Policy Matters Ohio founder, Amy Hanauer, lets staff own its work
Cleveland Plain Dealer - April 21, 2012
By Olivera Perkins
“If you want different outcomes for lower income families or different environmental outcomes, you need to get at it from a policy perspective. I don’t think that charity alone is going to get you to the relief of poverty or low-paying jobs that don’t enable people or families to thrive. It’s not going to create environmental sustainability. I think the only way you can get to those things is by smart policies, that need to be regulated, and by providing the public structures that actually enable a thriving economy.”
Amy Hanauer’s dream job didn’t exist in Northeast Ohio, so she started a nonprofit to create it.
In 2000, she founded Policy Matters Ohio, a nonpartisan policy research organization. She remains its executive director.
Hanauer knew little about starting a nonprofit, but she knew what she wanted: a workplace like the one she had just left in Wisconsin. Launching such a venture was perhaps naive, but her timing proved impeccable.
“I found that there were a lot of leaders in the Cleveland area who wanted to see research on working people in Ohio done in a more consistent way,” she said. “They wanted to see a policy institute here.”
Policy Matters has grown from a one-person operation sharing office space at the United Labor Agency to having its own offices in Cleveland and Columbus. There are currently 12.5 employees and “a lot of interns”.
The group’s focus includes sustainability issues, such as working with business, labor and government on initiatives creating jobs to make buildings more energy efficient. The group also advocates for policies to retain manufacturing jobs in Ohio and expand preschool education to enrich children and generate jobs.
How was it being in the enviable position of not having to do a hard sell to win support?
I was young and dumb about what I needed to be paid and what it really took to start an organization. I remember an early meeting where I went into the George Gund Foundation and said what I thought I would need. David Bergholz, then executive director, said: “How about we give you twice that?” It hasn’t happened since.
What hadn’t you anticipated about heading an organization?
Well, I think that I had never thought of myself as being a manager because I really don’t like telling people what to do. I have come to realize that that is not necessarily what being a good manager is. I have a very incredibly motivated, passionate, smart, driven and interesting staff, and for the most part we just decide together what needs to be done. I think we’re a lot more productive because of that because people feel a lot of ownership over their work and over their goals.
Policy Matters’ mission includes creating “a more prosperous, equitable, sustainable and inclusive Ohio.” How is this done?
If you want different outcomes for lower income families or different environmental outcomes, you need to get at it from a policy perspective. I don’t think that charity alone is going to get you to the relief of poverty or low-paying jobs that don’t enable people or families to thrive. It’s not going to create environmental sustainability. I think the only way you can get to those things is by smart policies, that need to be regulated, and by providing the public structures that actually enable a thriving economy.
A dozen years later, are you still glad you allowed naivete to win out to practicality and started a nonprofit?
Pursuing what you are really passionate about and working at it is a way to make for a happy life. I think that I have been really lucky to have been able to do the work I care about, and do it in a place I really care about with people who are the best allies I could imagine.
And we let the dogs come to work with us. Not every workplace allows that.
What would you like to see in the future?
My real goal is that this nation and this state and this community start to embrace some different kinds of policy solutions.
I think that we, as a nation, are reducing our commitment to working people. There is a lot of argument out there that implies that we can’t afford to have working people share in the economy, and I don’t think that is true. I think that we’ve grown as a nation by growing our middle class, by giving people pathways out of poverty. I would like us to embrace that sort of goal because I believe it works best for everyone in the end.
This country is really focused on reducing taxation for the wealthiest who have gained the most from our economy and gained the most from what we have to offer in the United States. So I would like us to get better at embracing shared prosperity. We have become so much wealthier as a country — than when I was a kid 30 years ago — but we haven’t done what we could to make the economy work for everybody.