By Carl Helstrom

As State Policy Network prepares for its 25th anniversary celebration, I am reminded of an old joke about the secret to building a successful business. “Just work overtime day in and day out, and take risks no one else is willing to take, for decades,” the punchline goes, “and you will be an instant success.”

When I assumed the chairmanship of SPN, I wrote three words on a Post-it Note: “Survive or thrive?” And off we went. What began as a dozen state think tanks exchanging ideas, hopes, and strategies developed into a vision where thriving meant going beyond incremental growth. It demanded a long-term commitment to excellence and improvement over time to truly change the policy debate. This network thrives because the focus has always been on advancing policy solutions that are relevant and responsive at the state and local level, closer to those it directly affects.

As I look back on the growth and success of SPN and the vital community it was created to serve, it does not seem as if it has been a quarter of a century since a handful of concerned Americans took a leap of faith to try to save the culture of freedom and free enterprise. Connecting these state-level leaders helped incubate a network outside traditional institutions of social change. Today, 66 state think tanks across the country are becoming a juggernaut of principled state solutions for tackling favoritism, corruption, and government red tape.

Bringing out the best in people and policy

What I recall most vividly from the early days is a steadfast commitment among the pioneering state think tank entrepreneurs to practice what we preach, and make sure our means justify our ends. They wanted victory, but they wanted, most importantly, victory with honor. I learned early on that this work requires the best in all of us, and we try to lead by example. We have tried to preserve this moral approach in SPN’s people and programs, and by extension, in the independent state policy movement.

We have sought to be cooperative, committed, enterprising, and optimistic toward our colleagues and co-workers, especially those who are inspired by the same causes that inspire us. We have been gratified to find this approach brings out the best in people and in policy, proving that engaging and encouraging healthy debates is at the root of what empowers all Americans.

Creating infrastructure to promote change

A lot has changed over 25 years. When we started State Policy Network, we had no website, no cell phones, no text messaging, no digital media at all. We paid monthly subscription fees for email on CompuServe and AOL. We mostly relied on good old-fashioned hard copy and snail mail. We used landlines to communicate quickly, and we paid much more for long distance calls and faxes across the country.

Truly, the sheer pace of technological change has been staggering, along with the cultural tectonic shifts that have taken place. But one thing hasn’t changed: SPN’s commitment to help create infrastructure in every state for principled, effective, reasonable resistance to government overreach. We will always need a principled commitment to common-sense alternatives to help Americans thrive in their states.

We have been working in perhaps the most dynamic period ever for charitable and educational organizations as information technology, oversight, and regulation have changed dramatically. SPN has worked hard to keep the independent think tank community connected and competitive, negotiating increasingly complex demands and requirements of compliance and cooperation confronting nonprofits today, and defending the entire network from an onslaught of intrusive regulation. We do our best to help navigate the challenges of growth and success and address the rapidly changing benefits that modern information technology can provide.

Renewed dedication to the American dream

My own career exemplifies the power of this entrepreneurial culture. More than thirty years ago, I volunteered to help build this new community of independent organizations that has grown into the most effective response to the overreach of big government and the progressive political culture that pervade our mainstream institutions.
We have come a long way in a relatively short time. Only in America could that sort of independent, highly leveraged cultural clout be developed peacefully within two generations.

We are bearing witness to the incredibly empowering possibilities that the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness can provide. Faith, community, hard work, personal initiative, and good neighborliness truly make America great. I have always believed America is great primarily because of its “bottom up” culture that fosters achievement, cooperation, and responsiveness to community needs. SPN and the state think tanks have operated with the same assumptions, and we have thrived.

To flourish in the 21st century, Americans must be encouraged to believe once again in the promise of the American Dream. The grand ambition of SPN and its allies is to restore that inspiration to American cultural, economic, intellectual, and political life. Undoubtedly, the future offers greater opportunities to grow the burgeoning community of advocates, educators, and practitioners that it has nurtured during the past decades. It is well positioned to build a unique American brand of philanthropic innovation.

Community restoration of states’ freedom

Our legacy at this point is the emergence of a permanent infrastructure to advance freedom and free enterprise, in state after state, for national impact. SPN has accomplished this by connecting and cooperating with like-minded donors; developing promising leaders, managers and social entrepreneurs; pursuing and fulfilling proven state-level strategies that bring people together for opportunity, not drive them apart. In short, this infrastructure invests in community-based efforts that encourage and strengthen the traditional virtues of hardworking Americans.

Because of this infrastructure, there is now a deeper and broader intrastate network of concerned citizens who recognize that American freedom began in the states, and it will be restored from the states. It’s our turn to re-articulate and reinvigorate this country with our own declaration of independence in the 21st century and demonstrate renewed dedication to a culture of free minds, free markets, and free speech.

Like the great mathematician and inventor Archimedes, who proved that stable, independent points of reference enable the right levers to move seemingly immovable sizes and weights, this state-based network is demonstrating that you can make headway intellectually, culturally, and politically by going outside conventional, “establishment” institutions.

This community has been built for these times, when hardworking Americans are seeking common ground and local solutions. SPN and I look forward to bigger and better accomplishments working with this network of leaders. Here’s to 25 more years of excellence, success, and even greater results in the years ahead.