Rick Graber

Bradley Foundation CEO Richard Graber Talks Education Reform & the Foundation’s New Strategic Plan

The Bradley Foundation is a philanthropic force. CEO Richard Graber talks about the foundation’s mission, strategies and controversies.

In a typical year, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation donates around $36 million to philanthropic causes near and far – some beloved, others controversial. Locally, the foundation’s generous support of cultural institutions such as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and community-based nonprofits, including ones that work in the inner city to find jobs for ex-cons and help kids stay in school, have earned it the gratitude and respect of many Milwaukeeans. The foundation also plays a prominent role on the national scene, funding a variety of conservative causes, such as the Freedom Foundation, a think tank that focuses on advancing individual liberty, free enterprise and limited government. Richard Graber has led the foundation since July 2016, when he succeeded Michael Grebe. A lawyer and former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic under President George W. Bush, Ohio-born Graber has been involved in Republican politics for decades, including a stint as the head of the Republican Party of Wisconsin from 1999-2005. Graber sat down with Milwaukee Magazine at the foundation’s headquarters on the East Side to talk about its priorities and strategies.

Carole Nicksin: The foundation recently released a new strategic plan. What are some of the top goals that you’ve set?

Richard Graber: We’ve been through a pretty comprehensive strategic planning process, and we have four major areas of focus, one being constitutional order, which means federalism, separation of powers, the importance of individual liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. We focus on free markets, which to us is the importance of addressing what we feel is over-regulation in this country, encouraging entrepreneurism, and the freedom that comes from free markets and free trade in terms of opportunity for more people in this country.

If there’s been a signature issue for Bradley over the years it’s been in the education space [and] K-12 reform. You look at public high schools in most major cities in this country, and they’re not working. This foundation [was] at the forefront of school choice; it started here. So that continues to be an area of focus.

And then our work, we call it civil society, which historically and continues to be a lot of the issues that are facing so many families in this country and specifically in Milwaukee. The breakdown of the family, people not working, drug addiction, alcohol addiction – the things that seem to be pulling us apart as a country. One of the strengths of America has been the unique glue that comes from families and communities and neighborhood organizations. We see that being torn apart, and that’s something we work on every day.

The arts and culture have always been important to the Bradley family and will continue to be important to us.

Those are the big four areas that drive our giving, our grant-making.

CN: I think that there’s some concern that as the Bradley Foundation becomes more involved in national policy, money might be diverted from local arts groups. Is that the case?

RG: Our mission first and foremost is to adhere to our founders’ intent, and there’s absolutely no doubt that the well-being of Milwaukee and Wisconsin were incredibly important to Lynde and Harry Bradley, and we’re not going to change that. Historically, this foundation has kept about 30 percent of what we give on an annual basis here at home. Seventy percent goes outside, and there’s a little bit of overlap. That’s not going to change. We’re committed to Milwaukee and making this city and this state better, and the arts are a big part of it.

CN: Can you tell me what the foundation has been doing in terms of supporting grassroots organizations in Milwaukee?

RG: It’s not us doing the work; it’s us providing resources so people can do some great things, and there are many, many organizations that we support … such as Community Warehouse, which is hiring people, usually with criminal records, felonies – people who otherwise couldn’t find a job – and through that process are able to obtain the dignity that comes from work and responsibility. It’s just a terrific organization that’s making a difference very quietly every single day. We work with a great organization called ACTS Housing that is enabling people to purchase homes, often in foreclosure, for very little money, and then working with them to get a small mortgage to fix the house up. If you drove down streets in the central city of Milwaukee, tough areas, but those streets that have ACTS Housing owners, it’s a different street. Running Rebels is another great organization, working with kids who are coming out of the juvenile justice system, straightening their lives out. And they’re doing this often without any help from the government. And we believe that these private voluntary initiatives are far more effective than any government program. We’re not ever looking to tell these organizations how to do what they do, but we’re looking for that talent and that drive and that dedication where we can partner with someone and we can work with someone to make a difference, and again it’s often person by person. There’s no easy answer to these problems. It’s an education problem, it’s a family problem, it’s a lack of work problem. It’s tough.

“We believe that these private voluntary initiatives are far more effective than any government program.”

CN: Is the new strategic plan a big departure from the past?

RG: No. There are some things that Bradley has done in the past that we’re going to focus less on now.

CN: Such as?

RG: National security and foreign policy issues. While very important, we’re going to pull back on that. Any time there’s a new leader and some new people on the staff, it’s a good time to look at what we’ve done and reflect on what’s working and what can work a little bit better. So I wouldn’t say it’s a radical departure from the past, but a sharpened focus.

CN: And the sharper focus will be on …?

RG: We’re going to continue the work in Milwaukee and Wisconsin that I talked about. We’d like to see even bolder efforts in the K-12 space. I’m not sure we can say that Milwaukee is still the cutting edge of reform in K-12, and I’d like to see us get back there.

CN: What do you think of our superintendent [Darienne Driver]?

RG: I haven’t met her yet. I’ve heard good things about her. I think there are massive problems with the Milwaukee public school system. There are pockets of good, of course, but I think in many ways her hands are tied, and without some governance change – some pretty radical governance change – it’s going to be tough to get to where we need to go.

CN: In particular?

RG: Well, when you see graduation rates that are dismal, when you see daily attendance rates that are horrible – kids aren’t going to school – something’s not working. And I’m surprised that there’s not more of an uproar about the quality of education that’s being offered. It’s not good enough, and it’s a crisis in this country, it’s a crisis in this city. And unless we find ways to make it better, I worry about the future.

CN: When I was growing up, public schools were good for the most part. What happened?

RG: Bradley’s not anti-public schools.

CN: They’re seen as such …

RG: … by some in the establishment that fear change, fear competition. We’re back to free markets, and it’s good that schools are competing with each other. That’s going to create better quality, and those that aren’t cutting it shouldn’t be providing that education anymore. There are lots of places in this state where public schools are the only option, and some of them, even many of them, are outstanding. That can’t be said in the city of Milwaukee. There are a lot of big problems. And unless we think boldly and put the kids first, ahead of everything else, we’re going to be lagging.

CN: But is everything made better by competition? Aren’t there certain things that thrive by being protected from competition?

RG: Maybe, but we’re sure not seeing it in the results in this city. And we are seeing, I mean, if you go to some of the voucher schools in this city or some of the charter schools, you’ll see some outstanding education of kids that come from tough backgrounds. It is possible to do this, and I really don’t get the political animosity and rhetoric that you read and hear about. Shouldn’t we try to make this better for kids – give them every opportunity that they can possibly have? Why wouldn’t we try this experiment? And to this day, we still don’t know the end of the tale on charter schools and voucher schools, choice schools.

It’s not a secret what we do. I think we’re pretty good at what we do. Maybe that’s what bothers people.”

CN: Moving on, there is a feeling that the foundation pushes the limit of what is sanctioned for a 501(c)(3) organization.

RG: We are very, very careful not to cross political lines. And we support organizations that the Internal Revenue Service has determined are sanctioned, legal 501(c)(3) organizations. And we would never support anyone that’s not.

CN: So where do you think that that criticism comes from?

RG: Well, it certainly comes from people who don’t agree with our mission. It’s a way to attack what we’re doing. Yes, we vet. Yes, we have goals. Yes, we have a vision of what can make for a better country and sometimes what we’re suggesting is different and can step on toes. And some people don’t like that. So it’s an attack.

All I can say is we are careful. If there’s an organization that we feel has gone over the line, we stop funding them. But we’re not the ones who decide who’s 501(c)(3) or not.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

CN: The idea behind the rules for a 501(c) (3) is that the donations should be made for the public good and not for private interest. And I think that the Bradley Foundation has perhaps put a finer point on its conservative view than other foundations would in a political arena.

RG: We’re just fulfilling our mission, a mission where we do believe in limited government. We do believe that private enterprise can be more effective than more government programs. We do believe in the power of voluntary associations and communities and neighborhoods and less regulation. And that’s who we are. I mean, we’re very transparent about it, too. It’s not a secret what we do. I think we’re pretty good at what we do. Maybe that’s what bothers people.

CN: Yes, the foundation’s success certainly makes it a target. In the strategic plan, it talks about fighting the censorship that’s happening on some college campuses now.

RG: I think what we’re seeing on college campuses is troubling. College campuses should be places where different views are welcome, and certainly from our perspective, the shout-downs, the violence that has gone on when certain people are brought to campus to speak, [people] with views that are different from most of the students, perhaps – I mean, that’s too bad. And that’s something that we all should be concerned about.

CN: Some of the organizations that the foundation has aligned itself with are labeled as hate groups.

RG: Well, I think that’s really not fair, and the group that has come up with this list of hate groups – the Southern Poverty Law Center – I view what they have done in that regard as outrageous in labeling some people, many people, on that list as hate groups compared to Ku Klux Klan or white supremacists or something like that; to bunch people – many of our grantees – into that mix is horribly unfair. So I think it’s a ridiculous allegation.

CN: Does the foundation have an opinion on the Trump administration?

RG: We don’t get into politics. We can’t. I do think this is an incredible opportunity, an incredible period of time given the politics in this country right now – Republican versus Democrat – to accomplish some things in terms of education reform, deregulation, privatization. We have an opportunity right now. Whether we’ll be successful remains to be seen.

CN: A greater opportunity than four years ago?

RG: Well, of course. Of course.

CN: In fall 2016, the foundation was hacked. Do you have any idea why it was targeted?

RG: I don’t think we’ll ever know. It happened days before the election. It was bizarre in that we first found out about it through a fraudulent letter the hackers created on our letterhead under the signature of our chief financial officer instructing one of our money sources, one of our money managers, to wire $150 million to the Clinton campaign, which a) is illegal and b) isn’t going to happen. But no, we immediately contacted our lawyers and forensic team, the FBI, and to this day, we don’t know for sure.

Bradley vs. Koch

Like the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Koch family foundations of Wichita, Kansas, have had an increasing focus and impact on conservative causes. The Charles Koch Foundation is the most prominent of the charitable organizations run by billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, majority owners of oil, gas, paper and chemical conglomerate Koch Industries. Here’s a look at how the Koch and Bradley foundations stack up.

Bradley Foundation

Founded: Roots date to 1942. Current setup and name launched in 1985.
Focus: Strengthen American democratic capitalism; support limited, competent government; support a dynamic marketplace for economic, intellectual and cultural activity; defend, at home and abroad, American ideas and institutions; recognize that responsible self-government depends on enlightened citizens.

Charles Koch Foundation

Founded: 1980.
Focus: To fund research and education that helps people expand their horizons, develop their skills and help others.

CN: When the Journal Sentinel reported on the hacks, they wrote that the Bradley Foundation doesn’t write blank checks and cited the example of the controversy over “Eggs Benedict” [a portrait of Pope Benedict, composed of condoms]. How would you respond to that?

RG: We had a disagreement with the Art Museum on that, but we expressed our views and our opinion on that particular exhibit. We never tell our grantees what to do. The Art Museum can and will do whatever it wants to do. By the same token, we don’t have to contribute money to organizations that we feel are not consistent with our mission. We’ve since had some wonderful conversations with the Art Museum and are again providing grants to the Art Museum.

CN: What would you like Milwaukeeans to know about the foundation?

RG: Well, for sure, the amount of support in hundreds of millions of dollars that we have invested in this city. I wish people recognized that. I wish people would take a really hard look at the kinds of things we’re trying to do and embrace that. We’d love to have more partners working with us to solve these problems. The second thing is we are who we are, and we’re not secretive about it; we’re proud of what we do. We just published a strategic plan that says exactly what we’re going to do. Take a hard look at it and think about those areas where there might be some agreement, and again, let’s work together to solve some of these big problems. It’s challenging. It’s tough. But if we leave our city and our state better off than it is today, that’s a great thing.

CN: What’s the hardest part of your job? What keeps you up at night?

RG: Being the person responsible that the money we’re spending is being spent as wisely and efficiently and effectively as it possibly can be. These things are hard to measure. And sometimes school choice has been an example. If we had given up on that in 1988, maybe there wouldn’t have been any progress on that front. Today, school choice and alternatives in education are really pretty accepted. So it’s a long play, and being able to know when something’s just not going to work or it’s money that’s being wasted versus, “This is an investment we’ve got to stay with.” That keeps you awake. You worry about that. ◆

‘Conservative Agenda’ appears in the February 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning January 29, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Editor-in-chief Carole Nicksin has worked in publishing for over 20 years. Prior to joining the staff of Milwaukee Magazine, she was the style director at All You, a Time Inc. publication. She also served as decorating editor at Home magazine. Carole has written for the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, InStyle and numerous other publications.