Interview with Nathaniel Loewentheil, exiting director of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network






By Nathan Maton 

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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
of Roosevelt the idea to try a student run
think tank?  

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?

NL:           
Well, Yale and Stanford had a coincidental connection after the 2004 campaign
through friends, so they quickly decided to join forces and formed two Roosevelt chapters. We were also connected through some
networks like the Junior Statesmen Association, a high school political
network. So, we began these conference calls to hash out this idea across the
country, and all of the sudden there were ten campuses involved.

 

Nathan: These ten groups were policy magazine
writing clubs?

NL:           
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 Roosevelt‘s
conception. For example, I no longer believe that young people can
fundamentally shift the policy debates. Rather, I think Roosevelt’s key
value-add to society is the leadership development work–bringing together
bright young people around the country, instilling progressive values and
empowering them and encouraging them to get active in politics. Today our best
scholars are recognized in national policy debates but our original vision was
that young people were going to write our country’s policies.

 

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?

NL:
            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 Roosevelt
can do best. We, the leadership at this point, had a debate about whether we
should focus on printing policy publications or on training young individuals
to be the progressive movement’s future leaders. I was more on the latter side.

 

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
Roosevelt decide to focus on policy then?

NL:
            These were
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 Palo
Alto
from our initial fundraising, so over time we
formed a movement. We printed our publication and that was what we had to show
for our efforts, so that was one reason we concentrated on policy.

 

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?

NL:
            Well, first
Quinn Wilhelmi, one of the founders, dropped out of Stanford to run Roosevelt full time at the end of 2005. Then when Quinn stepped
down, due to some internal conflict, Kai Stinchcombe, another founder,
essentially stepped in to save the organization. No one wanted that position at
the time so there wasn’t too much of a contest. It was the low point of our
organization, in the spring of 2006. I was in charge of development and using
whatever time I had left over to do the finances and taxes in Excel and sorting
through old cab receipts. Yet again, it was this core group of people who had
really bonded in the last few years that sustained the organization. We knew
someone had to step up and Kai was like ‘I’ll do it.’  Kai had planned
from the beginning to only stay through August, so we did our first real search
process late in spring 2007 to chose the new ED. I was pretty sure I was going
to get it but there were other contenders. The way the process worked is that
we found a few external candidates but there were no other internal candidates.
So with no other internal candidates I eventually got the job.

 

Nathan: And how was the transition for
you?  Did you have any challenges that needed to be overcome?

NL:
            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 Hyde Park.

My focus has been on institutionalizing Roosevelt, getting professional office space, staffing
us, etc. I think organizations are about the things you can point to, the
tangibles, because I believe that until you have those things it is hard to
gain credibility for your organization. Without that clean space, the professional
standards, it is just hard for others, especially in DC, to see you as a major
player.           

 

Nathan: Wow. That’s a large intern to paid
staff ratio. How have interns helped Roosevelt‘s
development?

NL:
            We have
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 Roosevelt
Academy
, which places
students into internships both in the national office and at partner
organizations. 30 reflects the Academy numbers, not the interns in our office;
we had 20 students in the program in DC and 10 in Chicago. The ones in DC worked at the Center
for American Progress, in the White House, and elsewhere. We only had 7 interns
in the actual national office this summer.

 

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 Roosevelt became a
player in the progressive movement and was invited to these events? 

NL:
            Over time
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 Roosevelt join the
Progressive Ideas Network, and I helped that get started and had a place at the
table. It’s things like that where you become a player in the progressive
movement. That was my personal contribution as well as making sure that you’re
a constant voice in the process.

 

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?

NL:
            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 New York.
The legal merger was completed on April 24, 2008. This represented a conscious
decision in which we gave up some autonomy but gained secure funding, without
which we probably would have folded in the economic recession. We were
definitely worried about how that transition would work, but their director,
Chris Breiseth, at the time gave us full autonomy to run as an independent
organization.

 

Nathan: Can you explain a bit more about why
they wanted to acquire you? 

NL:
            The Franklin
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 Roosevelts.

 

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 Roosevelt
leadership ever consider any other funding models?  A Membership
model?  Anything else? 

NL:
            Roosevelt has gone back and forth about membership models
since our founding. We have always ultimately decided that it was more
important to keep membership open to any student who wanted to participate
without charging a fee. Furthermore, to make any real financial impact, we
would need a very high membership fee or an enormous membership. We have never
really considered any type of model that would make us sustainably funded
outside of fundraising; the hope for the future, though, is that our alumni
network will become a robust source of funds.

 

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 Roosevelt interns. In
the future, we’ll be dominating in really high levels in policy work and
beyond. Every bright student who wants to be involved in policy is getting
involved in Roosevelt. And equally as important,
they’re getting to know other bright policy students.

 

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? 

NL:            
The reason I believe really deeply in Roosevelt
is that I think that our society has very severe tradeoffs awaiting us in the
future, and that our democracy is incapable of dealing with those tradeoffs. We
need to engage young leaders to engage in these issues. So I’m going to focus
on that, I’m not sure exactly how, but I’ve been thinking about sustainability,
not in a save-the-forest kind of way, but in the broadest way possible. That’s
what I want to focus on. In the short term, I’m going to South
America
for the next year. I am moving to Cochabamba, Bolivia
in October. I’ll be taking classes and then finding a job in sustainable
development.

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 Latin America. Third, I chose Bolivia because I am interested in
the intersection of international development, consumption patterns and natural
resources (as a global economy, we simply use way too much stuff, and our
planet is dying as a result). Bolivia
has rich natural resources but extremely low income. However,
“development” efforts by international corporations have been met by
fierce political resistance in the form of broad social movements, which
fascinates me; I want to explore the anti-globalization efforts, and also
understand the tensions between development and resource exploitation.

 

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?

NL:
            I don’t
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 Hyde Park and see students
creating a national policy agenda for their own organization, you can see how
our students feel empowered. It’s about agency, which I don’t think can get
lost in this process. It’s about being in a room with 100 other smart people,
and there are no adults in the room–so you’re setting the agenda and training
each other, and the leadership comes from the organization.

 

Nathan: Is there anything else you’d like to
add?

NL:           
Let me rephrase my vision for why Roosevelt is
important. I think that it is important for people to understand tradeoffs in
the long run. I think that our long term impact is the people who come through
the organization, and the relationships they build. You only know so many
people in life, so to have an organization that brings together people around
shared values and a shared vision is astoundingly powerful. I’d like to
conclude by saying that you’re going to start seeing Roosevelt
people doing very impressive stuff, so that will be its impressive impact,
along with the network.

 

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 nate.maton@gmail.com.

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