesting, compelling work throughout my career. So I can go back to the late 1980s working in South Africa with people and groups that were trying to end apartheid.

There are inspiring people, and inspiring moments. I think about a lot of other work that I've seen. And my colleagues here.

There is a common theme in those inspiring moments. Every one of them was an example of someone who lives their life for others. Someone who gives. Who ensures that others can thrive. Who ensures that others are free.

I see it here every day when people come to Wingspread. We get the most incredible feedback from guests. And it's because of the generosity of hospitality that people experience.

Yes. From the Foundation, but really from the individuals who work here and the entire team,  whether it's the hospitality tea with guests or the Foundation team that's putting together our initiatives, focused on improving things for people in our community.

Everybody here is giving of themselves. For others. And that just inspires me every day.

Our team sacrifices ... personally gives up things, goes the extra mile, works crazy hours because they believe in what we're doing.

And it is a great place to work in a lot of ways. But even seeing what happens here and the groups that are here - it refreshes us and reminds us that ‘the why’ we exist is probably a big component of reason we have such a long-tenured and dedicated team.

Because you give a lot of yourself in this work, you can see why it matters and I think that keeps us all going.


The mission of The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread is to create intimate, inspiring meeting and conference experiences that foster collaboration and innovative problem-solving.

We are dedicated to convening diverse stakeholders for positive and lasting change. Our respectful setting ensures that all voices are heard, contributing to healthy and civil dialogue on the most pressing issues of today. The Foundation’s objectives are simple: We design and implement conferences on issues and topics of special concern to us. Our current focus is on catalyzing resilient communities to improve the future health and well-being of the neighborhoods we all call home. Aligned with this focus, we also work with a variety of other organizations to design and implement conferences and meetings on issues and topics of importance to them.

Visit https://www.johnsonfdn.org/ to learn more.