Seeing a New Opening, Annie E. Casey Is Pushing Hard on Poverty and Opportunity

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is named after a widow who struggled to raise her four children as a single mother. One of her children, Jim, founded UPS and became wealthywhile never forgetting where he came from. For decades, the Annie E. Casey Foundationnow with assets of some $3 billionhas been a premier grantmaker focused on the well-being of children and families. Inevitably, these issues have taken the foundation deep into the realm of public policy, and since the mid-1990s, it has led a broad push to reduce poverty and expand opportunity for low-income communities. 

As Casey's director of policy reform and advocacy, Michael Laracy has been near the center of that push for 21 years. He advances the foundation's efforts to inform, guide and influence public policy at the state and federal levels. He also takes care of the foundation’s KIDS COUNT network and State Priorities Partnership (previously called the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative, or SFAI). 

Laracy is one of those funders who's been on the scene forever and knows everyone in the field. He's played a key role in incubating or funding all sorts of projects and organizations, and he's extremely well-liked. 

We wanted to talk to Laracy now, because so much is happening in the foundation world around the issues of poverty and opportunity—with new attention on inequality, and also race, having a galvanizing effect. We wanted to get Laracy's insights on where the foundation world is heading, particularly for empowering children, youth, and families, and also see if he could provide some clues for grantseekers about how best to approach the foundation for funding.

We started off by asking him where he sees the possibility of bipartisan support for the agendas of poverty and opportunity. Laracy talked about the launch of the web portal Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity in 2007, and how this was an early step in new efforts fostered by Casey to bring together Democrats, Republicans and Independents to reduce poverty and increase social mobility. The number of foundations supporting this effort is impressive, and the portal has served its purpose of getting more people talking about these two central issues. The portal attracts more than 1 million visitors a year, has more than 20,000 followers on social media sites, and pushes out a weekly email newsletter to about 8,000 subscribers. 

Two issues on the Casey agenda that have generally enjoyed bipartisan support are the Earned Income Tax Credit and efforts to reform child welfare. More recently, Laracy noted the surge in bipartisan support for criminal justice and juvenile justice reform. Going forward, he thinks there is room for major bipartisan movement on pre-K and early childhood development initiatives and youth development efforts, particularly those focused on business internships and job skill training.

Laracy was more doubtful about whether there could be bipartisan support for increasing the minimum wage, although he noted that a recent essay in National Affairs suggested that Republicans would do well to compromise on the minimum wage by raising it and indexing it to inflation, so here again, he sees room for movement where others mainly see a bipartisan divide.

Laracy cautioned that forging bipartisan consensus takes a long time. "Relationships take years to build. It takes a long time to build trust, working relationships, and credibility with each other."

We asked Laracy about the language of inequality and whether Casey would be adopting more of this, in tandem with the other foundations becoming more focused on the issue, including the Ford Foundation, and, specific to children and youth, the William T. Grant Foundation.

"We always preferred focusing on poverty and opportunity, because historically, inequality tends to alienate and push off half the voters—the conservatives and Republicans—whereas everyone is in favor of opportunity."

"The solutions are going to be the same whether we call it inequality or opportunity or mobility," said Laracy. "We're joining with others to push for the same things—Earned Income Tax Credit, better job training, pre-K." Laracy said Casey made a conscious decision in 2007 to focus its agenda on "reducing poverty and creating opportunity, with the goal of bringing in more conservatives and Republicans, and it has worked."

Laracy expressed reservation about whether inequality was the most politically expedient term to use to drive a bipartisan agenda. "Whether the word inequality is going to gain traction with the right, it might. We may be at a transitional point, an inflection point, but that remains to be seen." Laracy added that, in his experience, "You certainly continue to get a lot of pushback when you talk about inequality, whereas nobody is giving pushback when you talk about opportunity or mobility."

We asked Laracy about how potential grantseekers to Casey should frame their work for maximum impact and funding chances. "Be very clear about your theory of change and the results you are seeking," he said. "Make sure you address the outcomes you want to get to, and how you're going to get them. Be explicit about that."

Laracy also emphasized the importance of showing that you know who else is doing work in the field and how your work is going to add value.

Nothing turns off a program officer at a foundation more than a proposal to do something that is already being done out there by three other people, and sometimes it's stuff that's pretty well known. You know, you'll have someone who comes in and says, "How about if we start a website on poverty and opportunity," and you say, "Well, that's not a bad idea, but if you've ever Googled it, you'd find there already is one and there's been one for 7 years." Any grantee should appreciate the other people who are doing similar work and make a point of saying how they are going to collaborate and add value to the work that's already being done.

Laracy said that when people ask him what a program officer's job is like, he often compares it to being an executive producer for a TV program or movie.

When you're an executive producer, the two skills you need are a gut feeling about people and a gut feeling about the ideas and the work. So if someone comes to me, and I'm talking to her, and I'm thinking this is a really smart person and she's really got some great ideas, and I can really see how it would add value to the work being done.

Program officers are not the stars, he noted. Nor are they the directors or screenwriters. "What they do is have lots of conversations and spot the talent and see how it adds value and creates synergy with what the foundation is already doing. And then, like an executive producer, they make bets on them."

Laracy spoke about the importance of messages reaching the masses in order to effect change in public policy. He compared it to the release of a new car: "When Ford introduces a new car, they don't do a 40-page policy paper and say 'Oh, everyone's going to buy the car because we did a good report on it.'  They do TV, radio, Internet, they create an echo chamber saying, 'This is a good car and you want to buy it.'"

Around policy, said Laracy, it's the same thing. If you just issue a report that says we should do paid more leave for families, for example, that's fine, but that's not going to change anything.

You have to issue the report and get op-eds, and unlikely allies, and do Hill briefings, so that you create an echo chamber and people start saying, 'Oh, you know what, we should do paid leave because everyone's talking about it, and these evaluations show it's not an expense for employers, and it's good for everyone.'

Laracy said that is why, this year and in 2016, Casey is funding about a dozen efforts to push the same agenda around poverty and opportunity, and get the ideas into the mainstream where people can respond and take action. "We've had phenomenal results with a couple of them already."

Laracy pointed to the Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and National Association of Evangelicals. This initiative had a big vision—to create a summit that would bring together Catholics and Evangelicals around poverty and opportunity—and came to Casey, and in particular to Laracy, for help.

The leader of this effort, John Carr, senior policy director for the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference, proposed his idea for a three-day summit that would convene leaders in policy and government on both sides of the aisle, combined with religious leaders across the Christian spectrum. The summit proved to be a great success, and brought together Robert Putnam, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute, EJ Dionne, and President Barack Obama. The conversation that took place on the stage at Georgetown captured national attention, with videos and articles across mainstream and religious media characterizing it as the first real public dialogue among diverse thought leaders about where we can come together to address poverty and opportunity.

"We talked to him [John Carr] for about an hour and knew that we would want to fund it. Right then and there, we said, look, we'll find the money." So the foundation cobbled together $100,000 over a six-month period, and the summit was funded. "That was a huge, huge accomplishment and moved the agenda forward around poverty and opportunity a great deal."

Casey is now making an effort to impact the dialogue around poverty and opportunity by taking advantage of the Pope's visit in the fall. "We believe we can work with a number of organizations to make sure his message really resonates and gets out there," said Laracy.

Casey will be working with PICO, a national network of faith-based organizations creating solutions to problems in urban, suburban and rural communities. PICO recently co-chaired the effort in Massachusetts to raise the minimum wage and create stronger earned sick time policies. Now, with support from Casey in an amount yet to be determined, PICO will work to create national momentum to address poverty and ensure that "what we've got to say gets amplified and reinforced by the Pope's visit."

Casey is also working with the Convergence Opportunity Project, the Program on Human Flourishing from the American Enterprise Institute, and the Opportunity Agenda, among other grantees, to forward the full-court press on poverty and opportunity.