Progressives in the think tank arena have often envied how supportive conservative foundations and wealthy individuals have been of places like Cato and the Heritage Foundation. The huge impact of the conservative policy infrastructure stands as one of the greatest success stories of philanthropy in modern times—with relatively small foundations like Bradley, Scaife, and Olin clearly moving the needle in key debates through their think-tank investments.
Of course, plenty of liberal funders have also understood the value of investing in policy research and advocacy. And no funder played a more crucial role in building up a strong progressive policy infrastructure than Richard Boone, who died last week in California. As director of the Field Foundation, Boone came up with the idea for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and recruited Robert Greenstein to lead it. The Center quickly emerged as the leading defender of the social safety net in Washington and went on to be, by many accounts, the most indispensable progressive think tank in Washington—with an annual budget north of $25 million in recent years.
Boone was a great example of an activist funder. Before entering philanthropy, he worked in the Johnson administration and played a key role in the War on Poverty, including helping to develop Head Start. Then he left government to start the Citizens’ Crusade Against Poverty, a group that was instrumental in helping establish the Food Stamp program. (Read more about Boone here.)
As director of the Field Foundation starting in 1977, Boone continued to think up ways to empower and help poor people. He clearly understood the all-important role of voting, and helped start the Funders Committee for Civic Participation. His support also made possible the Communications Consortium Media Center, which works to help nonprofits be more effective with the media and their messaging.
But starting the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities was Boone's greatest and most lasting accomplishment. For nearly 35 years, the Center's clear, practical, and timely analysis of federal and state policies affecting low-income people has been immensely influential. And while the Field Foundation was the leader in establishing the Center, dozens of other foundations would eventually follow and support CBPP— with many renewing that support year after year.
All this underscores the importance of philanthropic leadership. A funder with a good idea doesn't need the deepest of pockets and, in fact, the Field Foundation in New York that Boone led would spend down and close its doors by 1989, less than a decade after incubating CBPP. If you have a great idea, other funders will follow you and sustain that idea—possibly for decades to come.