Home » News » Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Rick Graber on How Foundations Change Lives

Liberty + Leadership Podcast – Rick Graber on How Foundations Change Lives

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Rick Graber is the president and CEO of The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a Wisconsin nonprofit dedicated to reinvigorating civil society by cultivating community, responsibility and citizenship. Prior to his current leadership position, Rick was a senior vice president at Honeywell International, served as the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2006 to 2009, and was elected chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party. He earned a J.D. from Boston University Law School and graduated magna cum laude with an Bachelor of Arts from Duke University.

In this week’s Liberty + Leadership Podcast, TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 and Rick discuss The Bradley Foundation’s role in revamping Milwaukee’s public school system by funding educational choice, the current tensions within the Republican Party, his efforts in promoting free markets as Ambassador to the Czech Republic in the George W. Bush administration, and how the Czech people truly understands the threat of Russian’s war in Ukraine.


Episode Transcript

The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.

Roger Ream [00:00:00] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty and Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni, supporters, faculty and friends who are making a real impact in public policy, business, philanthropy, law and journalism. Today I’m joined by the president and CEO of The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Ambassador Richard Graber. The Bradley Foundation, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, provides grants locally and nationally focused on four priority giving areas constitutional order, free markets, civil society and informed citizens. Previously, Rick served as the senior vice president for Global Government Relations for Honeywell International. The U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2006 to 2009 and as chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. We’re going to hear more from him about the work of The Bradley Foundation, his tenure abroad, serving the U.S., and his thoughts about how to strengthen the understanding of free markets and civil society. Rick, thanks so much for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk today. I’m certainly looking forward to our conversation.

Rick Graber [00:01:19] Thanks so much, Roger. It’s great to be with you.

Roger Ream [00:01:22] To frame our discussion, perhaps you could begin by explaining how The Bradley Foundation goes about trying to accomplish its mission.

Rick Graber [00:01:30] I mean, it’s great to talk about it and it really goes back to donor intent. It goes back to the very beginning of two brothers who grew up in the east side of Milwaukee, Lynde and Harry Bradley, who started from absolutely nothing and built an incredible business called the Allen Bradley Company, which you’re very familiar with, having grown up in and around Milwaukee yourself. And it really means going back to that founding all the time as we think about our grant making. Lynde Bradley died in 1942 and Harry Bradley in 1965. So they’ve been gone a long, long time. And there’s a lot of things we don’t know about them. But there are some things that we know a lot about. And one absolutely was their belief in free markets. They had a lot of stops and starts. That business was not an instant success by any means. Yet they were able to get back up on their feet and start over again. And in many ways, that really informs our grant making to this day in that particular area. They cared a lot about their employees. They had a community in and around the Allen Bradley Company, a lot of Polish immigrants at the time that they cared deeply about. And it’s really that care and concern that I think has motivated our interest in civil society of finding alternatives to government to solve the toughest problems facing our country and our society and our communities. They believed in informed citizens. That’s informed our work in education and school choice. Bradley Foundation being involved in the school choice movement in this country since the very beginning in the 1980s. So it really over and over again goes back to those two men who built an incredible business. And thankfully, The Bradley Foundation has been able to stay true to their interests, to their mission, to their vision up to this very day. It’s very fun. It’s fun to be a steward of this wonderful gift to the city of Milwaukee, to the state of Wisconsin and to the United States.

Roger Ream [00:03:53] Well, you’ve been a terrific steward, and as have your predecessors. Why do you think so many national foundations seemed to drift from that donor intent? I mean, the stories are classic. You hear about him a lot. Do you have any sense of why that happens so often and what can be done or what you’ve managed to do with Bradley to keep focused on the intent of the donors?

Rick Graber [00:04:21] It means that the board of directors has to take very seriously successorship, who sits on that board? Who’s on the staff? At the Bradley Bradley Foundation, since the very beginning, directors have taken succession very, very seriously. Every single director interviews every single candidate. There aren’t all that many openings for directorships at The Bradley Foundation but when it does happen, the directors take that seriously and have stayed true to that for the 35 plus years that The Bradley Foundation has been in existence. And the same is true at the staff level. I mean, there have been three presidents of The Bradley Foundation, Mike Joyce, Mike Grebe and myself. And we’ve taken that very seriously as well, I mean, every single person who works at The Bradley Foundation believes in the mission, every single person, regardless of their role within the organization. And I can assure you that under my watch, that’s not going to change. And I just don’t think it will. You’re right. Bradley is one of the few major foundations in this country that really has stayed true to that original intent and to that original mission.

Roger Ream [00:05:41] You’ve also had the challenge of balancing local giving, where you’ve done some amazing things for the city of Milwaukee and in the state of Wisconsin in the arts area and sports and other fields. With the national giving, it looks like it’s about a one third Wisconsin.

Rick Graber [00:06:00] About 30% 70%.

Roger Ream [00:06:02] Are there tensions there you have to deal with from time to time?

Rick Graber [00:06:06] You know, in many ways I think the local giving complements the national giving and in some cases, you know, what happens at the local level is a trial for something that might happen at the national level. And I think there have been some tensions over the years as to where the foundation should direct its giving. But it is very, very clear to me that a substantial chunk of what Bradley does every year has to stay at home in Milwaukee. And again, it goes back to donor intent. The Bradley brothers, Harry Bradley, in particular cared very, very deeply about the city of Milwaukee and I think would be very upset if the foundation were to abandon its roots. In a good chunk of our civil society, giving really is in Milwaukee and in the state of Wisconsin, in primarily Milwaukee. And again, I think it’s a great thing that it’s civil society in action and we get to know these groups up close and personal. Ladder work in the central city of Milwaukee with amazing organizations. And, you know, a lot of work in the arts, too. And again, that goes back to the Bradleys, Harry Bradley, Peg Bradley, his wife cared deeply about the arts. So, we’ve funded the, you know, the ballet, the repertory theater. We just made the largest gift in the history of the foundation to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as a new home now called The Bradley Symphony Center, a gift of about $20 million. So very significant for us.

Roger Ream [00:07:50] Well, that’s certainly very consistent with that spirit of philanthropy and even the Tocquevillian idea of solving problems at home. Too many places and organizations want to look to Washington to find the solutions. And you’re showing that civil society still works in America by that type of philanthropy.

Rick Graber [00:08:12] I mean, in many ways, I think we’ve established over time that huge government programs just don’t work and that the real answer, the real problems: homelessness, education, solid leadership in the schools, addictions. Government programs aren’t fixing those issues, maybe to some extent on the margins. But it’s the incredible people in Milwaukee and in every single city in this country. In individuals who are dedicated 24/7 to solving these problems that are making a difference. It’s not a government program with lots of strings attached to it. It’s people helping people and building the dignity and respect of every single person in this country. That’s what’s going to fix these problems.

Roger Ream [00:09:10] And to reinforce your point about the local philanthropy having national implications. That’s certainly true with the work The Bradley Foundation has supported in educational choice. You were pioneers in Wisconsin in supporting a modest program at the start of school choice that gave inner city parents the opportunity to find better schools for their children. Can you talk a little bit about how that program has started or grown over the years?

Rick Graber [00:09:38] It started out with a really unlikely partnership between The Bradley Foundation and Governor Tommy Thompson, educated by the name of Howard Fuller, who’s pretty well-known around the country, state legislature by the name of Polly Williams.

Roger Ream [00:09:55] A Democrat, right?

Rick Graber [00:09:57] A Democrat and Howard Fuller was too a Democrats. Unlikely bedfellows, but a desire to help kids in the central city of Milwaukee. And it’s you know, it’s 30 plus 35 years again since it started. And the results are still not in. Today in the city of Milwaukee, almost 50% of the kids do not go to a traditional public school, it’s a little below 50%. Bradley has supported many, many choice and charter schools in the Milwaukee area, and they all have one common denominator. They have an amazing leader. It’s the same thing with the organizations in the central city. It’s just some amazing people making a difference. And you can walk into these schools and know in about 5 minutes that something very, very special was going on there.

Roger Ream [00:10:48] It’s wonderful.

Rick Graber [00:10:49] We think we’re at an inflection point when it comes to parental school choice right now, not only in Milwaukee, but around the country. I mean, we’re seeing what’s going on in Florida, in Arizona, in Iowa now. I saw Governor Sanders the other day announced changes in the state of Arkansas with their school choice program. So we’re at a point now where we can really move the needle. And I’m hopeful that we’re able to be supportive in that just the critical effort, the focus should be on kids and their education. It should not be on funding a system that has been around for centuries and served its purpose. But in many, many places, including the city of Milwaukee, is not delivering the way that it can and should.

Roger Ream [00:11:38] Yeah, it seems like there’s strong agreement across the aisles that competition is good, the competition improves quality, and yet it’s never been something that some think is what we need in the education area. And these examples, like Wisconsin, show that competition does improve quality and gives kids opportunities they wouldn’t have. So, it’s a wonderful thing.

Rick Graber [00:12:02] Unless you have that educational base, we’re going to lose generations. We have a wonderful opportunity right now to make a difference, to make a difference in kids’ lives regardless of their background. And to me, it’s a moral obligation. It should be a civil right.

Roger Ream [00:12:21] Well, this is a very interesting time in the conservative movement. There’s a lot of intellectual ferment going on.

Rick Graber [00:12:29] Yes, there is.

Roger Ream [00:12:30] You hear terms like national conservatives and, of course, traditional conservatives, libertarians, populists. It’s also worrisome, of course, that it seems that some conservatives are abandoning kind of basic free market commitments that have been part of the conservative ideas and part of the American founding, really as a commercial republic, as a republic based on opportunity and free enterprise. After we record this podcast, I’m going back to my office. We’re going to have about 20 young people, young journalists and young people from think tanks who are in their twenties for a lively discussion. We do this each month of what I would call fusionism of trying to talk about the important commitment to freedom on the one hand, and free enterprise. And on the other hand, the importance of virtue, of virtue in society. And do you worry sometimes that conservatives are drifting from that commitment to free market ideas or mistakenly think there’s some sort of conflict between believing in the free market on the one hand and believing in the family and family values on the other, and virtue?

Rick Graber [00:13:45] I worry about it a lot. And you’re right. There’s been a lot of conversation and the apparent drift. And again, I’ll go back to the Bradley brothers. One thing is very clear is they believed in free enterprise. They believed in free markets and they would not approve in any way of a more statist approach, somehow believing that the government can do a better job than markets. I mean, look what we’ve created in this country. I mean, in this day when people seem to be so negative about so many things. I think we’ve got to remember that we still live in the greatest country on earth that has created incredible opportunity for all of us, including you and me. To do what we want with our lives. Yes, that means competition. That means earning things based on merit, not on the basis of skin color or race or gender. And it’s just incredibly important that we don’t lose that. The Bradley Foundation, it will, if it’s not already, should be very clear where we come down on this and that the groups that we will support will be for free markets. Will not support crony capitalism. Will support businesses competing with businesses around the country and around the world in a way that we can continue to create this opportunity that has gone on in this country for so many years. Government is not the answer. And historically, we’ve been fighting with those on the center left and the left on this issue. And now it seems we’re having this debate on the right and center right. And we just have to make our case clearly. And I would say that in many cases, we haven’t made the case clearly enough. Organizations such as yours, Roger, that have done such great work for so long are really, really important, particularly with the young people in this country, we have to educate. We have to make the case and win the battle of ideas, which is something we’ve all been working on for many years.

Roger Ream [00:16:08] Yeah. I love a statement by the 20th century, German economist Wilhelm Röpke said that the economy is the first line in the defense of liberty. And I take that in a sense to mean that it’s the pursuit of the economy, the free market, free enterprise is the pursuit of happiness. It’s one of those basic rights to have. And it’s important that we continue to make that case because the evidence is overwhelming. Capitalism is the greatest anti-poverty program in the history of mankind. And we see tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty as they gain property rights and the right to exchange and pursue human flourishing and livelihoods. And you’re right, we have to make that case over and over within among our friends, as well as among the rising generations that in polls seem to think socialism is somehow superior to capitalism.

Rick Graber [00:17:09] Totally agree. And there are some great spokesmen for it out there doing that. Your organization, Dr. Sam Gregg is doing a great job, just wrote a great book on that. Many others. Their voices have to be lifted at a time like this.

Roger Ream [00:17:26] Yeah. We brought Sam in this summer to speak to all our students and others like that. Amity Shlaes, who I’ll be talking to later. You know, that brings me in a sense, since I mentioned socialism, I’d like to shift over and talk for a few minutes about your service to our country. As the US ambassador to the Czech Republic. By the way, I’ll mention that the permanent representative to the U.N. from the Czech Republic, Jakub Kulhánek, is an alum of our program in Prague, and I had the opportunity to host a webinar with him recently, and he came into the U.N. of February last year. An interesting time, right on the heels of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I’d love to get your thoughts on that. You were in Prague at a very interesting time. It had emerged from communism. You had the opportunity, I know you’ve told me to meet the great Czech playwright and dissident and later, President Vaclav Havel. One thing that Ambassador Kulhánek and I talked about is that the current generation in the Czech Republic and countries around there didn’t have an experience living under communism. He was great and I should say reassuring and saying that the anti-communist sentiment among this current generation is still very strong. They get it from their parents and grandparents. They know what it was like in those dark days of communism. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has certainly disturbed things in Europe. What are your thoughts about the future of, you know, freedom in those regions? How serious is the threat of Russia? You probably keep in touch with some of the people you work with?

Rick Graber [00:19:02] I do. We were there last summer again. I should mention that I think my first introduction to you and your team and The Fund for American Studies was at a residence in Prague. It was a beautiful summer night. And I remember the evening well with the students. It was great fun.

Roger Ream [00:19:23] Yeah. Beautiful residence, too.

Rick Graber [00:19:25] It is a spectacular residence. I mean, truly one of the great pieces of property I think that the United States owns anywhere. I know the Czechs are very, very afraid, angry, concerned about what’s going on. It’s very close to home. It’s bringing back for some memories of the old days. And I think America has to take more of a leadership role in all of this. And there are mixed signals, again, on all sides of the political aisle on this. But when you have a country like Russia that really for no reason at all provokes an attack on a neighbor. That’s a problem. It’s not only a problem for the Ukrainians, it’s a problem for the region. It’s a problem for Europe. I do think Europe has to stand up and play a role in this. And, you know, in many ways, President Trump was correct. To point out that Europe just is not paying its fair share when it comes to the NATO alliance. But nonetheless I don’t think we can think as Americans, that Ukrainian is too far away to care about. I think we do have to care about it. And again, I know the Czechs do I know my Czech friends do. They’ve just had an election in the Czech Republic and elected a man by the name of Petr Pavel as their president, who I think will be an outstanding representative of the country. I know that he cares deeply about this issue. We’ll be talking about it in the run up to his inauguration as president. I mean, the Czech Republic is a relatively small country of about 10 million people. But consistently a plate above their weight and in lots of different areas. They’ve been a great ally to the United States. And I feel very strongly that the United States has to play a role in this. Can’t ignore it, can’t pretend, as I said, that Ukraine is just a country too far away that we don’t know anything about. Because I think if the Russians feel free to do what they’re doing in Ukraine. Will they do it in other places? Will they do it in the Baltics? Will they do it in Moldova, places like that? One of the lessons that I learned there and while I was there, the key issue I worked on was a missile defense system that President Bush was trying to put into the Czech Republic and Poland to protect against Iranian rockets. It was something I worked on every single day. And in my naive early days there, I thought I could persuade the Russian ambassador in Prague of the wisdom of our ways, of our way of thinking on this and this really wasn’t something designed to go after Vladimir Putin or serve as a threat to Putin. But I quickly understood that that was a waste of time. It just wasn’t going to happen. Vladimir Putin is an evil, bad man who hates the United States. And the presidents of both parties, including my boss, George Bush, I think believed at one point or another that they could charm him, could somehow appease him. It’s not possible. And as long as he’s in charge, we have an evil threat on our hands in Moscow. Not going to change. Whoever succeeds him could be worse. It’s possible. But for right now, Vladimir Putin is in charge. And we should know exactly what we have. You have to deal from a position of strength to deal with Vladimir Putin. I’m not sure that this country has been doing that to the fullest extent that it can and should.

Roger Ream [00:23:28] Let me ask as an ambassador, you’re overseeing a organization in, say, the Czech Republic that has probably several hundred employees.

Rick Graber [00:23:37] Yeah, three or 400.

Roger Ream [00:23:39] To what extent are you kind of managing an operation versus really trying to be the face of American ideals and trying to educate people and promote American ideals to the people of the Czech Republic? Do you have opportunities to do that?

Rick Graber [00:23:57] I tried to do both. I mean, I did try to manage the organization and get to know all of the employees. And, you know, the embassy in Prague is no different than any others. Most of the employees are local employees. So, in my case, most of the employees were Czech employees. And then you have the American employees who are in and out on two- or three-year rotations. So, there’s constant turnover and the American employees. So, there is a management part to the job, but there’s no question that your job every day is to represent the country, represent the president, represent the mission of the administration at that particular point in time. And it’s great fun. I mean, it was a wonderful three years for me and for my family. It was important to get out of Prague and to see the rest of the country. And again, it’s a fairly small country, so you could get anywhere with a relatively short car ride. But things that go on in Australia and other cities around the country, it’s very different there than it is in Prague, like in every state.

Rick Graber [00:25:09] It’s you know, it’s different in Milwaukee than it is in Rhinelander. It’s just different. But that, I think, is an important part of the job, is to get to know the people, reach out to the people. And, you know in three years a country that size. If you’re doing your job, you get to know him pretty well. Really, really pretty well. And it was a special, fun opportunity. A lot of it wasn’t political. It wasn’t right or left. It was just representing America. And you’d be amazed at the impact that the United States has in a country like that. People care what the United States thinks and who is representing the United States in their country. It’s a big deal.

Roger Ream [00:25:54] Yeah, well, we have been there since 1993, running our summer program at Charles University, and we got outstanding students. And like you just said, they are really interested in learning about America, learning about our political and economic systems, and ready to be leaders in their countries around Europe and elsewhere. I have one other thing I’d like to talk with you about before we run out of time. I was honored to receive a Bradley Prize a few years ago.

Rick Graber [00:26:23] We were honored to be bestow it upon you, Roger Very well-deserved.

Roger Ream [00:26:28] Bradley Prize is to a number of remarkable people, our friend Mitch Daniels, of course, and Ed Meese, Paul Gigot, Walter Williams and others. Soon you’ll be announcing and maybe you’ve selected the 2023 winners and perhaps you’d like to reveal who the winners are in this podcast.

Rick Graber [00:26:45] I can’t tell you quite yet. But you’ll love them. They’re going to be fantastic.

Roger Ream [00:26:50] Well, good. I guess I could tell you this won’t be released for a few weeks.

Roger Ream [00:26:56] If you could just say, you know, what you see is kind of the purpose of the awards in your own perspective.

Rick Graber [00:27:02] The Bradley Prize is really a wonderful celebration once a year where we honor the accomplishments of three or four outstanding individuals that have dedicated their lives to freedom and to liberty and free enterprise, really the principles of The Bradley Foundation. And it’s a time for people in the conservative movement to come together and celebrate to listen to some fantastic speeches. As you know, we have a roundtable as part of the evening. It will be moderated again by Kim Strassel from The Wall Street Journal, a great off the cuff opportunity to listen to these winners just talk really in a very unscripted sort of way. So, it’s a highlight of the year for us. I hope it was a highlight for you that evening. The highlight for our winners. And again, it’s a way to publicize and talk more about the things that are important to The Bradley Foundation. This year’s winners, I’d love to disclose, but I just can’t.

Roger Ream [00:28:14] I’m sure they’ll be outstanding.

Rick Graber [00:28:16] Will be outstanding again and will reflect those very same values. Plus, I mean, we have fun that evening, too. Last year, the last couple of years we’ve tried something a little bit different. Last year in particular, where we released the speeches digitally. So, it was more than just the four 500 people in the room that got to hear the speeches. In the end, over a million people viewed the speeches online digitally, and it really is fun to be able to spread that far and wide and try to do the same thing again this year.

Roger Ream [00:28:52] Well, I’ve had the opportunity to be at many of the ceremonies. I’ve missed a few along the way, but there have been some really outstanding acceptance speeches. You keep them short, you tell the winners, you know, to speak for seven, eight minutes. But I just happened the other day to come across Rabbi Sacks.

Rick Graber [00:29:12] Yes.

Roger Ream [00:29:13] His speech, which was outstanding.

Rick Graber [00:29:15] It was a great speech.

Roger Ream [00:29:16] I vividly remember Robbie Georges and many of the others that have been given over the years. So, in addition to those impromptu conversations, the speeches themselves are outstanding as well.

Rick Graber [00:29:25] Speeches are great, as was yours.

Roger Ream [00:29:29] Well, I’ll look forward to this year’s ceremony in May and learning who the recipients are of this year’s Bradley Prizes. It’s a wonderful program. Well, I think we’ve run out of time. My guest today has been Rick Graber, president and CEO of The Bradley Foundation. We are very grateful at The Fund for American Studies to receive generous support from the foundation and our great admirers of all the great work you’re doing in Wisconsin and nationally to promote those values of constitutional order, free enterprise, civil society and informed citizens, can’t take issue with any of those. And I wish you great success as you continue to pursue that mission, Rick. Thank you.

Rick Graber [00:30:10] Thanks so much for having me, Roger. I really enjoyed it.

Roger Ream [00:30:14] Thank you for listening to the Liberty and Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty and Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream and until next time, show courage in things large and small.


About the Podcast

TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.

Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.

If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.

View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.

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