Shortly after Michael S. Joyce died in February at the age of 63, tributes started pouring in from the conservative grantees who had benefited from his work as executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation (1979-1985) and president of the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation (1985-2001). But Joyce’s admirers range across the political spectrum. “Of all the foundation CEOs in the past 40 years, he had the greatest impact on our society and its institutions,” says Pablo Eisenberg, founder of the Center for Community Change and a dean of left-wing philanthropy.
Joyce was quite simply one of philanthropy’s great venture capitalists. In its obituary, the Economist called him “one of the leading architects of the conservative renaissance that reshaped America” in recent decades. He was in the business of funding ideas, and his name will forever be linked to the rise of school choice, welfare reform, and faith-based initiatives. He was especially brilliant when it came to leveraging his ideas: he took the best ones, worked to introduce them at local levels, and made sure that their success had national implications. “Mike fundamentally understood the transcendent role of philanthropy in addressing unmet needs and creating civil society,” says Daniel S. Peters, president of the Ruth & Lovett Peters Foundation and chairman of the Philanthropy Roundtable.
Joyce was born to a family of blue-collar Democrats in Cleveland in 1942. He attended Catholic schools and then Kent State University, where he hoped to play on the gridiron. “He loved football and was pretty good at it himself in his youth—one of those tough little guys who play the cornerback position like heat-seeking missiles,” wrote Peter Collier, the best-selling author and former publisher of Encounter Books, in his remembrance of Joyce. Injuries kept Joyce sidelined, and eventually he transferred to Cleveland State and graduated with a degree in history and philosophy. He taught history and coached football at St. Edward High School in Cleveland, and then took a job at the Education Research Council of America, which was producing textbooks. In 1975, he moved to Baltimore to run the Morris Goldseker Foundation.
Joyce’s experience in Baltimore taught him to be skeptical of governmental efforts to address urban problems. “I could see how well-intended programs set out to achieve impossible ends, and what kind of wreckage they created through unintended consequences,” he said. “It was a huge disappointment.” He eventually came into contact with Irving Kristol and other figures in the emerging neoconservative movement, which led to his taking jobs first at the Institute for Educational Affairs, a now-defunct organization that tried to coordinate corporate philanthropy, and then at the John M. Olin Foundation. Although Kristol’s involvement in Joyce’s career provides a vivid illustration of why Kristol is sometimes called “The Godfather of Neoconservatism” (as Esquire put it on a magazine cover in 1979), Kristol went on to praise Joyce as “the godfather of modern philanthropy.”
Joyce’s successes at the John M. Olin Foundation included helping to launch the Federalist Society, an influential group of conservative and libertarian lawyers; the Collegiate Network, a consortium of alternative student publications at colleges nationwide; and the New Criterion, a journal of arts and intellectual life. In 1985, Joyce left New York for Milwaukee, where the Bradley Foundation had just received an infusion of nearly $300 million. The suddenly enriched philanthropy had asked Joyce to turn it into what one board member called “Olin West”—in other words, a foundation that would seek to sway public policy by supporting scholars and institutions committed to individual liberty and limited government.
Joyce’s real genius was on full view in Milwaukee, where he took big ideas that the foundation supported, such as welfare reform, and applied them to the state, county, and city levels. This mix of ideas and politics seemed to suit him, because Joyce was always an intellectual among activists and an activist among intellectuals. “For Mike, the workplace was essentially a locker room, where the team was prepared for combat, the strategy and key plays drawn up for execution on the field,” says James E. Piereson, who was Joyce’s understudy and then his successor at Olin. “And when the time came, he would lead the team through the tunnel and onto the field, then play quarterback for good measure.” At Olin, for example, Joyce had helped support Losing Ground, the landmark book on welfare by Charles Murray. At Bradley, Joyce sought to act on Murray’s criticisms of welfare dependency. He launched the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank that became a key player in Madison. As Governor Tommy Thompson worked to overhaul Wisconsin’s welfare policies—efforts whose success helped “end welfare as we know it”—Joyce was constantly in the background, providing advice, support, and encouragement.
Joyce was even more central to the school-choice movement, which has sought to improve K-12 education by bringing market pressures to bear on it. The theory—a longtime favorite of Nobel economist Milton Friedman—is that financial vouchers that let students attend the public or private school of their choice will improve the education of all students as school leaders discover they must compete for their charges. The concept achieved greater success in Milwaukee than anywhere else, through an amazing coalition of white conservatives such as Thompson and black activists such as Democratic state representative Polly Williams. In the background was Joyce, who shepherded the idea from the realm of theory into the world of public policy by underwriting books and papers on it, paying for demonstration projects, and footing large legal bills when school choice was challenged in courts. He understood both the urgent need for philanthropic dollars as well as the prime importance of assembling bipartisan and multiracial coalitions.
In Rethinking Schools, a left-leaning journal on urban education, Barbara Miner offered grudging praise of Joyce: “Perhaps more than any other person, he was responsible for the voucher legislation under which Wisconsin became the first state providing public dollars for private schools.” Those dollars—given to parents rather than directly to schools—will now grow, following a decision earlier this year by Wisconsin’s current governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, to increase the number of students eligible for school choice from 15,000 to 22,500. Although Joyce was not substantially involved in this latest accomplishment, it would not have been possible without him. “Years from now, millions of Americans will have benefited from school choice—and they will owe much to Joyce’s tireless efforts on their behalf,” says Peters. “That’s quite a record.”
After witnessing the work of faith-based groups in Milwaukee, Joyce became the leader of a civil-society movement that became widely credited with adding intellectual ballast to the notion that conservatives can be compassionate. “Americans are eager to seize control of their daily lives again—to make critical life choices for themselves, based on their own common sense and folk wisdom—to assume once again the status of proud, independent, self-governing citizens intended for them by the Founders,” said Joyce in a 1992 speech. A decade later, President Bush praised Joyce and his legacy: “The Bradley Foundation has always been willing to seek different solutions. They’ve been willing to challenge the status quo. They’d say, ‘Where we find failure, something else must occur.’”
All the while, Joyce was a student of philanthropy, and he strived to make his brand of philanthropy as effective as possible. In the 1970s and ’80s, he attended a series of informal gatherings at which he and others discussed their purposes and goals. This eventually led to the creation of The Philanthropy Roundtable. “It was Mike’s idea to turn it into a real organization, with a publication, an annual conference, and other meetings,” recalls Piereson. Joyce served as the Roundtable’s first chairman and remained active on its board until 2001. During this period, he was also a driving force behind the establishment of the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, which issued a major report in 1997.
Now that Mike Joyce is gone, the time has come not merely to celebrate his accomplishments—but to study his example.