Over the past 24 years, the Institute for Justice has grown into a formidable force for freedom. And—considering the size and scope of government power that we continue to fight at every level—it is a good thing we built IJ to last. So, as I transition from IJ’s president to its chairman of the board, I look back with a sense of achievement but, even more, with a sense of optimism for the future of this organization and the ideas and ideals it embodies. Let me share the institutional building blocks that made IJ what it is today.
Finding the Best Talent
The cornerstone of IJ’s success has always been hiring talented people: People of character, good judgment and creative energy who are joyous and genuine. They must be tireless, willing to grind through the tedium because they know it is often the only way to achieve the miraculous—one victory after another against the all-powerful institutions of government. From the start, I put a premium on finding people I thought had a special spark along with a combination of commitment and skill to build an organization around. Candidates endured notoriously long and repeated interviews. Soon-to-be IJ President Scott Bullock mopped sweat from his forehead as I grilled him during his first IJ interviews; Vice President for Communications John Kramer came back five times for separate interviews before he was hired; and Senior Vice President and Director of Litigation Dana Berliner underwent an exhausting four-hour marathon interview before joining our merry band of litigators. But it paid off. Each of these three became—and remains—a dynamic leader within IJ. Scott, surrounded by our strong and experienced management team, is ready to lead IJ to even greater heights as its new president.
Building the Best Board
The board of directors for any nonprofit has a vital job in setting policy and overseeing finances. But that job takes on monumental importance in a fledgling organization dedicated to securing long-term national change in a principled way. I looked for board members who were deeply committed to liberty, who would make IJ a major priority with respect to their time and philanthropy and who could provide wise counsel, always with IJ’s best interests at heart. Our board has been and remains IJ’s backbone. And any great board needs a great chairman who deeply understands the mission and personifies integrity. Dave Kennedy has been that chairman for the past 24 years.
A Focused Mission and Mission-Focused
Since our founding, IJ has adhered to one organizational mission that spells out clearly the goals and scope of what we do. The core of that mission has stayed the same over more than two decades, so much so that donors who supported us when we first opened our doors would certainly recognize the Institute for Justice today. Only our work now is done writ large and has expanded beyond litigation, communications and training to include activism, strategic research, lobbying and other activities designed to help us challenge the status quo on behalf of those whose rights are being violated by the government. That focused mission enables us to direct our activities to best effect and has kept us from drifting into issues that would blur our institutional identity and sap our precious resources.
What’s more, before we take on any new case, publication, conference or large project, IJ brings together representatives from across the organization to create customized missions for each of these endeavors. These mission statement meetings are instrumental to IJ’s success because they ensure all IJ team members have a clear roadmap of what is expected of them as these projects progress. The missions give everyone across the organization a clear and united vision of what we seek to accomplish with each new lawsuit or project.
As a result, IJ remains tightly focused on our mission for the long haul, and our staff remains mission-focused in their daily work.
Developing and applying expertise
For much of our first decade, we learned as we went along, each case offering an opportunity to improve on the previous one. Then things began to change as experience and hard work led to expertise that catapulted us to the pinnacle of our profession, so much so that, today, IJ is recognized by members of the media, legal advocates, government officials and many others as the expert on issues we have litigated.
Certainly that expertise involves legal matters, like school choice and eminent domain, but it also involves expertise in communications, fundraising, strategic research and activism. Across the board, IJ is now filled with knowledgeable and experienced experts at the top of their craft who, together with our attorneys, seamlessly weave their knowledge into each and every one of our cases.
This multifaceted expertise enables us to pursue a uniquely integrated approach to public interest law. We are always confident and willing to take on long odds, but with this hard-earned expertise, we now regularly mount multiple and sometimes simultaneous challenges across our four pillars and do so with alacrity and success. Among our most notable achievements are the five U.S. Supreme Court cases we have litigated, winning four of them (including two in the same year), and winning the fifth in the court of public opinion and follow-up litigation and legislation.
With this affinity for hard work and a constant desire to learn and to improve, IJ makes its own luck.
Securing the best donor base
Long-term IJ success has depended on having financial resources to hire and retain talented people and to take on cutting-edge litigation knowing we can see it through to the end. That means we have had to develop a broad base of donors who will stick with us through thick and thin. But it was never just about raising money. Our fundraising mantra at IJ is, “It’s not how much money you raise; it’s how you raise it.” So we went about convincing people that we had a vision and a plan that would yield dramatic results for liberty, but that it would take time. We achieve a real meeting of the minds with our donors, setting expectations and leading to a very loyal and growing donor base. And because of that, when we received challenge grants from Bob Wilson and Bill and Rebecca Dunn, we were able to meet those challenges in record time and secure two of IJ’s greatest building blocks.
Defining and Maintaining a Culture
All organizations have a culture. Often it is amorphous and informal. IJ’s culture always reflected our early pledge to “change the world and have fun doing it.” We had a special environment, but, as we grew, I became convinced that we needed to explicitly define and nurture the culture that made our success possible. That became “The IJ Way.” To this day, it is the keystone that holds together all the institutional building blocks that make IJ such a special and effective organization.
Everyone who succeeds at IJ personifies The IJ Way
- We are entrepreneurial—creating and seizing opportunities.
- We are positive and open—optimistic and proud that we are who we are.
- We are principled—never expedient or political.
- We are real world—going out to all corners of America to achieve real-world results for everyday people.
- And we are resilient—quick to recover after setbacks and determined to move ahead.
An Indispensable Institution
As I approach my transition from the day-to-day role of IJ’s president to board chairman, I am deeply grateful for how far IJ has come from those early days and for all the staff, donors and friends who have made our success possible. We have shown that our unique approach to public interest law can indeed produce dramatic results. In so doing, we have built an organization that has proven itself to be indispensable in the fight for freedom and that is poised to do so much more. That is not just great news for IJ; it is great news for liberty.
Thank you one and all!
Chip Mellor is IJ’s president and general counsel. On January 1, he will be succeeded by IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock and Chip will become IJ’s second chairman of the board.