By Nathan Maton
I recently interviewed Nathaniel Loewentheil (NL, pictured left) about the Roosevelt Institute, a student run policy organization he founded that now has over 7,000 students on 70 campuses. I think it represents a unique kind of social entrepreneurship, a type of which we have not heard much about in the NYU Reynolds Program-policy entrepreneurship. The Roosevelt Institute started as a national student-run think tank to inject young people's voices into the national policy debate and brought it to DC, where they have earned a place at the table on many progressive issues. I hope you enjoy the interview.
Nathan: Hi and thanks for coming. This interview will be published on the NYU Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship's blog, which you can find at: http://wagner.nyu.edu/reynolds/. This interview will also be personally informative for me as I want to start an organization at some point down the road.
For those who may not know, what is the Roosevelt Institute and why is it important?
NL: The Roosevelt Institute campus network is a national student policy organization. Our mission is to engage progressives in a unique form of progressive activism that empowers students as leaders and promotes their ideas for change.
Traditional forms of activism have focused on traditional forms of participation, petitions, marching, etc. -- basically civil unrest in various forms. Yet none of these forms were based on policy, they didn't ask young people for their ideas. Young people were merely instrumental in the process; you just needed bodies in your campaign so you hired young students.
We believe that young people have a lot more to offer. We founded this organization with the concept that young people could use policy to initiate change and to train the brightest progressive policy students to be future leaders.
Nathan: What gave you and the founding members
NL: The idea was to create a forum for ideas from students on campus, but it took a really long time to develop and went through many forms. The original idea was a magazine for policy development because at Yale there was no undergraduate public policy magazine, and the other organizations at Yale were about local politics. Then during the 2004 campaign and during the election season there was this new idea that we developed because the national policy debate was pathetic. It lacked big ideas. So the way we thought about it was that with young people disengaged and the national policy debate being pathetic, someone needed to engage young people in a deeper way.
Nathan: How did you create an organization out of this feeling of a lack of big ideas in policy debates?
Well, Yale and Stanford had a coincidental connection after the 2004 campaign
through friends, so they quickly decided to join forces and formed two
Nathan: These ten groups were policy magazine writing clubs?
The idea was to influence the national policy debate through our ideas. That
being said, they weren't chapters, it was just two or three students who wanted
to get involved and change politics. They weren't just writing publications; we
had many debates internally about what our vision and goals were. I've recently
been reflecting on these goals because we're in the process of writing the
history of our organization, so this question is fresh in my mind. I've even
changed some of my beliefs since
Nathan: Wouldn't you consider a scholar's work being recognized in the national view as a shift in the debate, even if not a fundamental shift?
Yes and no.
Just to let you know, this analysis is just my view and others in the
organization might disagree. My beliefs were always tied to the organizational
development idea that we were going to help students develop their political
policy ideals and move them into the progressive movement. So my conclusion is
also a part of my belief about what
Nathan: How could you have focused more on the leadership development?
NL: We considered programs that would have focused more of the leadership in developing a senior fellows program, to give them intensive media training and Op-Ed placement instead of the academy, our summer internship program.
Nathan: How did you and the other leadership in
just big ideas, we didn't have any structure. Then as we got more students
involved from different campuses we came together to form a steering committee.
We also had started an office in
Nathan: When you started did you have immediate success, or did you have major challenges?
NL: The initial success was our rapid growth and movement. We also did have some good policy leaders in the beginning. Our first big step was to publish a journal, but I can realistically say, in retrospect, it was completely useless. We were basically publishing senior theses in a journal, which was fine and a great step along the path but over time we learned lessons about it. We learned that no policy leaders wanted to read our long papers on subjects, so now we publish 2-page briefing memos that get a lot more attention. But as I said before, ideas take a long time to develop. And we had no idea what we were doing.
I would consider our initial publication a success in that we developed something. It might not have been useful, but we could all say we had published a national policy journal, and that was what gave our members a feeling of agency.
Nathan: So how did the organization develop after this initial success? What were your first struggles?
NL: I think our first problem was leadership battles, a problem many young organizations have to face. We got through it by having enough culture to bond together and getting enough money to survive during the internal struggles. Those two elements were absolutely essential, particularly the funding because it gave us legitimacy and a fulltime staff. Also, once we got that money, it enabled us to see our legitimacy and persevere through some serious differences in opinion.
Part of what made us able to fundraise is that we all had, relative to an average American, excellent personal connections. We had good access to foundations and let's face it, going to Yale or Stanford often means that you have access to prominent individuals, both through families and school. So we definitely had a huge head start.
Nate: Talk to me a bit about how your organization decided upon its leadership and how you ended up at the helm?
Quinn Wilhelmi, one of the founders, dropped out of Stanford to run
Nathan: And how was the transition for you? Did you have any challenges that needed to be overcome?
Well for a
while Kai was the only full-time staff member. By the time I took the helm we
had 3 full time staff and all of these interns that were working part time. It
was just really crazy. We had about 30 interns who were working at different
capacities and organizing our coordinated efforts, like our national yearly
Roosevelt conference in
My focus has been on institutionalizing
Nathan: Wow. That's a large intern to paid
staff ratio. How have interns helped
always had a large number of summer interns. In 2007, for example, we had about
15 (some of whom worked part time). In 2008, we started an official internship
program, called the
Nathan: Is there anything else that I missed in this transition that you think is important?
NL: The only thing I would like to say is that figuring out how the national office relates to the chapters was tricky. Was our job to support the chapters or cherry pick the best scholars or influence debate?
Nathan: Where is that discussion now?
NL: I think that we've agreed that our key job is to support the chapter network and have programs that provide incentives for students to join. That's aligned with our values of strengthening young leaders.
In terms of services, we coordinate the national conferences, we support the website, and national provides a sense of being a part of something bigger. In terms of the voice in DC, there is a youth progressive movement, so when Jared Bernstein asks about youth movements we're at the table. When Van Jones asked about young people's interest in green jobs, we were invited to the table.
Nathan: Having that much respect so quickly is
impressive. I know you have over 7,000 students and 70 campus chapters now.
That's an incredible concentration of know-how and insight. What was the
process through which
you build relationships with key people and you keep telling people about
yourself constantly -- you make a name for yourself. Not that I thought about
it this way, but you identify thought leaders, and you show them your work. We
have excellent work products and you hand them out to people and you seem
legitimate. You are then able to join movements and coalitions and help them
out. For example, I helped
Nathan: And who were your major allies throughout your organization's growth?
NL: I interned for the Center for American Progress when I was in college and John Podesta joined our board. So there were key progressive thought leaders on our board and that was encouraging. Most people are willing to join advisory boards if you tell them that it doesn't require any work for them. We didn't have very many concrete partnerships for the first few years. We worked with a few other organizations, and the Roosevelt Institute. We can't do work with every organization, but just knowing them and maintaining friendly relations with them has helped immensely.
Nathan: I'm getting a good sense of how your organization transitioned to DC, but I know there's one more development we still need to discuss. The Roosevelt Institute is now part of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institution (FERI). Can you tell me how that merger started and how it has progressed?
In 2008 we
merged with the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (FERI), a large
family foundation. Well, the merger documents were signed in July 2007. The
actual merger took upwards of 8 months, though, because of the legal processing
needed in the state of
Nathan: Can you explain a bit more about why they wanted to acquire you?
and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute board had decided somewhere around 2003 or 2004
that they wanted to pursue a "youth strategy" to better inform new
generations about the legacy of the Roosevelt's and to engage young people.
Shortly after, the Roosevelt Institution got connected to Anna Eleanor
Roosevelt (FDR's granddaughter and the Chair of the Board). She connected our
staff to Chris, then president of FERI, who saw the Roosevelt Institution as a
perfect way to pursue their youth strategy. They began supporting the
organization. In terms of the desire for the actual merger, as opposed to just
partnership and friendly relations, I guess they wanted to further support our
efforts and strengthen the connection of the organization to the
Nathan: How did you balance the relationship, being a part of the Roosevelt Institute (FERI)?
NL: There's sort of a macro transition that's happening. We're a subsidiary cooperation that is independently operated, so it was a subsidiary operation. At first no one messed with our work but then over the last 6 months FERI transitioned to a new president, Andrew Rich, and he is trying to integrate the institute in a new way. For instance, we're going to change our name to the Roosevelt Campus Network. Then we hired Hilary Doe, our new Executive Director; in that decision I had input but he had the final say.
A big part of Hilary's job is trying to complete this merger. Basically, both the spirit and the legal documents of the merger vacillated between a merger that created a single, integrated organization and one that created a subsidiary corporation (Roosevelt Institution) fully "owned" by FERI. I operated under the latter model. The new president of FERI wanted to fully integrate the two organizations. I complicated this because it was not my understanding of the merger, and because I therefore operated as if I was the Executive Director of my own organization and a peer of the president. The efforts to integrate the organizations will (and are) proceeding more quickly with Hilary. Not because she doesn't enjoy autonomy, but because she takes over from me with a different understanding of the relationships between the organizations (or, rather, seeing it as one organization). She is also a much more process oriented person, and will be able to take the logistical steps needed for integration, like meshing contact management, communications and development efforts.
Nathan: Are you happy about that transfer?
NL: There is a tension between autonomy and sustainability. I think you see this with startups. People start a tech firm and they're making good money; in that kind of environment, they've made a lot of money and once they sell they can move on. For us, if we didn't integrate we'd have to lay off people because our fundraising fell off during the recession. I'm not even sure we would have made it, so it is non-trivial. Would I do it the same way again? I'm not sure.
Nathan: This mention of fundraising reminds me of a question I had wanted to ask earlier, but didn't so as not to interrupt the flow of discussion. Can you explain to me how you managed to raise funds for the organization?
NL: In the summer and fall of 2004 we hosted some house party fundraisers. We also had a few small donors, our three earliest grants were from the Bauman Foundation, the Panta Rhea, and Rappaport Family Foundation, also known as Skyline Public Works.
Nathan: Why did each of those foundations buy into your vision?
NL: Well I think Mrs. Bauman was really taken with us as very ambitious, very idealistic young people. I think there is a sense from a lot of baby boomers that they messed up and need to fix it, so they need to invest in the future. They were just inspired. Panta Rhea doesn't have a mission, just a few things they fund. The Rappaport has a mission to help young people get organizations off the ground. We got $25,000 from Bauman, $30,000 from Panta Rhea and $125,000 over 4 years from Skyline.
Nathan: Was each of those fundraising experiences similar, or different?
NL: With fundraising the most important piece is building a relationship. For instance, I went in and talked to Patricia Bauman, an old lady, and she was just inspired with our ambitions and idealistic goals. So she said, "all right, you can have $25,000." For Skyline, we did have to put together a large proposal. We had to write our plan for the future, but I also think foundations recognize that for young people a plan for the future is something that's useful but always changes. You always deviate from your plan. But I think that small family foundations are a good place to start because they have less formal rules in place.
Also, people don't want to hear that we're going to have only 2 chapters, they want to be inspired. We had a big vision, we said that we are the leaders of the next generation. We even had this whole motif about how we don't have any Nobel Prize winners but we have future Nobel Prize winners. Another big thing we talked about is that we are both making change now and preparing for the future. We are both doing important policy work that needs to be done, and also building skills that help us mature.
Nathan: It is surprising to me that these funders bought into your idealism and ambitious goals.
Nate: That's true, that is basically what we sold. We sold hope for the future.
Nathan: Did the
Nathan: It's fascinating that you raised your initial funds based on idealistic goals, and that you merged with a large family foundation. As we approach the end of this interview I'd love to hear what your dream for what the Roosevelt Institute would be in 5 years?
NL: Well I think that Hilary has really helped come up with a genius idea, of doing policy at the local level because that's where students can get engaged and have more impact. So pushing our students to engage in that is important.
We are the only multi-issue, progressive youth-focused organization in the
country. We're attracting the most successful students in the country and we're
going to have an incredibly robust alumni network. Right now, 5 of the 150
White House interns are
Nathan: That is a quite powerful vision. I'd like to get a bit more info on your vision for your life personally. I know you're stepping down from your leadership role. What's next for you?
The reason I believe really deeply in
I am going for three main reasons. First,
I wanted to move overseas because I believe that having a truly broad
perspective is critical to being successful in politics and social movements,
particularly in our increasingly global age, and it's impossible to get that
broad perspective if you only live in one culture. Second, I wanted to move
somewhere where I could learn Spanish, because I think it's silly not to know a
language spoken by 15% or so of our country, especially if you're going into
politics or public service. So, that's why I wanted somewhere in
Nathan: In Reynolds we like to dissect and plan out our vision of change, how would you describe yours?
NL: Why I see policy as important is that students have to be engaged, and that inspires a different kind of young person. There are hard-core political activists that just want to work on campaigns; those people don't have big ideas in general, and people who have big ideas are usually not as interested in politics. Policy can be key in getting the people with big ideas interested in politics, which in turn enriches the debate.
Nathan: Couldn't that backfire? Couldn't those leaders who get engaged become jaded and disillusioned by political corruption and the political process in general?
think so because people do listen to our ideas. Having young people writing
policy is a deeply powerful idea, but in a way you're right, people espouse the
goal of empowerment all the time--and it can be bullshit. For us though, it is
not. If you come to
Nathan: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Let me rephrase my vision for why
Nathan: Thank you so much for taking time out to talk to me, and for all of your important work and insights.
If there are any questions or comments for Nate or me, please feel free to email them to me at email@example.com.