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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

A Summary

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:

  • Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
  • Carthage Foundation
  • Earhart Foundation
  • Charles G.Koch, David H. Koch and Claude R. Lambe charitable foundations
  • Phillip M. McKenna Foundation
  • J.M. Foundation
  • John M. Olin Foundation
  • Henry Salvatori Foundation
  • Sarah Scaife Foundation
  • Smith Richardson Foundation

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:

  • Conservative scholarship programs, training the next generation of conservative thinkers and activists and reverse progressive curricula and policy trends on the nation's college and university campuses.
  • Build and strengthen a national infrastructure of think tanks and advocacy groups, much to institutions with a major focus on domestic policy issues, and to institutes focused on American national security interests, foreign policy and global affairs.
  • Finance alternative media outlets, media watchdog groups,and public television and radio for specific, issue-oriented public affairs or news reporting.
  • Assist conservative pro-market law firms and other law-related projects and organizations.
  • Support a network of regional and state-based think tanks and advocacy institutions. Work to transform the social views and giving practices of the nation's religious and philanthropic leaders.

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:

  • 1) First, these foundations bring a clarity of vision and strong political intention to their grantmaking programs. The grants data themselves, as well as public information gathered on the missions and program activities of major grantees, reveal the willingness of these foundations to fund agressive and entrepreneurial organizations committed to advancing the basic tenets of modern American conservatism: uregulated markets and limited government.
  • 2) Second, conservative grantmaking has focused on building strong institutionsacross almost every major strategic sector of America. The analysis of grants reveals that these foundations have provided substantial general operating rather than project-specific support to a variety of institutions. Almost half of all non-academic grant dollars to think tanks, advocacy organizations, media outlets, and other groups with a public policy or institutional reform orientation was awarded on an unrestricted basis.
  • 3) Third, the foundations have recognized that federal budget priorities and policy decisions exert such significant impact on the issues and concerns at the state, local and neighborhood level that the national policy framework cannot be ignored. They thus invested substantial resources in think tanks and advocacy organizations with a major focus on national policy and the capacity to reach a broad national audience. Also, the foundations concentrated their grant resources, as just 18 percent of the grantees received over 75 percent of grant dollars awarded.
  • 4) Fourth, the foundations have invested heavily in institutions and projects geared toward the marketing of conservative policy ideas Through the provision of both general operating and project-specific support, these funders have enabled policy institutions to develop aggressive marketing campaigns, media outreach efforts, and new communications tools with which to build their constituency base, mobilize public opinion and network with other organizations around a common reform agenda.
  • 5) Fifth, the foundations have provided considerable support to create and cultivate public intellectuals and policy leaders with strong free market, limited government perspectives. They provided tens of millions of dollars to subsidize students' education and place them as intems in conservative policy institutions, media outlets, advocacy organizations and law firms. They spent millions more to help established conservatives maintain public prominence and visibility through senior fellowships and residencies at prominent think tanks and research institutions.
  • 6) Sixth, the foundations targeted grants across the institutional spectrum in recognition that a variety of institutions and reform strategies are required for effective transformation and policy change.
  • 7) Finally, many of these foundations have engaged in similar funding efforts for as long as two decades. Their steady and generous support has anchored key conservative institutions financially, giving them a tremendous offensive capacity to influence specific policies and audiences, and also to shape the overall framework in which important fiscal, regulatory and social policy decisions are made.

Structure of the Movement:

  • Academic Sector Organizations and Programs
  • National Think Tanks and Advocacy Groups
  • Media Groups
  • Legal Organizations
  • State and Regional Think Tanks and Advocacy Groups
  • Religious Sector Organizations
  • Philanthropic Institutions andNetworks


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Editor's note:

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.