State of the Debate: Lessons of Right-Wing Philanthropy


Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics (People for the American Way, 1996).

Sally Covington, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations (National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1998).

Leon Howell, Funding the War of Ideas: A Report to the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries (1995).

Justice for Sale (Alliance for Justice, 1993).

Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda (Temple University Press, 1996).

In 1969, conservative Paul Weyrich was accidentally invited to a meeting of liberal strategists. He was awed. In describing his epiphany to Leon Howell, author of Funding the War of Ideas, he says:

The liberals put together before my eyes a major national battle that became a central part of President Nixon's first year. What they had there was the whole panoply of liberal groups, from the think tanks to the media to the outside groups to the legal groups to the political groups.

Weyrich now thanks the left, the Lord, and Joe Coors -- in that order -- for providing the inspiration and the wherewithal to begin building what today is known as the "new conservative labyrinth."

This "labyrinth" includes dozens of national and regional think tanks (Heritage, American Enterprise, Free Congress Research and Education, Cato, Hudson, Hoover, Manhattan, and so on), legal centers (Institute for Justice, Washington Legal Foundation, and the Pacific, Atlantic, New England, and Southeastern Legal Foundations), magazines (the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard), journals (the Public Interest, the National Interest), and an extensive communications and marketing capacity, including National Empowerment Television, a national television network that reaches more than 11 million households.

Additional organizations target any sector where "liberal bias" is thought to lurk, from mainstream churches to the federal judiciary to academic disciplines. The National Association of Scholars scouts for multiculturalism on campus. Accuracy in Media monitors television and newspapers. The legal foundations litigate.

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At the helm of these organizations are representatives of a conservative-far right coalition that includes traditional conservatives, the heirs to Barry Goldwater (such as Weyrich), neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol, and the burgeoning evangelic and religious right. While imitation was once the sincerest form of flattery, today the conservative infrastructure has far outstripped the left's organizational capacity and resources that inspired Weyrich's admiration. The left recently has lost repeated battles to this conservative coalition over major initiatives such as affirmative action, welfare, immigration, English-only programs, and school vouchers. Left-liberal activists have attributed these losses to the massive amounts of money conservatives have spent on the initiatives. However, it is the way conservatives have spent the money that has made the difference.

A series of recent publications -- including reports issued by People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice, the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, and No Mercy, a book by two University of Colorado law professors, Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado -- all examine the increase in conservative financial support. Most of these publications conclude that while the sheer amount of money certainly is important (individual awards of a million dollars or more are not uncommon), conservative funders' grant-making strategy is more important. Conservative philanthropists share an ideological agenda and, despite tax-exempt status that prohibits electoral activity and most lobbying, they contribute in accordance with political objectives. Grant making primarily is aimed at two overriding objectives: limiting government and freeing markets from regulation -- and shaping public opinion accordingly. Like good capitalists, conservative philanthropists conceive of grant making as an investment in people and institutions. Like good bondholders, they are in this for the long haul.

Roughly a dozen or so foundations provide the lion's share of conservative funding. The John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Family Foundations, and the Smith Richardson Foundation give so much in tandem that they are known as the "four sisters." Other key funders are the Adolph Coors Foundation, which enabled Weyrich to launch the Heritage Foundation; the Charles G. and David H. Koch Foundations; the J. M., Phillip M. McKenna, Earhart, and Carthage Foundations; and the Claude R. Lambe charitable foundations. If judged by their asset base alone, none of these foundations -- many of them family organizations -- rank in the top 10 American foundations; most don't even make the top 50.

Sally Covington, whose recent report was commissioned by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), offers an in-depth and systematic analysis of 12 conservative foundations over a two-year period (1992-1994). During this time, the foundations gave a combined total of $210 million dollars (out of grants totaling $300 million) to conservative causes. Covington identified characteristics of conservative giving that are widely believed to be different from mainstream or liberal foundation grant making: First, nearly half the total money was given as general support -- as distinct from specific project support -- which allowed the grantees both respite from fundraising and the luxury of deciding how to spend the money. Second, grants were focused on building institutions, not programs, with funders remaining faithful to their grantees year after year, sometimes for decades at a time.

Since conservative philanthropists don't continually shift their program priorities, conservative organizations do not face the usual dilemmas of having to repackage their agenda or scramble to replace old funding with new. The 12 foundations in Covington's report also concentrated their funding on a select group of organizations. Just 25 nonprofit organizations out of a possible 576 grantees received more than a third ($83 million) of the $210 million. The top 50 organizations were awarded nearly two-thirds of the total.

What were their ideological objectives? According to Covington,

the vast majority of grants was awarded to institutions which make an aggressive and presumptive case for industrial and environmental deregulation, the privatization of government services, deep cuts in government programs serving low income constituencies, reductions in capital gains and corporate income taxes and the transfer of social programs from government to the charitable sector.


According to William Safire's New Political Dictionary, Americans in general tend to view ideology as a "mental straightjacket." Conservative Americans, by contrast, would appear to define ideology more literally as ideas that guide social action -- and they invest accordingly. Progressive activists and funders often interpret this commitment to ideas as synonymous with the creation of think tanks, but that is too narrow a rendering.

As the reports document, conservative funders pay meticulous attention to the entire "knowledge production" process. They think of it in terms of "a conveyer belt" that stretches from academic research to marketing and mobilization, from scholars to activists. In Covington's study, when academic-sector organizations and programs were added to national think tanks and advocacy groups, investment in ideas comprised a full 80 percent of the 12 foundations sampled. Tens of millions of dollars have been invested in the Law and Economics movement, which has gained immense influence in leading law schools as a pseudo-scholarly crusade against regulation [see Jedediah S. Purdy's "The Chicago Acid Bath: The Impoverished Logic of Law and Economics," TAP, January-February 1998]. Conservative funders have understood that funding projects at the most prestigious universities (Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, for example) turns out young scholars who confer the important commodity of credibility for policy proposals. This kind of funding also supplies a shield for "popularizers," whose media-friendly work can be backed up by academic specialists.

The Alliance for Justice report Justice for Sale provides a detailed picture of what knowledge production means in practice. Beginning with theoretical work, prestigious scholars and jurists have reconceptualized legal concepts that elevate free enterprise principles, and have shown how they can be used to attack government intrusion, "particularly federal regulation of the environment, consumer products, and the workplace."

Grants support this work through a range of vehicles, including academic chairs, centers, and institutes, through which faculty and graduate students can work. Within the university, the fruit of this work -- books, monographs, articles -- is used to revise law school curricula, reframe prevailing mainstream doctrines, and train the next generation of law students. Other scholars or jurists, such as former appellate judge Robert H. Bork, are housed in think tanks where they can adapt more theoretical work for public consumption. Grants also allow Law and Economics protégés to take an extra fellowship year, during which they can prepare law review articles to put them on the fast track to academic appointments. While in law school, students can join a campus chapter of the Federalist Society; after they graduate, they can continue their affiliation in a lawyer's division of the society.

Other such graduates can go to work for one of many new legal advocacy organizations that have been at the forefront of legal challenges to government regulation on a host of issues, from property rights to affirmative action. Since litigating can be time-consuming, free market legal advocates also find it effective to reeducate the judges who interpret the law. They can do this through the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE). Created in 1984 and heavily funded by the four sisters, FREE has paid for hundreds of judges -- the alliance estimates 40 percent of the entire federal judiciary -- to attend seminars at posh resorts where they receive training in the virtues of unregulated markets. FREE receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporations that have critical cases before the judiciary while providing judges with protection against an appearance of conflict. To take one example, Charles and David Koch (with money from the oil and gas industry) are major funders of these seminars, even though they currently are before the court for violating the Clean Water Act.

The same basic process -- funding original work, backing public intellectuals, investing heavily in marketing, and training people in leadership positions -- can be seen in most policy areas. Leon Howell, a former editor of Christianity and Crisis, describes a dizzying array of new religious institutions, from weighty theological journals to the Christian Coalition's activist networks. These institutions provide alternatives to mainstream religious organizations and can be used to launch attacks on them. Howell argues that attacks on mainline churches, a key element of the right's religious agenda, "are part of a larger strategy of assaulting institutions in the arts, education, labor and media as well as targeting such social issues as abortion and gay rights."

While the delivery capacity of Heritage, American Enterprise, or Cato is well known, newer institutions have developed an equally remarkable capacity to market the products of this research. Consider the scope of the less-well-known Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). Led by C. Boyden Gray, the former general counsel for President George Bush, this organization spent roughly $17 million in 1995, produced more than 130 policy papers and delivered them to every congressional office, sent out thousands of pieces of mail, appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, published 235 op-ed articles, and received coverage of their activities in more than 4,000 news articles around the nation. CSE recently has taken the lead in preparing for a flat tax fight; according to Covington, with a database of 37,000 "super activists," CSE already has 19 field directors working in 17 states.

In a recent study of major media's think tank citations, California State University researcher Michael Dolny found that right-wing think tanks were not only quoted more often than liberal ones, but their ideological character was identified less often. Corporate funders were rarely identified, even when they made up more than a quarter of an institute's budget. By contrast, when the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) was quoted, both its ideological predisposition (liberal) and its funding source (roughly one-quarter of its budget is from labor) usually were identified.

The centrist Brookings Institution was the most frequently quoted think tank, but the next three -- the far more ideologically explicit Heritage, Cato, and American Enterprise -- together received 46 percent of all think tank citations. Dolny concluded that when the media fail to identify the politics of right-wing think tanks, they "deprive their audiences of an important context for evaluating the opinions offered, implying that think tank 'experts' are neutral sources without any ideological predispositions."

Conservative think tanks outspend liberal organizations (loosely defined) by at least four to one. While no one has offered a good comparison of their effectiveness, conservatives are not in doubt about their success. As Kate O'Beirne, formerly of the Heritage Foundation, bragged to Leon Howell: "We've largely won the battle of ideas. We are in the implementation stage now."


The publications discussed here are intended to be a wake-up call to funders and activists. Taken together, they do this quite well; each report contributes to a picture that is larger and more complex than any single report can draw, and their cumulative findings are quite dramatic. The various appendices and charts show the scope of the conservative achievement even more vividly than the narratives do. The reports also subtly goad progressive funders into more aggressive grant making. In one form or another, most writers suggest that liberal-left funders play "softball" while conservatives are playing "hardball." It is here, however, that the reports are weak. Recommendations, when they are offered at all, are oddly slack and range from the hortatory to the tepid. The No Mercy authors argue that "America works best when it receives a roughly equal infusion of ideas from the right and the left" and that the current ideological imbalance in favor of the right should be corrected. People for the American Way's Buying a Movement wonders who will fund "the progressive infrastructure." The NCRP report offers six "lessons for grant makers" and repeats the most common characteristics of conservative grant making (importance of ideas, institutional focus, more policy, marketing, communication, and so on).

Though useful, these publications share a common weakness: the authors are implicitly comparing conservative philanthropy with liberal-left or progressive philanthropy, yet none define progressive philanthropy, specify which foundations should be included in that category, or outline what principles might unite them. None of these publications address the organizational landscape to which progressive funders are urged to respond. (NCRP is currently examining the state of progressive infrastructure in five states, which will be a welcome addition to the current literature.) The publications imply that if funders would just get their act together, progressives could be more competitive. Not surprisingly, the small amount of dialogue among funders that has occurred publicly in response has had a defensive tone to it.

If we had a definition of left-liberal philanthropy, it is not clear that major foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur, or Carnegie would be included in it. While they might be considered generally liberal, these foundations are not eager to regroup in order to become a left-wing funding juggernaut. The foundations are not comparable to the medium-sized family foundations that comprise so much of the conservative money. The big centrist foundations, rather, are institutions with well-entrenched traditions of pragmatism and experimentalism -- not to mention a program-focused bureaucracy. Any leftward drift by the foundations' staff, however, would be quickly curtailed by the political composition of their boards. There are no Jim Hightowers on the four sisters' boards, but there are plenty of Paul Harveys, as well as corporate executives, who sit on so-called liberal boards.

A more subtle critique faults the big mainstream foundations for spreading themselves too thin. For instance, Michael H. Shuman, a former fundraiser for the Institute for Policy Studies, argued in the Nation that there's plenty of money on the liberal left. The problem is that funders spend it unwisely, "giving too little to too many." Shuman cited the combined assets of foundations that belong to the National Network of Grantmakers, generally considered the most liberal philanthropists, which far exceed the Covington figures for combined conservative philanthropy.

The plenty-of-money argument also fails to include the corporate deep pockets that back conservative grant making -- a point unevenly addressed in these publications. Large corporations are now among the major backers of conservative think tanks, but corporate giving has not always been so ideological. When William Simon, U.S. treasury secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford, took over one of the four sisters, the John M. Olin Foundation, he was appalled at corporate giving patterns and took the lead in organizing corporate allies. Simon urged business to "cease the mindless subsidizing of colleges and universities whose departments of economy, government, politics, and history are hostile to capitalism" and to move funds from "the media which serve as megaphones for anti-capitalist opinion" to more "pro-freedom" and "pro-business" media. While there are no available statistics for corporate support of conservative media, the Alliance for Justice reports that corporation funding still provides the core of support for conservative public interest law firms.

Paradoxically, though conservative funders have helped a new generation of right-wing activist intellectuals, the conservative think tank world is not "funder driven" -- money does not determine the conservative agenda. In fact, just the opposite appears to be the case. Conservative funders identify talented strategic thinkers and give them financial support and broad latitude; they work collaboratively with such strategists such as Paul Weyrich, Ralph Reed, C. Boyden Grey, Grover Norquist, Irving Kristol, Reed Irvine, Ed Feulner, Gary Bauer, William Bennett, Howard Phillips, and others. Funders and strategists meet to hammer out issue campaigns and priorities through the Council on National Policy, a little-known body that is often described as highly secretive. In effect, conservative philanthropists operate as movement strategists first and funders second. That may describe a few small explicitly leftist foundations, but with the exception of a few guerrilla staffers, it hardly characterizes Ford, Rockefeller, and the other big mainstream and liberal foundations.


There is simply no equivalent strategy group on the left-liberal side, where fragmentation seems to be the rule. Liberal funders pursue novelty, and they shy away from long-term financial commitments, which would imply "dependence." Broad-based or multi-issue coalitions are highly unusual. After the major movements of the 1960s -- most notably civil rights -- progressive organizing became highly specialized and issue driven. This tendency toward issue specialization seems to have intensified over the last two decades. Increased ethnic, gender, and racial activism has further subdivided issue areas and has resulted in new organizations whose acronyms indicate specific constituency concerns as well as issues. Those activists who remain grounded in community or local organizing reflect specific -- and often competing -- organizing philosophies that frequently inhibit broader coalition building. [For a more detailed discussion of these points, see Karen Paget, "Many Movements, No Majority," TAP, Summer 1990.] Foundation specialization seems to be increasing as well, most commonly by issue area but also by geography. Both strategies result in a narrowing of focus.

In theory, this specialization might be considered an advantage. After all, the conservative coalition has single-issue organizations, such as the National Rifle Association or right-to-life organizations. However, specialization clearly has not advantaged progressives, especially in the absence of strong political parties that could broker issue and constituency concerns. The reaction of many liberal organizers to major conservative initiatives -- the flat tax, Social Security, and the balanced budget amendment, for example -- is that it is "not their issue." Organizations focused on campaign finance, Central America, human rights, nuclear proliferation, and women's health -- all worthy causes -- are not capable of switching gears and fighting against a flat tax or worrying about the privatization of Social Security.

On many of the most important measures backed by conservative funders, left-liberal organizations simply aren't in the game. Meanwhile, over the last ten years the conservative right has excelled in changing the rules of the game by devising big, bold initiatives that tilt the system to their advantage. Measures such as term limits, tax and expenditure limitations (especially those requiring supermajority votes), or the balanced budget amendment all restrict government's capacity to act. Other proposals, such as a flat tax or the privatization of Social Security, both constrain government spending and advantage private wealth. Such structural changes make other conservative measures such as eliminating entitlements or cutting safety net programs much harder to reverse, even if electoral majorities change.

Most discussions among progressives of what to do about this problem fracture along lines of issue or constituency specialization in addition to other predictable dichotomies -- the virtues of national versus grassroots organizing, thinkers versus doers, and so on. This acrimony is exacerbated by the perception of scarce resources, since act ivists fear, probably correctly, that different analyses lead to different funding priorities -- ones that might not include them.

Yet something more than fear of losing resources seems to be at work in these discussions. Conservative funders are not only committed to knowledge production, marketing, and communication strategies; they also place a premium on national policy concerns. Covington, for example, concludes that special attention is paid to federal budget policies and priorities because of a shared understanding that these decisions "exert such significant impact on the issues and concerns at the state, local and neighborhood level." These are precisely the kind of statements that evoke charges that the right's recipe for social change is "top-down" and undemocratic and should not be imitated. However, a different interpretation is possible. Could it be that conservatives have a shared understanding of how change takes place? One can easily imagine a debate among conservatives over whether a state-by-state organizing approach is more strategic than a nationwide effort, but it is hard to imagine that conservatives exhaust themselves in arguments over whether there is something inherently superior in local organizing.

As the publications discussed here make clear, conservative funders are strategic not just because they meet together or invest in think tanks, but because they view electoral politics as reinforcing (or diluting) the dynamics of agenda setting, issue framing, and grassroots organizing. It is this connective tissue between individual citizens, policy, and politics that progressive strategists -- whether philanthropist or activist -- need to take most seriously. This discussion requires the identification and evaluation of progressive infrastructure as well as the funding patterns of progressive foundations, and it should be conducted with a 20- or 30-year timeline in mind, not just next year's funding cycle.

While explicitly progressive foundations have less money than their right-wing counterparts, they could become more strategic. Centrist and progressive foundations tend to be far more gun-shy than conservative ones about advocacy and quasi-lobbying. Virtually all major foundations place lobbying restrictions on their grantees greater than the law requires, and most simply forbid it. According to Nan Aron, director of the Alliance for Justice, fewer than 1 percent of public charities (tax-exempt nonprofit organizations) file with the Internal Revenue Service for the 501 (h) lobbying exemption legally available to them. Aron describes the exemption as "generous," since it permits up to 20 percent of an organization's first $500,000 to be spent on lobbying activities.

Any liberal foundation that wants to fund more aggressively has the immediate capacity to do so: foundations are required by law to expend 5 percent of their assets annually, and few exceed that minimum threshold. Since most philanthropists have benefited from a bullish market, they could easily increase their annual payout and significantly increase the pool of money.

Some of these additional funds could be allocated to the general operating support that progressive organizations desperately need and seldom get. Others could fund the exploration of questions raised in the reports mentioned in this article. General support grants -- almost a signature of conservative funding -- not only permit an organization to determine its own program priorities but could encourage organizations to take the lobbying exemption. Most earmarked grants explicitly prohibit any lobbying. An organization may have a large budget, but if most of it is earmarked, allocating funds for legitimate lobbying purposes becomes difficult. (A superb analysis of these issues may be found in attorney Tom Asher's booklet Myth v. Fact: Foundation Support of Advocacy, which is available from the Alliance for Justice.)

Staffers of liberal foundations also acknowledge the chilling effect on grant making of the right's 20-year-long campaign to "defund the left" by denying government funding to progressive groups. The latest tactic is the proposed Istook amendment, which would limit advocacy by nonprofits that take federal funds. This would disproportionately disadvantage liberal groups, since the right is so lavishly funded by foundations and corporations that few movement conservative groups need or take federal funds. Many liberal organizations, in contrast, are combination service and advocacy organizations for the groups they serve. In a climate of general skittishness, distinctions between advocacy and lobbying tend to collapse, unnecessarily constraining the scope of action that is entirely permissible under IRS rules.

In the end, progressive philanthropy may be something of an anomaly. Although they are not as ideologically explicit as the authors of these publications might wish, the big foundations such as Ford, Mac Arthur, and Rockefeller are certainly far more liberal in their programs than the original donors to the foundations. We should not expect concentrated private wealth to be a primary engine of progressive reform. So in addition to bemoaning the asymmetry of resources and strategic purposes, activists would do well to question their own dependency on foundation funds and nonpartisan modes of organizing. After all, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the antiwar movement did not depend on tax-exempt organizations or foundation support for their energy or success.

Ultimately, the only real counter to conservative funders and their corporate allies is aggressive organizing, whether of ideas or people. Identifying who is paying for the conservative agenda is important, but doesn't fully answer the question of why this agenda has connected with a substantial constituency.

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