Book Profile

Conservative Philanthropy in The Nonprofit Sector


The new, third edition of The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook offers a thorough assessment of the state of the nonprofit field—with 30 well-sourced and -endnoted chapters by 45 mostly academic scholars, featuring what many of them would consider both positive and normative analysis, collectively totaling a hefty 872 pages. Conservative philanthropy is featured.

In Urban Institute research associate and HistPhil co-editor Benjamin Soskis’ chapter, “A History of Associational Life and the Nonprofit Sector in the United States,” he includes a summary of the “rise of the conservative counterestablishment.”

In their chapter “Seeing Like a Philanthropist: From the Business of Benevolence to the Benevolence of Business,” Stanford University Ph.D. candidate Aaron Horvath and Stanford professor Walter W. Powell similarly include a description of conservative foundations’ efforts to create a “countermovement” to what they saw as dominant liberalism. Powell co-directs Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and is a co-editor of the volume.

New Crop of Playing-Field Levelers

After briefly covering what some perceive as an improper lack of attention devoted to racial and ethnic diversity at all charitable institutions, Soskis writes,

One form of diversity that did gain more recognition from philanthropists was ideological: the 1970s witnessed the development of a network of conservative nonprofit institutions devoted to promoting the principles of limited government, anti-communism, free enterprise, and ‘traditional’ social values. Of course, voluntary organizations dedicated to these causes and fueled by a militant opposition to the perceived moral failings of the dominant institutions in public life were not new. They had proliferated in response to the New Deal and had been sustained through the support of a handful of conservative donors, such  as members of the du Pont and Pew families. Yet these funders and organizations had previously exhibited little political sophistication or coordination. [All citations omitted.]

According to Soskis, “By the 1970s, the sense of beleaguered crisis cultivated by leading conservatives had grown especially severe” and “[c]onservative luminaries such as future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell, neoconservative patriarch Irving Kristol, and former secretary of the Treasury William Simon elaborated a broader philanthropic strategy to overthrow progressive dominion.”

A new crop of conservative grantmakers “actively sought to counter the influence of liberal foundations, self-consciously matching and extending the Ford Foundation’s activism to adopt a countervailing philanthropic program to support conservative causes and reverse the ascendancy of liberalism itself,” continues Soskis, who participated in a conversation with The Giving Review earlier this year.

Exemplified by the Sarah Mellon Scaife, Smith Richardson, John M. Olin, and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundations, these conservative funders “engaged in a strategic campaign of institution building, often involving long-term and unrestricted general support to individuals and institutions,” he accurately writes. “They directed funding across the entire line of policy production, funding student fellowships and campus publications, professional school organizations …, think tanks and university-based research institutes, and advocacy organizations.”

They rejected “mainstream philanthropy’s self-conceived identity as ‘politically and ideologically neutral protectors of the public interest,’” as Soskis tells it, and “they claimed to be leveling a playing field that had so long been dominated by the ideology of the liberal establishment that its reign often advanced unregistered.”

Something of an “institutional arms race” resulted—“both within the conservative camp, as research institutions competed for contributions from conservative donors by staking out ideologically advanced and unclaimed territory, and between conservative and progressive think tanks,” Soskis describes. “Progressives sought to emulate conservatives in establishing more explicitly ideologically directed research and advocacy-oriented institutions, with each side appropriating the organizational innovations of their ideological antagonists.”

Ideas-Driven Reaction

In part of Horvath’s and Powell’s chapter, they overview some grantmaking of the liberal Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation starting in the mid-1960s. “The last quarter of the twentieth century became an era of foundation activism,” they write. “Foundations saw these as policy causes more than political causes. … [T]hey believed they could position their endeavors as politically neutral. This belief proved naïve.” (Emphasis in original.)

“To conservatives, support of expansionary state initiatives transgressed against the free market values that occasioned philanthropy in the first place,” Horvath and Powell continue. They correctly characterize Henry Ford II’s famous departure from the Ford Foundation in 1977, because of its “flagging support for capitalism,” as signaling “a coming ideological about-face in the field of philanthropy” and they then outline that reaction.

A new generation of conservatives sought to redeem philanthropy and public philosophy more generally by offsetting the intellectual stronghold of liberalism with an intellectual countermovement. A strident, tendentious, and politically focused philanthropic agenda began to grow in reaction to the progressivism exhibited at Ford and other foundations. William Simon and Irving Kristol reached out to new and newly invigorated foundations such as Olin, Bradley, DeVos, Scaife, Smith Richardson, and Walton, as well as individuals like Joe Coors and the Koch brothers, and encouraged them to cultivate a base of support for conservative causes. This countermovement mimicked the modus operandi of more centrist and left foundations: it funded individuals, research organizations, demonstration projects, and evaluations in an effort to cultivate knowledge and intelligence. Rather than reject the weapons of their ideological adversaries, conservatives engaged liberal philanthropic advocacy in a war of ideas.

After offering a little more detail on using “philanthropic funding to build a conservative intellectual agenda,” including its history and some more-contemporary examples, Horvath and Powell say that “the new cadre of think tanks were unabashed advocates of their conservative funders’ ideological persuasions. The new  philanthropic era was enabled by (and in turn enabled) the growing legitimacy  of private wealth and initiative for public ends.”

Quite normatively, they observe, “As conservative philanthropy has shifted further right, moderate philanthropy has toed a centrist line, progressive mostly in relation to its political alters.”

Consistent Narratives

The comment is curious, perhaps careless. Acknowledging what may merely be a definitional challenge, apart from “moderate” philanthropy, what about the liberal and progressive philanthropy to which conservative grantmakers were originally reacting when they helped create the just-described “countermovement”? It’s still a much-larger component of overall policy-oriented giving, and it sure seems to be shifting further left.

Otherwise, the two Nonprofit Sector treatments of conservative philanthropy are consistent with the narrative that conservative philanthropy tells itself and that existing and liberal and progressive grant recipients have told and tell their existing or would-be donors tells about conservative philanthropy.

Soskis, Horvath, and Powell fairly cover conservative donors’ desire for ideological diversity, their sense of beleaguered crisis, and their creation of a countermovement to engage in what they saw and still see as a war of ideas—the need for, and potential benefits from, which have not gone away.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Strategic Giving at the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C. He…
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