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Chapter 1: A Modern Home Run

Throughout the past generation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation has had as many successes in influencing public policy as any philanthropy in America. The foundation arguably made its greatest achievement in welfare reform. It did so by starting on the local level, creating a smashing triumph in its home state of Wisconsin, and then using potent ideas, savvy strategy, and patient funding to lead the way to a national transformation of the way our governments aid poor people.

By the mid-1980s, Wisconsin was more than ready for a fresh approach to welfare. Its benefits were generous, abuses were common, and the public was becoming fed up with the social dysfunction encouraged by having whole generations grow up dependent upon the “mailbox economy” of government checks. Wisconsin’s low-income population was swelling rather than shrinking, as the state’s generous welfare payments drew residents out of the work force, and made it a magnet for applicants from other places.

So the Bradley Foundation began a multiyear effort to uncover a better way. By the time Tommy Thompson was inaugurated as governor in 1987, Bradley had begun blazing a whole network of paths toward a new system. With practical, intellectual, and financial assistance for welfare reform from Bradley, Wisconsin’s new chief executive committed his state to bold transformation. Though the social-work establishment resisted vehemently, insisting starvation and social disorder would result, Wisconsin’s welfare rolls began to plummet.

Between 1989 and 1999, the fraction of families in the state relying on welfare shrank from over 7 percent to less than 2 percent. In ­Milwaukee, home to some of the hardest cases, the rate dropped from more than 15 percent to under 5 percent. People weren’t simply kicked off welfare, they were required (and helped) to find jobs as a condition of receiving any public benefits. Contrary to gloomy predictions, most participants embraced that tradeoff. Other recipients decided they didn’t need aid after all on those terms. As the work-for-welfare trade progressed, family and child poverty declined sharply, and indicators of well-being turned upward.

To lay the intellectual foundations for this triumph, Bradley both practiced its own brilliant public-policy philanthropy and built on successful public-policy philanthropy by other foundations. In 1982, social scientist Charles Murray had published a long article on welfare dependency in the Public Interest, an influential donor-supported journal co-edited by Irving Kristol. Special grants from the John M. Olin Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation allowed Murray to expand his essay into a pathbreaking book. Losing Ground added a persuasive polemic to the detailed social science that had been Murray’s professional specialty up to that point, and it changed the national conversation about welfare when it was published in 1984.

This work came under fierce attack from defenders of the status quo. The New York Times editorial page blasted it as “unlikely to survive ­scrutiny,” and “troubled by some big holes.” A dozen years later, however, the Times confessed that Murray had written the “book that many people believe begat welfare reform.”

The Bradley Foundation built upon what Murray, Olin, and Smith Richardson started with Losing Ground. One of its initial grants, for $300,000 in 1986, supported a yearlong seminar that brought together some of the country’s top scholars on welfare, including both conservatives like Murray, Lawrence Mead, and Michael Novak, and liberals such as Franklin Raines, Robert Reischauer, and Alice Rivlin. Called the Working Seminar on Family and American Welfare Policy, it produced months of cooperative investigation, a series of research papers, and a final book-length highly readable report.

The seminar report, which Michael Novak drafted and shepherded to unanimous approval, sketched a remarkable new consensus. The conservatives in the group allowed that “a good society is judged by how well it cares for its most vulnerable members.” The liberals acknowledged that “no able adult should be allowed voluntarily to take from the common good without also contributing to it.”

Published as The New Consensus on Family and Welfare Policy, the book laid out many specific points of agreement. It described a pernicious form of poverty created by behavioral dependency rather than simple low income, and urged new policies that would emphasize work and family integrity. Its 1987 recommendations, observed economist Ron Haskins in 2006, “uncannily anticipated several major provisions of the 1996 reform legislation” that would transform the federal government’s welfare policies. Additional intellectual contributions to the welfare debate flowed from the Bradley Foundation’s support of Marvin Olasky, a University of Texas professor selected to investigate social policy in 1989 as a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. In the stacks of the Library of Congress, Olasky later wrote, “I found some dusty old records from the nineteenth century. They weren’t in the card catalogue, and it was obvious that nobody had looked at them in a long time.” They described a dense network of grassroots organizations, none of them governmental, many of them religious, that had attacked poverty and social breakdown a hundred years prior—when disease, drink, overcrowded housing, lack of language and cultural skills among millions of immigrants, and other threats had been dealt with energetically.

Olasky had discovered the social-healing power of civil society in an earlier America. His eventual book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, suggested the effective nineteenth-century models of faith-based charity could be revived, and succeed today where the secular welfare state was failing. Local action, personal involvement, religious compassion, and private charity could fix many problems that cannot be touched by impersonal welfare bureaucracies. One welfare expert who heard this presented by Olasky was Jason Turner. Turner would go on to head ­Tommy Thompson’s welfare-reform efforts in Wisconsin.

Another scholar who would advise the state of Wisconsin on its policies with support from the Bradley Foundation was Lawrence Mead of New York University. He had served on the Working Seminar on Family and American Welfare Policy. He also wrote two carefully researched books of his own showing that welfare recipients would have better lives if they were required to work and participate in the wider economy.

To lay the intellectual foundations for this triumph, Bradley both practiced its own brilliant public-policy philanthropy and built on successful public-policy philanthropy by other foundations.

Politicians need more than enticing proposals before they take action, however. They need political comfort and cover. The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute had been established with Bradley funding to help with important public debates exactly like this one. It joined the debate over welfare reform, putting out research papers and commissioning a series of opinion polls that became important to leaders in the state capital of Madison. Its survey research showed that voters wanted lawmakers to tackle welfare. “All of a sudden, everybody was reading WPRI’s polls. The newspapers were printing stories on them,” said Allen Taylor, who served as chairman of the Bradley Foundation. Both Republicans and Democrats paid attention when it became clear that welfare reform was popular on both sides of the public-opinion aisle.

The Thompson administration enacted a flurry of reforms at the county level and to some extent state level. They quickly showed striking results. In the early 1990s, a minor recession caused welfare rolls across America to expand—but in Wisconsin they actually shrank, as beneficiaries were converted into workers rather than recipients. That ­­­

garnered attention.

Although many Democrats in the legislature had supported ­Thompson’s initial agenda, by 1993 they thought the reforms had gone far enough. To press the brakes without getting blamed by the public for obstruction, they tried a risky political maneuver: They voted to abolish Wisconsin’s welfare system entirely. They expected that Thompson would veto such a dramatic move, blurring perceptions about which party backed real change. Thompson decided to call their bluff and signed the bill.

This gave the governor a blank slate and chance to build an entirely new system. His state could apply new insights discovered by the various investigators backed by Bradley and other public-policy philanthropists. But he would have to do this under strict deadline, risking chaos if a substitute program couldn’t be designed quickly to replace the old regime.

The administration needed lots of help to engineer the nuts and bolts of a new welfare structure that would be unlike anything in existence elsewhere. Traditionally, political leaders in the Badger State looked to professors at the University of Wisconsin for policy assistance of this sort. There was even a name for the tradition: the “Wisconsin Idea” was the notion that state-employed professors wouldn’t just teach students in classrooms, but also serve taxpayers via policy recommendations.

The University of Wisconsin, however, had become a hotbed for radical politics. Professors in its social-welfare departments were for the most part doctrinaire leftists who hated the welfare-reform ideas that interested Bradley and Thompson and their allies. The Wisconsin welfare establishment had no intention of helping anyone replace the existing system.

So Thompson, relying heavily on the Bradley Foundation for rapid funding, turned to the Hudson Institute, a Midwestern think tank then based in Indianapolis. Hudson agreed to do much of the detailed research and design work needed to transform Wisconsin’s system from its old focus on income maintenance to a new emphasis on supporting work by poor individuals. Bradley ponied up around $2 million, starting in 1994, to contribute to this crucial work.

“It was a terrific opportunity for us to look at welfare and say, ‘Knowing what we now know about dependency, how can we build a new and improved system from scratch? And that’s basically what we did,” said Andrew Bush. He ran the special office that the Hudson Institute set up in Madison, with Bradley’s support, to coordinate this work.

Bradley made non-financial contributions to the effort as well. After Jason Turner joined the Thompson administration, he and a group of colleagues visited the Milwaukee foundation and asked for introductions to community activists who received Bradley grants to address social ills, such as a church that ran a job-training program, a public-housing activist who encouraged marriage among inner-city girls, and innovative school and child-care programs. “The experience gave us the idea that we should get government out of the business of running welfare,” said Turner. “This was an important insight for us.”

In his memoir, Power to the People, Governor Thompson described the core principle that animated the Wisconsin reform: “Everyone would have to work, and only work would pay.” The state agreed to provide basic services such as child care and health insurance, but only for a limited time while recipients became self-supporting. Welfare recipients would have to agree to seek and find work, and make sure their children attended school.

The ultimate results were striking. When Thompson took office in 1987, Wisconsin had 98,000 people on its welfare rolls. The numbers dropped every year after the workfare reform—to just 11,000 by 1998, an astonishing 89 percent reduction. And recipients, families, and children ended up with better quality of life.

It was this brilliant real-life success in Wisconsin, powered by timely philanthropy, that provided welfare reformers elsewhere across the country with the confidence to change their own approaches to welfare. In the early 1990s, as the depth of Wisconsin’s success became clear, and various examples of philanthropy-supported research on positive alternatives accumulated, a spirited welfare-reform debate broke out at the federal level. As Congress weighed various measures, though, hysterical voices began to scream in resistance.

The Nation wrote that “the welfare bill will destroy our state of grace. In its place will come massive and deadly poverty, sickness, and all ­manner of violence. People will die, businesses will close, infant mortality will soar, everyone who can will move. Working- and middle-class communities all over America will become scary, violent wastelands created by a government that decided it has no obligations to its neediest citizens. In such a landscape, each of us becomes either predator or prey.”

Thanks to years of diligent research and experimentation supported by donors like the Bradley Foundation, however, there was an answer to such emotion-fueled alarmism. “That’s not what happened in ­Wisconsin,” reformers could calmly answer. A bustling state, working with private organs of civil society, had built a laboratory where theories were tested and proven desirable.

In 1996, a new Republican Congress created a landmark federal welfare-reform statute, modeled on Wisconsin’s example. After much effort, President Clinton was finally convinced to sign the measure into law. It ended the Depression-era program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which had fed welfare dependency, and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The new system offered extensive child, medical, and job help, but ended any long-term entitlement to an annual income. Recipients had to work, and families were limited to five years of assistance. Wisconsin was the lodestar.

Rather than plunging America into mayhem, as opponents insisted, the law catalyzed many brilliant improvements. Between 1997 and 2011, the national welfare caseload dropped in half. Former recipients went to work. Child poverty rates fell dramatically—reaching all-time lows. Crime tumbled. Family deterioration leveled off.

In public policy, no victories are permanent. In 2012, the Obama administration announced that it would allow states to use waivers to skirt the work requirements that are the core of the Bradley-researched reforms. Future trends in welfare, and many other sectors of society, will obviously depend upon the will of the men and women Americans elect to run our government.

But a crucial corner was turned in U.S. social policy. If politicians lose ground in this area in the future they will have their records compared to the hard, sparkling results of the last two decades. Welfare reform was the most successful public-policy innovation of its time. And it was an achievement driven unambiguously by public-policy philanthropists.

Policy Player Profile: Michael Grebe

Mike Grebe grew up in a small town near Peoria, Illinois. “My father was a football coach and my mother was an English teacher,” he explains. After attending West Point, Grebe fought in Vietnam (earning two bronze stars), then enrolled in law school at the University of Michigan, graduating near the top of his class. Instead of moving to Chicago or New York, he chose to settle in Milwaukee. “I liked the city,” he says. “I liked the people more than the people in other places.”

Grebe built a thriving legal career at Foley & Lardner. He rose to chairman and CEO, and helped turn the law firm into one of the largest in the country. He also chaired the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin and the Board of Visitors of the U.S. Military Academy. He had no idea that he would eventually take up a second career in public-policy philanthropy. But, in 1996, Grebe was invited to join the board of Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, one of the wealthiest and savviest funders of conservative public-policy creation. Six years later, Grebe retired from his legal practice to run Bradley full time.

Grebe thinks of himself as a steward. “My job is to honor the philanthropic legacy of our founders.” The Bradley Foundation took its modern shape in 1985, when Rockwell purchased the Allen-Bradley manufacturing company, pumping several hundred million dollars into the foundation established by the company’s founding brothers. By the 1990s, the Bradley Foundation had become a potent force in local and national philanthropy, best known for its pioneering efforts to promote school choice and welfare reform.

Today, the Bradley Foundation gives away nearly $45 million per year. Its 2013 annual report characterized its mission as “defending the tradition of free representative government and private enterprise that has enabled the American nation and, in a larger sense, the entire Western world to flourish intellectually and economically.” About a third of its donations go to Milwaukee organizations to improve the foundation’s home city. The remainder is channeled to groups like Americans for Tax Reform, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Federalist Society, with the goal of refining public policies. “Bradley Foundation-funded ideas, as well as political leaders who turn those ideas into action, have helped drive America’s conservative revolution over the past quarter-century,” summarized the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2011.

The foundation’s success, says Grebe, comes from its particular method of making grants. “We tend to approach public-policy funding as venture capitalists,” he says. “We don’t approach problems from the top down, where we come up with ideas and find people who can execute them. Instead, we come up with the subject areas we’d like to address and invite people to approach us.”

Patience and humility are important. “We’re not looking for quick, short-term solutions,” says Grebe. “In many cases, we’re trying to solve long-term problems.” He cites Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, a 1990 book by John Chubb and Terry Moe outlining the potential of school choice. “We didn’t really know how good that book was until years later, when legislators had picked up on it and began to make school choice a reality in so many places,” says Grebe. “This can take a long time.” And not every grant will work out. “We expect a certain amount of failure,” he says. “That’s what happens when you’re willing to take chances.”

When the foundation wants to explore a new subject, it convenes a group of experts, and both the foundation’s directors and its staff engage in intense discussions aimed at finding philanthropic opportunities.

For instance, “several years ago, we recognized that America’s image in the world had slipped,” says Grebe. “So we established a working group on how private philanthropies might enhance the effectiveness of public diplomacy and statecraft.” Participants from government agencies, the military, and research organizations offered ideas. Several grants emerged from this, including support for the American Islamic Congress and the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

Judging the success of grants is a special challenge. “This is one area in which public-policy philanthropy is different from other areas of philanthropy—it’s less susceptible to the measurement of outcomes,” he says. “We try to measure effectiveness, but this is difficult, especially in the early stages. When you fund a book, what do you ask? How many times was it cited in the press or in academic journals? That tells you something, but what it tells you may not be very helpful. You may not see the impact for years. Then there’s another problem: The people who conceive ideas are usually not the same people responsible for their implementation. When scholars come to us for support, we ask them to have a strategy for public discourse. How will they disseminate their ideas?”

As with so many people involved in public-policy philanthropy, Grebe is active in politics. In 2014, he chaired the re-election campaign of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. He has also served as general counsel to the Republican National Committee. “I’m very careful about this,” says Grebe. “I keep everything separate. I don’t make political calls from the foundation office. I do that from home or from campaign offices. I won’t let the foundation get mixed up in partisan politics.”

At the same time, it’s impossible for public-policy philanthropy to proceed without an awareness of political context. In 2010, the Bradley Foundation supported Refocus Wisconsin, a monograph from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a free-market think tank it helped establish. “We saw how much the Reagan administration relied on the Heritage Foundation, and how much Mayor Rudy Giuliani relied on the Manhattan Institute in New York City,” says Grebe. “We wanted to support a project that provided a similar level of policy assistance to our own governor and lawmakers.” The 154-page publication provided information and policy recommendations on the major features of state government, from budgets and taxes to public pensions and economic opportunity. Scott Walker became a national leader at reining in runaway state spending (more on this in Chapter 6).

In the 1990s, Bradley enjoyed great success at uncovering new strategies for serving the poor via school choice and welfare reform, partly because then-governor Tommy Thompson was receptive to trying the fresh approaches Bradley and its nonprofit partners pioneered. “You do have to keep the political environment in mind,” says Grebe.

“At the same time, we’ve been longtime supporters of school choice and other policies no matter who has been in power, in Wisconsin or anywhere.” He points out that in school-choice debates, urban Democrats have been some of the foundation’s best allies. And a few years ago, when Milwaukee was searching for a new police chief, the Bradley Foundation provided financial support for the Fire and Police Commission to retain George Kelling, who helped create Rudy Giuliani’s anti-crime strategy, as a consultant. “We did that with a Democratic mayor,” says Grebe.

Since 2004, the foundation has awarded four $250,000 Bradley Prizes each year to the likes of economist Thomas Sowell, Constitutional scholar Robert George, school-choice activist Clint Bolick, and commentators Charles Krauthammer and George Will. The goal is to recognize individuals who have encouraged useful public reforms, and publicize their work. “We’ve been more successful at the honoring part,” concludes Grebe, “and less successful at creating broad awareness of what they’ve done.”

Policy Player Profile: Melissa Berman

Melissa Berman is the president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a nonprofit that started out advising members of the Rockefeller family then broadened into a service providing guidance to more than 160 different donors—families, foundations, and corporations—on how they might best steer their giving. “The donors we work with represent a very broad range of interests and positions. It’s our job to help them achieve their goals.”

Philanthropy aimed at influencing public policies appeals to only some clients. “Sometimes a donor has not run across policy work in her life before, or she has a deep-seated conviction that the political system and public opinion are too big to change. For many people, policy and advocacy work isn’t tactile and concrete enough. You can’t always be sure you’re making progress. For people who are relatively new to philanthropy, it can seem like you’re going to graduate school when you still haven’t fulfilled the requirements for the undergrad major.”

Public-policy philanthropy can create special concerns for individuals. “If you’re from a very prominent family and you want to take a strong position on policy in a certain area, one thing you need to understand is how that might impact other members of your family who either disagree with you or hate the limelight.”

There are clients, however, who after thinking through these issues do want to work on public policies. For these, Berman first distinguishes between trying to change law (policy), and changing the groundswell support around a law (advocacy). “They are slightly different things to me. For example, take the campaign that made drunk driving unacceptable. It was already illegal, but through efforts like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, people began to feel more comfortable saying, ‘No, you can’t get behind the wheel of a car.’”

“We have worked over the years with Laurie Tisch in New York, who was a big supporter of a project called Green Carts. This created a set of licenses for street-cart vendors to sell fresh produce at a very reasonable cost in low-income areas of New York that didn’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of the project was policy focused—they needed to change the city regulations on who could vend where. But a bigger piece of the effort involved advocacy rather than pure policy. The nonprofit built a base of support for this idea, and helped people understand why it was important for these neighborhoods to have access to healthy food at a reasonable cost. They communicated that these carts were not depriving local merchants of their livelihood.”

“It ended up being a combination of grant-funding and interesting communications. She funded a beautiful photo exhibit in Grand Central Station, an exhibit and programming at the Children’s Museum, and a documentary film which showed nationally. These efforts are spurring a national movement to put policies in place to allow these kinds of innovations in other cities. I think of that project as pretty successful. But it was not a narrow effort to get legislators to pass something. It was more around the enabling environment that makes a policy succeed.”

“As a donor, you have to understand how change happens. What are the best levers to pull? Where do you see yourself as an actor? Your answers to those questions may or may not lead you to policy work. Policy and advocacy work is just a tool. The question is, what is your end goal, and how do you want to get there?”

Sometimes philanthropists must take calculated risks to advance public policies. “The city of San Francisco was interested in the question of whether they could get a cheap source of electricity from tidal power, the power of the tides going in and out of San Francisco Bay. The engineering was very unclear. In many cities, running an experiment that might not work can be politically poisonous. Headlines immediately blare: ‘City Wastes Millions of Taxpayers’ Dollars.’”

“This can be a great opportunity for philanthropy. We helped a foundation fund basic research to see whether this idea would work. Once local tidal power had been shown to be workable, the foundation was able to step back. A local utility company and other sources of funding came forward. So what philanthropy was able to do was put in the highest-risk capital and demonstrate the concept.”

“One common mistake in investing to change public policies is thinking that just putting facts in front of people creates action. Everybody wants to believe that the truth will set us free, but that’s not how it happens. There’s a classic mantra that describes three stages: Awareness. Agreement. Action. It’s important to understand that often you have to create all three.”

“We’ve been in situations where a donor has said to us, ‘Why don’t you put on a symposium, and invite people that you know and we know, and that will result in action.’ And we say, ‘No, it won’t.’ People have to go through a process get to awareness, agreement, and then action.” “Donors need to think through what other resources besides their financial capacity they can bring to bear. Do you have knowledge? Networks? Reputational capacity? Technical skills? The chasm from funding to doing is one that you need to understand.”

“And it’s important that you plan ahead how you’re going to assess results. If you wait until balls are in the air, it may be too late. If it’s a long-term public awareness campaign, are you going to track earned media, are you going to track the number of people who sign up via social media, or send a message to a Congressperson, are you going to track where a piece of legislation is?”

“You have to figure out what your indicators are for progress. And that varies depending on the campaign. ‘I want the city council to make parking on the left side of the street illegal on Thursdays,’ is a very different assignment from, ‘I want there to be a complete change in how we think about crimes against children.’”

“The key to being an effective donor in this space is patience. And respect for other people’s points of view is important. Someone who believes that anybody who doesn’t agree with him is stupid is not likely to change many minds. Understanding how to create a coalition in which everybody can see some of their own success is really helpful.”

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