With many years of experience working in policy, VPP board member Eugene Steuerle shares the lessons he’s learned about the importance of involving communities and giving people ownership of projects – along with ideas of where our country needs to invest today.
How would you describe your role at the Urban Institute, and what brought you to this field?
My professional background is as an economist, mainly on budget and charitable sector issues. I spent 15 years at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, rising to different positions. Eventually I became coordinator to its 1984 study that led to the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and later, deputy assistant secretary for tax analysis. In addition to tax and budget, I worked on issues ranging from Social Security to the Earned Income Tax Credit. The common thread of my portfolio was applying public finance to a whole set of policies.
Along the way, I also worked on a lot of charitable issues. Well, what’s the relationship? There’s a charitable deduction in the tax system, and I started by examining IRS data on what individuals itemize on their tax returns.
The second half of my career has basically been here at the Urban Institute with a short stint at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, where I was vice president during its start-up phase. At Urban, I co-founded the Urban Brookings Tax Policy Center, the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, and its retirement program.
How did you get involved with VPP?
I had heard about VPP and the great work it was doing from a few sources. Carol also had connections with the Institute. I thought VPP made many worthwhile efforts, so I got involved as a thought partner. When I was asked to join the board, I was excited. I viewed it not only as an organization to which I hoped to contribute, but also as real opportunity to learn and be more on the ground to see how this type of effort could succeed. What were its advantages? What could it do? What were the pitfalls it faced?
VPP sits in a unique position in a couple of ways. It does try to follow the notion of venture philanthropy but in advancing opportunities for students, VPP has to work within the education system and its broad bureaucracies. It often requires a catalyst to be able to move those large institutional forces. VPP at times serves as that catalyst and at other times tries to invigorate other organizations to serve as catalysts, not just providers, whether it’s KIPP DC or YearUp or any other nonprofit partners.
That’s a pretty exciting role – and I think – necessary.
When deciding to get involved with VPP, what interested you more: the issue area or the model?
It was really both. I was interested in working with the people on the staff and the board and in the work VPP was doing and accomplishing. In my view, the principal investment we need to make as a society is promoting opportunity and mobility.
VPP is working against a headwind. My professional studies show that almost none of the growth in government spending is going to that type of investment, and the negative consequences lay most heavily on young people. Budgetary pressures—both how we spend our money and how we keep adding to our debt by not paying for what we are doing—are squeezing the very area into which I think we most need to put our money: investing in young people. It’s not just a distributional issue. That’s how we get growth in the economy, that’s how we get a viable democratic system, that’s how we get a strong nation – It comes from vigorously promoting opportunity and mobility, and it starts with the young.
That’s the heart of what I believe. Watching VPP’s efforts and joining in those efforts to try to do something there has been exciting.
Over the years, how have you seen VPP foster hope or create impact in our community?
The organizations that VPP has supported have done a quite commendable job. They’ve multiplied up the resources that were invested in them and helped quite a few young people.
Another area of progress for VPP has been through making investments in various institutions to cooperate better together. Because a lot of these different groups do the same business, often serving the same youth, that cooperation creates efficiency and an economy of scale that advances the types of investments that VPP has made in the past.
We have also evolved from focusing mainly on capacity building for individual organizations to a model where we collaborative with groups, people or institutions that are trying to accomplish similar things. The primary example would be our large collaboration with Prince George’s County called Ready for Work. That happened partly because the County wanted this work. It wasn’t us just coming in and funding a charity that was trying to have an impact. For example, hiring Sterlind Burke (Ready for Work In-School Director at Suitland High School) was a great plus for VPP because now we have people on the ground all the time as opposed to only staff who necessarily can only come in and out.
What would you highlight as something that you’ve learned during your time on the VPP board?
I’m always reminded that everything is an evolutionary process. There’s almost no problem where you go in and 100 percent know what to do. There’s almost no generalized solution that’s entirely correct or complete. We learn by doing.
What is the value of investing in VPP?
VPP often provides a catalyst for the type of strategic planning or expansion that organizations often have trouble doing by themselves without the type of support we provide. We have certain expectations for how they’re going to use the money, for how they’re going to develop the staff, how they’re going to measure the progress that they’ve made.
We try to improve their ability to measure and track performance. Performance measurement isn’t the answer to everything but thinking about it leads institutions to keep their eyes on the prize. It helps them to refocus constantly on what they’re trying to do and then measure the extent to which they are reaching those goals.
All of the evidence supports the notion that if you are going to make investments, invest early, invest in young people. You don’t need a model of human capital development to understand this; the same advantages from investing early apply to your retirement investments. Investing early in the life of individuals is one way to get a very high payoff relative to a lot of other investments.
How does your long history of working in government before moving to the social sector shape your lens and approach to VPP’s work with the local government?
Working in government – particularly if you work in a tax or budget office where you have all sorts of interests trying to influence what’s going on – causes one to develop what I call a “nurse’s perspective.” After a while, you end up dealing with hundreds of patients instead of just one. There’s a danger of becoming indifferent to the individual just to be able to stay at your task. But you get a valuable perspective on how things balance, how they fit together. By analogy, if government spends or taxes in one area, it has all sorts of implications in many other areas of the budget.
The other thing I’ve realized both in my public and private work is that people want ownership of what they’re doing. Our investors want to have a sense of ownership, and that’s different from being a passive contributor. Ownership gives people a real sense of engagement. The same thing is true of public policy. I could come up with the best idea in the world but if I can’t give people ownership of what is being done, it’s going to be hard to sell the idea. That ownership issue spans dealing with everything or everyone, from a bureaucracy to the voter to a nonprofit to our families. The concept of ownership more than ever drives my thinking about trying to achieve anything that requires the engagement of others.
What do you wish people understood about the challenges we’re tackling?
The extraordinary importance of this type of work. We have a lot of young people in our society who are not getting ahead and not advancing. We as a community—as a nation—need to do a better job serving them. Most people understand this but having them join in and engaging them is a really important message that I hope that we send.
I would stress it’s not just our work that we try to encourage. Though inadequate, there are still a number of people working in this space, including the groups we fund. As I said, one way we have expanded our own reach is to advance collaboration among groups and removing some of the replication of efforts that might otherwise take place.
Hopefully, our history provides a number of lessons. VPP sets out a model that can be followed, not just within this community but also for other communities around the nation.
I’m excited about the future unknown partners we’re going to have. Perhaps we will replicate elsewhere the effort that we’ve done in Prince George’s; perhaps we will deal with other age groups. How we engage partners in that work and give them ownership of what they’re doing with us is going to be an exciting part of our future work.
Is there anything else you want people to know about VPP?
The extraordinary quality of the people we have working in VPP. It’s another reason to invest in VPP. It’s not just that we help young people. We’ve got a really powerful staff, so one way we’re leveraging up our investments is through the talents that people like you on the staff provide. That is a part of VPP’s story to the public and its investors.