The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations
Moving a Public Policy Agenda
From a report by the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy
For more than three decades, conservative strategists have mounted an extraordinary effort to reshape politics and public policy priorities at the national, state and local level. Although this effort has often been described as a "war of ideas," it has involved far more than scholarly debate within the halls of academe.
Indeed, waging the war of ideas has required the development of a vast and interconnected institutional apparatus. Since the 1960s, conservative forces have shaped public consciousness and influenced elite opinion, recruited and trained new leaders, mobilized core constituencies, and applied significant rightward pressure on mainstream institutions, such as Congress, state legislatures, colleges and universities, the federal judiciary and philanthropy itself.
Thirteen years ago, this apparatus was appropriately described by moderate Republican and author John Saloma as the "new conservative labyrinth." At the time he wrote, Saloma was warning that this labyrinth constituted "a major new presence in American politics." If left unchecked, Saloma predicted, it would continue to pull the nation's political center sharply to the right.
His analysis was prescient. Today, the conservative labyrinth is larger, more sophisticated, and increasingly able to influence what gets on - and what stays off - the public policy agenda. From the decision to abandon the federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor to on-going debates about the federal tax structure to growing discussion of medical savings accounts and the privatization of social security, conservative policy ideas and political rhetoric continue to dominate the nation's political conversation, reflecting what political scientist Walter Dean Burnham has called the "hegemony of market theology."
In a major research report, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) documented the role that conservative foundations have played in developing and sustaining America's conservative labyrinth. It offers an aggregate accounting and detailed analysis of the 1992-1994 grantmaking of 12 core conservative foundations, the results of which confirm what has been reported in more anecdotal terms: that conservative foundations have invested sizable resources to create and sustain an infrastructure of policy, advocacy and training institutions committed to the achievement of conservative policy goals.
In just a three-year period, the 12 foundations awarded $210 million to support a wide array of conservative projects and institutions. It is not simply the volume of money being invested that merits serious attention, but the way in which these investments have helped to build the power and influence of the conservative policy movement. These 12 funders directed a majority of their grants to organizations and programs that pursue an overtly ideological agenda based on industrial and environmental deregulation, the privatization of government services, deep reductions in federal anti-poverty spending and the transfer of authority and responsibility for social welfare from the national government to the charitable sector and state and local government. Unlike many nonprofits which feel the dual pressure to demonstrate their uniqueness to funders and to downplay their ideology and public policy advocacy, conservative grantees are rewarded for their shared political vision and public policy activism. They are heavily supported to market policy ideas, cultivate public leadership, lobby policy makers, and build their constituency base.
Conservative Foundation Grants
In a presentation at the Philanthropy Roundtable's 1995 annual conference, Richard Fink, president of the Charles G. Koch and Claude R. Lambe charitable foundations, made good use of market metaphors to outline how foundations can exert the greatest impact on public policy. Adapting laissez-faire economist Friedreich Hayek's model of the production process to social change grant-making, Fink argued that the translation of ideas into action requires the development of intellectual raw materials, their conversion into specific policy products, and the marketing and distribution of these products to citizen-consumers.
Grantmakers, Fink argued, would do well to invest in change along the entire production continuum, funding scholars and university programs where the intellectual framework for social transformation is developed, think tanks where scholarly ideas get translated into specific policy proposals, and implementation groups to bring these proposals into the political marketplace and eventually to consumers.
Over the past two decades, conservative foundations have broadly followed such a model, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in a cross-section of institutions dedicated to conservative political and policy change. This [web site] examines 12 of these foundations. They include:
In 1994 these foundations controlled over $1 billion in assets [Editor's note: By 2000, the philanthropies had given away at least $1 billion since 1985, according to the Media Transparency grants database], awarded $300 million in grants, and targeted $210 million to support conservative policy and institutional reform objectives.
The money was targeted at the following areas:
While the size of these foundations' grantmaking programs may pale in comparison to some of the nation's largest foundations, these funders have contributed in significant ways to the rightward shift in the nation's political conversation and public policy priorities. Several factors account for their effectiveness:
Structure of the Movement:
IRC Right Web
Neocons, paleocons, old right, new right, Christian right, libertarians ... Who are all these different groups that make up America's right wing?
...Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid...
[Kuttner played liberal foil at a Philanthropy Roundtable event in New York City]
July 15, 2002"...it was breathtaking to see the policy strategists ... preen for the edification of their steadfast funders - - the culmination of a 25-year strategic alliance between organized business, ideological conservatism, advocacy research, and the Republican Party. Hertog was right: $70 million a year is chump change to the American elite, but invested strategically in the battle of ideas, it yields a bountiful political harvest."
The report that starts on this page was published in July 1997, and is a study of the grantmaking of 12 conservative foundations between 1992 and 1994. Keep that in mind when reading the numbers of grants made and their dollar amounts, because in most cases those figures greatly increased throughout the '90s.