Underappreciated Lessons From Philanthropic Support of the Federalist Society

Leading up to this week’s Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court, there has been much commentary about the Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies’ success in changing America’s legal culture and its courts—including coverage in The New York Times Magazine and, most recently, Politico Magazine. While not always complimentary, this coverage has generally—and correctly—recognized the effectiveness of the Federalist Society’s strategies and tactics in affecting American legal culture through its student chapters at law schools, lawyers’ chapters in cities around the country, practice groups for various types of attorneys, and other initiatives.

Some of this establishment-journalism coverage has also included passing recognition of the donors who have made philanthropic investments in the Federalist Society. In the interesting Politico Magazine article on the Society’s founding in 1982, for example, Michael Kruse writes, “One factor that helped to make the Federalist Society something far more than simply an important student uprising was a thrilled collection of right-wing donors who had been waiting for precisely this sort of organization. Backed by the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA), the Scaife Foundation, the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and the Deer Creek Foundation, along with membership dues, the society’s budget vaulted past $1 million.”

Others on the left and right have previously credited such early funding for the Society’s ultimate success. For instance, in his Philanthropy Roundtable guidebook for donors on the Olin and Bradley Foundations, Strategic Investment in Ideas: How Two Foundations Reshaped America, John J. Miller quotes IEA chairman Irving Kristol on its Federalist Society support, “That was the best money we ever spent at IEA” (p. 29).

Given the recent attention to the Federalist Society’s enormous successes and growing influence, there might be benefit­—to givers of whatever ideology, as well as those who advise them—in underscoring some specific, underappreciated lessons from the Society’s early philanthropic support:

  • Humility. There is great risk that the latest coverage of the Federalist Society will fool donors into thinking that effective philanthropies can easily cook up effective institutions like the Federalist Society if they’re just strategically clever enough. As Kruse’s Politico Magazine piece makes clear, however, the role played by givers in the early 1980s was to recognize the importance of what others—the law-school students—were trying to accomplish, after they determined what they wanted to accomplish. First comes the activists, who are determined to do something whether they’re grant recipients or not. Only then can funders support these grass-roots initiatives. Foundation-concocted movements in and of themselves seldom succeed so well.
  • Patience. The Society’s founding conference was in 1982—36 years ago. That’s a decades-long time horizon. The donors’ patience in measuring outcomes, if they even measured it at all, was well worth exercising in hindsight. Had they insisted on strict measurement and meeting certain numeric targets from the beginning, funders might have prematurely demanded changes to the Society’s operations or decided to fund other projects. Such patience probably would not be practiced by many givers today.
  • Ideas. From that beginning in 1982, the Society was passionately dedicated to ideas. Its chapters hosted debates between conservatives and liberals, and even encouraged debate among conservatives. It enthusiastically and thoughtfully explored these ideas, and it engaged those with whom it disagreed with genuine respect. It took ideas seriously. It took its interlocutors seriously—and everyone quickly came to respect that. Its funders knew about this aspect from the get-go, and over time, this intellectual seriousness and open-mindedness proved well worth it.

These lessons should be noted by the current enemies of the Federalist Society, who want to depict it as something other than it is. But more importantly, these lessons need be learned by all current givers who hope to achieve successes comparable to the Society’s, now and decades into the future.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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