Michael W. Grebe has a strange notion of retirement. He stepped down as chairman and CEO of Milwaukee-based Foley & Lardner, which he had built into the nation’s eleventh largest law firm, only to take the helm of the Bradley Foundation, one of the nation’s premier funders of public policy initiatives and Wisconsin’s largest foundation. Critics and friends alike acknowledge Bradley’s cutting-edge support of school choice, welfare reform, and faith-based social service providers, as well as the foundation’s leading role in funding of center-right think tanks, journals, and scholars.
Before becoming the foundation’s president, Grebe had served several years as a Bradley board member. His numerous past leadership positions include heading West Point’s Board of Visitors and chairing the Rules Committee at the 2000 GOP Convention. An army veteran of Vietnam and former Republican National Committeeman for Wisconsin, Grebe has served on numerous boards, including stints at the Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs, the University School of Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents, Stanford’s Hoover Institution, the Oshkosh Truck Company, and the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club. He is on the board of The Philanthropy Roundtable.
Grebe recently spoke with Philanthropy about his new position.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve been a board member of the Bradley Foundation, and now you’re on its staff. What is the hardest thing for people on each side to understand about those on the other?
MR. GREBE: On the board side, given the unusual governance structure in private foundations and the importance of accountability, the board has a critical role in making sure that, as a foundation proceeds over the course of many years, it remains true to the intent of the donors who created it. That’s very important, and the staff must understand that critical role and the need for accountability. Looking at things from the other direction, directors or trustees need to understand the fine line between governance and policymaking on the one hand, and management and grantmaking on the other. I think people of good faith will always be able to tack back and forth across that line and realize when either party has strayed a little bit. But a board needs to let staff manage.
PHILANTHROPY: What are the greatest challenges of heading a foundation?
MR. GREBE: There are a number of challenges, and currently one of the biggest is to prioritize philanthropic activities in a time of reduced resources. Almost all of us are facing that challenge, and it’s critical that we become strategic and highly focused in our grantmaking. I think we’re also going through a period when people are placing an increased emphasis on measuring outcomes. Though I believe that such measurement is important and something that’s been missing for some time, I also think we need to be wary of an overcorrection. In the case of many grants, there will always be a need for a sense of art rather than science in evaluating grantee performance. That’s a real challenge.
PHILANTHROPY: How can a foundation head best help his trustees?
MR. GREBE: By being an effective communicator in both directions, on behalf of staff with the board, and on behalf of the board with the staff to help identify the strategic direction for the foundation.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve been on the job almost exactly a year—
MR. GREBE: —one year and three days.
PHILANTHROPY: What has most surprised you in that year?
MR. GREBE: I have been most surprised by the lack of collaborative activity among foundations and other donors as we identify excellent grantmaking opportunities. I think we could avoid some redundancies, but we could also help each other make strategic grants. And that’s one area where I believe The Roundtable can play an important role. I have been stunned, actually, by the lack of collaboration.
PHILANTHROPY: What can be done about this lack?
MR. GREBE: Well, I am very serious about The Roundtable’s role. I think foundations should find more opportunities to communicate with each other about grantmaking opportunities and about their evaluation of grants and grantees. We must find ways to share that information so that we can work together in our philanthropy.
PHILANTHROPY: What are the biggest barriers to the type of collaboration you’d like to see?
MR. GREBE: I think the biggest barrier is simply inertia. We tend to do things “the way we’ve always done them.” Another barrier is an inordinate amount of proprietary satisfaction that donors take in making excellent grants, a desire to be high-impact players on our own, rather than sharing that role with others-call it, if you will, a bit of selfishness.
PHILANTHROPY: How do you evaluate the effectiveness of Bradley’s grantmaking?
MR. GREBE: We do not have separate staff for the evaluation role. We ask the program officers who are responsible at the time of making the grant to follow up with the grantee and evaluate the performance. We are very thinly staffed; so we tend to have only one program officer relating to each grantee. Increasingly, where it is appropriate, we look for scientific measures of effectiveness, but we also sometimes insist on, if you will, a more artistic or subjective evaluation as well.
PHILANTHROPY: Why is that important?
MR. GREBE: Because I’m not sure all successful outcomes can, in fact, be measured. I mean, we can and we do look at things that can be measured, like successful outcomes in the development and implementation of public policy, perhaps in the legislative or executive arena. But we still believe there are some things that you just can’t measure precisely.
PHILANTHROPY: For a decade and a half Bradley has put a lot of emphasis on school choice in Milwaukee. How do you evaluate results in that area?
MR. GREBE: We primarily evaluate the results by surveying the reaction of parents of children in this long-term program. We are hopeful that a legislative initiative here in Wisconsin, currently being considered in Madison, will be adopted and approved by the governor. It would finally put in place a multi-year longitudinal study of the effectiveness of the school choice program in Milwaukee. The teachers’ unions have resisted this for years, but it now appears it will happen and provide us even better evaluation data.
Bradley has supported a number of research projects aimed at evaluating academic gains. A study updated for the American Education Reform Council last year by former Milwaukee school board member John Gardner highlighted some of these gains. For example, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) students have improved on 11 of the 15 standardized exams they are required to take. Indeed, the percentage of MPS students demonstrating proficiency on all fifteen tests has increased according to Gardner’s study.
We already have one central way of evaluating success—the number of parents and children who have taken advantage of the program. There are now more than 11,000 students in Milwaukee attending schools on vouchers, and that in and of itself is an overwhelming indication of the program’s success. Parents are voting with their feet.
PHILANTHROPY: What are the next steps you hope to see in this area?
MR. GREBE: I would look outside of Milwaukee and express our hope that these programs will be replicated in other cities and states. We see some very promising developments on that front, most recently in Colorado. The school choice legislation adopted there is now being challenged in the courts, but, still, it seems these programs will be replicated around the country.
PHILANTHROPY: What could your counterparts in other cities do to make a difference in this effort?
MR. GREBE: Those foundations need to focus on the parents. At Bradley we have so often said “In Parents We Trust.” The true heroes of the Milwaukee program are the parents who over the years have fought to retain it. Without the backing of parents, nothing will happen. They are the heart of this effort. We would also encourage like-minded donors interested in expanding educational opportunities for families to focus on building coalitions in support of choice which reach across all segments of the community. As a social justice, civil rights issue, choice has the power to bring many diverse elements together in support of it, and keep them together over the long haul.
PHILANTHROPY: How do you decide what is the right mix of local and national giving?
MR. GREBE: We are guided by donor intent. We are fortunate to have a well-documented historical record of the philanthropy of the Bradley brothers, who created the wealth that funded this foundation. So even though they have not been with us for several decades, we have a good understanding of their philanthropic principles. Our local giving falls into two categories. One is a series of grants that comprise our “New Citizenship” programs. And then we have a program called “Legacy,” which is where most of our local giving is concentrated. It’s well named because in our local giving we are following the legacy of the Bradley brothers. The same thing applies to national giving. Lynde and Harry Bradley were actively involved in the development of public policy, and we take our lead from them.
PHILANTHROPY: Could you elaborate on the way your local giving relates to the national and vice versa?
MR. GREBE: We are fortunate that Milwaukee has been an excellent laboratory for developing some of our public policy initiatives. Interestingly, some of our local programs were started after national leaders in civic renewal like Robert Woodson and Marvin Olasky came here, did some work, and helped local organizations begin the programs. Two examples would be our multi-year support for the work of Deacon Bill Lock, who ran Community Enterprises of Greater Milwaukee. Deacon Lock prepared numbers of Milwaukee’s young people for the job market. But more than that, his faith-based program provided his trainees with valuable life skills preparing them to work in the community as responsible citizens. Another outstanding group that comes to mind is our support for Mrs. Cordelia Taylor and Family House. This neighborhood home for the elderly took some inspiration, not only from Bob Woodson, but from many of the faith-based grassroots groups around the country he works with day-in and day-out.
In our local philanthropy, our first focus is on helping people here in Milwaukee and the surrounding area. But in designing our local giving, we always do so with a view toward supporting programs that can be replicated in other parts of the country. Our work in school choice is just one example.
PHILANTHROPY: Could you elaborate on the New Citizenship programs?
MR. GREBE: Our New Citizenship programs were developed here a little less than ten years ago. The underlying philosophy of that program is that individual citizens should be viewed as persons who are capable of running their own affairs and who are personally responsible for their actions. These programs were developed in response to our uncertainty that government assistance programs as they were then constituted were truly effective in helping citizens.
So we look to promote active citizenship in a vigorous civil society—encouraging active civic participation in the schools, neighborhood organizations, churches, temples, mosques and all kinds of voluntary associations. We believe that philanthropy directed to those civic institutions can strengthen the nation’s civil society and its capacity to help those in need. We take much more of a bottom-up approach to civil society than you see government or some other foundations applying.
We have New Citizenship programs that are local, national, and international. Those that are local in many instances focus on faith-based organizations. We have long thought that foundations and other donors should not overlook faith-based organizations in their giving. Indeed, they might think of them as social entrepreneurs.
PHILANTHROPY: What advice would you give donors wary about supporting faith-based groups?
MR. GREBE: I can understand the wariness, but our experience is that in almost all situations, such wariness is not well placed. To those who are a little anxious, I would say, “Just try it.” I think they’ll find that faith-based organizations frequently have social programs that are much more effective than those that are not faith-based. We have some excellent data on that. Uncertain donors ought to start small, try it, evaluate it, and my hunch is they’ll be delighted with the outcome.
PHILANTHROPY: Few donors of any philosophical hue support public policy research. Why do you think that is?
MR. GREBE: I don’t know. It may be a lack of expertise. On the other hand, I think almost all philanthropy in some way affects public policy, directly or indirectly. Even if, say, a donor is contributing to cancer research, if the work is effective, it may very well have some impact on public policy.
But perhaps more importantly, I think some philanthropists shy away from supporting public policy efforts because that kind of giving requires strategic vision. It also requires an almost brutal sense of priorities. You can’t do everything. And then, finally, it requires some risk taking, some entrepreneurial philanthropy if you will. The returns can be extremely rewarding and significant in their impact on society, but it’s difficult. I would never criticize donors who don’t fund in this area, but that’s what’s required of funders who enter the field. And since I’ve only been here a year, to the extent we’ve been successful in supporting public policy research, it’s because of the efforts of the people who came before me, rather than anything I’ve done.
PHILANTHROPY: Welfare reform is one area of public policy that Bradley has been involved in for some time. What are you most proud of in this connection?
MR. GREBE: I’m proud of the actual results in the reform of welfare policy. A number of people have supported these efforts in other parts of the country, but again, Milwaukee and Wisconsin turned out to be excellent laboratories for welfare reform. I’m proud that our foundation has had a real impact on the lives of people here in Wisconsin through our support of a courageous and visionary governor. And I’m also proud that some of that was exported to other parts of the country. I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that Wisconsin was the only place where welfare reform started. Our neighboring state of Michigan also had some wonderful success. The job isn’t over, but we have been pleased with the results so far.
PHILANTHROPY: You went to West Point and served in Vietnam. Has that affected your philanthropy?
MR. GREBE: Of course. My West Point education profoundly affected my life in a number of ways, and my experience in Vietnam perhaps taught me the supreme lesson: the sanctity of human life. My military years made me more empathetic, I think.
PHILANTHROPY: After your military service, you were politically active in various ways. Has that had any effect on the way you do your current job?
MR. GREBE: It’s given me an appreciation for the development of public policy that is very helpful to me as a philanthropist.
PHILANTHROPY: And then there’s your career as a lawyer . . .
MR. GREBE: [laughter] Well, lawyers are trained to be good at analytical thought, and that’s helpful in looking at prospective grants and grantees.
PHILANTHROPY: You were also a Republican National Committeeman for your state. Why are so few political donors active in philanthropy?
MR. GREBE: I guess I would challenge your premise. I don’t know that that, in fact, is the case. Because I don’t have any data to rely on, I have to judge from my own anecdotal references. I have seen a number of people I’ve known over the years in Republican politics become very actively involved in philanthropy—Foster Friess, for example. I have known him to be a generous contributor to political campaigns and an even more generous donor to philanthropic causes. The DeVos family of Michigan is another good example. And then there are individuals I have just recently been in contact with—Bill Armstrong, a retired Senator from Colorado, is on our board, and another former Senator, Hank Brown, recently agreed to head up the Daniels Fund in Denver. So the premise is not consistent with my own experience.
PHILANTHROPY: Bradley recently announced it would give away four large prizes in addition to its regular grantmaking. What is the strategy behind the awards?
MR. GREBE: Our strategy for the Bradley prizes is quite simple. We intend to publicize the achievements of individuals who have made extraordinary contributions that are consistent with our foundation’s mission statement. We hope through these prizes to motivate the award winners to even greater achievement, and we also hope to inspire others to similar achievements.
PHILANTHROPY: Are there any other major Bradley initiatives in the offing?
MR. GREBE: Not on the near horizon. Late last year we did provide funding for a new Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, and that is now up and running. It will be a center for the study of philanthropy, particularly in support of civic renewal and citizenship programs.
PHILANTHROPY: Some observers have complained that foundations neglected foreign policy between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks of September 11. What principles guide Bradley’s giving in the foreign policy area?
MR. GREBE: We draw our fundamental approach to philanthropy from a mission statement that is intended to express the intent of our donors. Part of that mission statement involves the importance of the defense of our democracy, at home and abroad. We have consistently over the years supported research in foreign policy and defense issues and will continue to do that.
This is an area where there are so many opportunities that it’s a matter of selecting among them and prioritizing. It’s particularly important to identify areas where other types of funding may not be available and where we can be of real assistance on the margin.
PHILANTHROPY: When you were at the law firm of Foley & Lardner, you were well known for mergers and acquisitions. Do you think anything like that could ever work in the philanthropy world?
MR. GREBE: I do not. I don’t see mergers and acquisitions among foundations. But going back to something I said earlier, I do think there’s a lot of room for greater collaboration.
PHILANTHROPY: Michael Keiser of Chicago recently announced he would be distributing much of his own philanthropic contributions through the Bradley Foundation. Is that a model that could ever have widespread use in philanthropy?
MR. GREBE: I don’t know whether it would be widespread, but we certainly intend with Mr. Keiser’s help to make our foundation available to those who would like to follow his lead. We offer that as simply one of a broad array of alternatives. We don’t aim simply to enlarge our own foundation’s giving but rather to leverage it and inspire more philanthropy from others.
If giving through Bradley as a conduit is an opportunity some people find attractive, then we’re happy to do that. But there may be donors out there who would prefer to establish their own foundation or to contribute through donor-advised funds, such as the ones at DonorsTrust.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you think are the greatest challenges in philanthropy for the coming decade?
MR. GREBE: I think it will be the direction of the giving that will arise out of the enormous anticipated transfers of wealth about to occur. We at Bradley hope that much of that wealth will result in philanthropy devoted to the causes and programs that we support. But that is clearly, I think, a tremendous challenge for the coming decade.
I would repeat an earlier point about being unafraid to talk about what has worked at Bradley, although not in a boastful manner. That is, for Bradley’s directors and staff to present to future philanthropists an agenda for action. These prospective philanthropists might well be encouraged and energized by more knowledge of and experience with the success stories of Olin, Scaife, Smith Richardson, or Bradley. Our job is to communicate to them what we did, how we did it, how we may have learned from our successes and failures, and how that history might help prepare them to help us face the challenge of improving life in our communities.