How Conservative Philanthropies and Think Tanks Transform US Policy

by Sally Covington

Covert Action Quarterly, Winter 1998


Speaking truth to power is all well and good, but applying the dictum, "money talks, " conservative foundations have long been bankrolling like-minded thin tanks and advocacy groups. Together, they have effected far-reaching changes in US social, political, and economic policy.

Proclaiming their movement a war of ideas, conservatives began to mobilize resources for battle in the 1960s. They built new institutional bastions; recruited, trained, and equipped their intellectual warriors; forged new weapons as cable television, the Internet, and other communications technologies evolved; and threw their resources into policy and political battles. By 1984, moderate Republican John Saloma warned of a "major new presence in American politics." If left unchecked, he accurately predicted, "the new conservative labyrinth" would pull the nation's political center sharply to the right.'

Today, that 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 changes in the federal tax structure, to interest in medical savings accounts and the privatization of Social Security, conservative policy ideas and rhetoric have come to dominate the nations political conversation, reflecting what political scientist WaIter Dean Burnham has called a "hegemony of market theology"

Spearheading the assault has been a core group of 12 conservative foundations: the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Carthage Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, the Charles G. Koch, David H. Koch and Claude R. Lambe charitable foundations, the Phillip M. McKenna Foundation, the JM Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Henry Salvatori Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. In 1994, they controlled more than $1.1 billion in assets; from 1992-94, they awarded $300 million in grants, and targeted $210 million to support a wide array of projects and institutions.

Over the last two decades, the 12 have mounted an impressively coherent and concerted effort to shape public policy by undermining-and ultimately redirecting-what they regard as the institutional strongholds of modern American liberalism: academia, Congress, the judiciary, executive branch agencies, major media, religious institutions, and philanthropy itself. They channeled some $80 million to right-wing policy institutions actively promoting an anti-government, unregulated markets agenda. Another $89 million supported conservative scholars and academic programs, with $27 million targeted to recruit and train the next generation of right-wing leaders in conservative legal principles, free-market economics, political journalism and policy analysis. And $41.5 million was invested to build a conservative media apparatus, support pro-market legal organizations, fund state-level think tanks and advocacy organizations, and mobilize new philanthropic resources for conservative policy change.

The strong role that conservative foundations have played in shaping national and state policy debates reflects not only impressive cash reserves, but also a sophisticated funding strategy:

* Their grants are overtly and unabashedly political. They single out and support aggressive and entrepreneurial organizations committed to government rollback through the privatization of government services, deregulation of industry and the environment, devolution of authority from the federal to state and local governments, and deep cuts in federal anti-poverty spending.

* They work to build strong institutions by providing general operating support rather than project-specific funding. This unrestricted money allows groups considerable flexibility to attract, train, and keep talented people, launch special projects, and develop their databases and skills.

* They recognize that national budget and policy priorities significantly impact what happens on the state, local and even neighborhood levels, and fund accordingly.

* They emphasize marketing and communications techniques, funding grant recipients to flood the media and political marketplace with conservative policy ideas and to communicate with and mobilize their constituency base on behalf of these ideas.

* They emphasize networking with other groups around a common reform agenda. n They invest in the recruitment, training, placement, and media visibility of conservative public intellectuals and policy leadership.

* They fund across the institutional spectrum, recognizing that institutions or programs that support conservative scholarship, rapid-fire research and advocacy, lobbying, strategic litigation, leadership development and constituency mobilization are all important components of an effective policy movement.

* They have made long-term funding commitments, providing large grants over a multi-year and, in some cases, multi-decade period Long-term funding has financially anchored conservative institutions and enabled them to take the political offensive on key social, economic, and regulatory policy issues.

* They concentrate their grants, with 18 percent of the grantees getting more than 75 percent of the funding.

A significant portion of the conservative foundations' largess has flowed to a small group of think tanks that according to a sociologist "were particularly critical in the shift of the economic debate to the right [and] provided much of the groundwork for the radical change in policy taking place from 1978 through 1981." Well endowed with the financial and human resources to market their policy ideas, these institutions have effectively repositioned the boundaries of national policy discussion, redefining key concepts, molding public opinion, and pushing for a variety of specific policy reforms. Through the constant repetition and dissemination of conservative policy ideas, they have provided a philosophical underpinning for many of the most important fiscal and social policies developed and implemented over the past 16 years. And in the end, they have succeeded in making "positive government action in social welfare and economic development policy seem off limits and inappropriate."


Supply Side Swipe

The ramifications of conservative funding streams have been profound. In terms of political process, the existence of powerful and well-funded conservative "counter-institutions" raises the specter of what some have called "supply-side' politics. Political scientist Samuel Kernell has suggested that when aggressive marketing is linked to modern means of communication, consumer marketplace irrespective of existing demand. This "supply-side politics, he contends, is "so psychologically powerful as to determine what voters will think they want.

One of the most impressive supply-side successes has been shaping national economic policy As Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency, conservatives saw and seized their opening. Four private institutions-the National Bureau of Economic Research, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, American Enterprise Institute, and Center for the Study of American Business-led the push for "trickledown" policies. Large tax cuts-they argued, using everything from sound bites to scholarly journals-would generate revenues by stimulating the national economy

Supply-side economic theory laid the basis for what became the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, a piece of legislation that reduced federal income tax rates by 25 percent over a three-year period. This deep and sweeping tax cut not only meant a cumulative loss of $1 trillion to the Treasury Department by 1987, it also helped to create unprecedented federal deficits during the 1980s. The federal deficit was then used politically to justify "a frontal assault on the revenue base of the modem welfare state" by creating a zero-sum legislative environment, pitting individual programs against each other in the fight for revenues while rendering an expansion of federal social policy extremely difficult.

James Galbraith was one of many who tried in vain to debunk trickle-down theory as "reactionary and deeply implausible," saying that "it springs from a never-never land of abstract theory concocted over 25 years by the disciples of , Milton Friedman and `, purveyed." But with few research and advocacy institutions having the money and clout to focus policy attention on such matters as wage stagnation, rising inequality, real and hidden unemployment, and poverty, the "conservative fiscal consensus" triumphed. The government's main economic management task devolved to balancing the budget, with debate centering on how many years that goal should take. There is "a common ground on economic policy," lamented Galbraith, "that now stretches with differences only of degree from the radical right to Bill Clinton.'

This conservative victory established a strategy model, set the stage for some of the most aggressively anti-poor legislation in a century, and ushered in a right-wing revolution likely to dominate both policy forums and the popular debate for years to come.


The War on the Poor

As conservative grantees hammered home on the revenue side of national fiscal policy, they did not neglect the expenditure side. Indeed, it is in the particular area of federal anti-poverty programs that conservative grantees have launched their most sustained and vitriolic attacks. In the early 1980s, the Manhattan Institute sponsored and heavily promoted two publications that urged the elimination of federal anti-poverty programs. George Gilder's book, Wealth and Poverty, contended that poverty was the result of personal irresponsibility coupled with government programs that rewarded and encouraged it; Charles Murray's Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 extended the argument, stating that AFDC and other anti-poverty programs reduced marriage incentives, discouraged workers from accepting low-wage jobs, and encouraged out-of-wedlock births among low income teenage and adult women. These books were followed by Lawrence Mead's Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship, which blamed governments for perpetuating poverty by failing to require welfare recipients to work.

Other conservative grantees have used their funds for more than a decade to capitalize on and extend the works by Gilder, Murray, and Mead, spreading conservative political rhetoric and policy opinion through major media and conservative controlled print and broadcast outlets. They have redefined the problem by arguing that poverty is a relative concept, that the poor are significantly better off than is popularly understood, that moral failure causes the poor to be poor, and that government action has perpetuated rather than alleviated poverty by coddling the poor and entrapping them in a system that debases and clientizes them.

The 15-year conservative campaign to demonize the poor and eviscerate the government programs that minimally support them culminated in the passage of welfare "reform" in 1996. That legislation dismantled the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, eliminating the only federal program guaranteeing cash assistance to poor women and their children. The antipoor crusade also led to significant cuts in federal anti-poverty spending, with programs serving the poor absorbing a full 93 percent of the 1995 and 1996 budget cuts, even though those programs constituted only 24 percent of all entitlement spending.

The conservative attacks on poor people, affirmative action, and government programs serving low-income constituencies-and their constant reaffirmation of market efficiencies without recognizing market inequities or failure-has not only led to an array of specific policies, but has also inhibited the development of alternative policies to address growing concentrations of poverty and inner-city decline, the social costs of which are astronomical.

Despite recently reported gains in the incomes of poor Americans last year, the nation remains an economically and racially divided one, with more than 40 million Americans lacking health insurance, an appalling 20 percent child poverty rate, a rising prison population, the disappearance of jobs in inner city neighborhoods, and sharp and continuing inequities in education and educational opportunity Although such economic inequities and social divisions might be expected to raise serious questions about the nations political ethic, the current institutional forces during federal and state policy debates almost guarantee that these will not even be asked.


Marketing the Product

The proliferation and continued heavy funding of policy institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation threatens to tilt the debate even further to the right on key policy issues and options. These groups flood the media with hundreds of opinion editorials. Their top staff appear as political pundits and policy experts on dozens of television and radio shows across the country And their lobbyists work the legislative arenas, distributing policy proposals, briefing papers, and position statements.

Given the growing political importance of the media, conservative policy institutions have clearly stated the need for strong marketing and communications. "I make no bones about marketing," said AEl's former president, William Baroody: we pay as much attention to the dissemination of the product as we do to the content. we're probably the first major think tank to get into the electronic media. We hire ghost writers for scholars to produce op-ed articles that are sent to the one hundred and one cooperating newspapers-three pieces every two weeks

In the late 1980s, the Heritage Foundation made the same point in an article advising others how to start and run an effective think tank:

The easy part is getting your message right. The real test is getting your message out. .. Everything you do, every day, must involve marketing in as many as six dimensions Market your policy recommendations, market the principles and values behind them, market the tangible publications and events your organization is producing, market the think tank concept itself, then market your specific organizations, and never stop marketing yourself and the other key individuals who personify the organization. "

A decade later, the marketing strategies of conservative institutions are even more sophisticated and aggressive. The Hoover Institutions public affairs office, for example, links to 900 media centers across the US and 450 abroad. The Reason Foundation, a national public policy research organization that also serves as a national clearinghouse on privatization, had 359 television and radio appearances in 1995 and more than 1,500 citations in national newspapers and magazines. The Manhattan Institute has held more than 600 forums or briefings for journalists and policy makers on multiple public policy issues and concerns, from tort reform to federal welfare policy And the National Center for Policy Analysis reports that "NCPA ideas" have been discussed in 573 nationally syndicated columns and 184 wire stories over the 12 years of its existence

Relying not just on the mainstream media to disseminate their ideas, conservative institutions have created a ', variety of conservative-controlled media outlets and projects, newsletters and policy journals, web sites, and television and radio broad casting networks. The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy for example, launched a strategic venture in 1995 to co-publish with William F Buckley's National Review, the National Review West, that goes out to 80,000 political conservatives in the Western states. The Free Congress Foundation, in addition to its National Empowerment Television, is publishing NetNewsNow, a broadcast fax letter sent around the country to more than 400 radio producers and news editors, and the Heartland Institute's PolicyFax, which makes a variety of easy-to-read policy reports available free to journalists and legislators.

Conservative foundations also provided $2,734,263 to four right-of-center magazines between 1990 and 1993, including the The National Interest, The Public Interest, The New Criterion, and The American Spectator. Over the same time period, however, four left-of-center publications- The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and Mother Jones-received only $269,500 from foundations. Based on such funding disparities, one journalist concluded: "America's conservative philanthropies eagerly fund the enterprise of shaping opinion and defining policy debates, while similar efforts by progressive philanthropies are, by comparison, sporadic and half-hearted.

"Think tank" journals also fit nicely into the conservatives' broader communications strategy by providing publishing opportunities for conservative thinkers and policy advocates. These in-house publications, as journalist Lawrence Soley has noted, "bear names that closely resemble those of [more] legitimate journals, " masking the "academic anemia" of think tank staff while giving them apparently impressive publications records. AEl's William Schneider, for example, published 16 articles in the Institute's Public Opinion-but not a single article in Public Opinion Quarterly, a respected journal of social science published since 1937. Yet, Schneider became one of the most "sought-after" political pundits, appearing 72 times on network news programs between 1987 and 1989, and serving as a regular political commentator for National Public Radio's Morning Edition'

Meanwhile, as conservatives decried the media's left bias, they saw their institutions mentioned in various media almost 8,000 times in 1995, while liberal or progressive think tanks received only 1,152 citations. The consequence-as true today as it was when journalist Karen Rothmyer wrote 16 years ago-is that "Layer upon layer of seminars, studies, conferences, and interviews [can] do much to push along, if not create, the issues, which then become the national agenda of debate.... By multiplying the authorities to whom the media are prepared to give a friendly hearing, [conservative donors] have helped to create an illusion of diversity where none exists. The result could be an increasing number of one-sided debates in which the challengers are far outnumbered, if indeed they are heard from at all."


Conservative Resource Mobilization

Complementing the strong marketing and communications focus of groups such as AEI and the Heritage Foundation are a variety of conservative foundation strategies to mobilize or redirect philanthropic resources in ways consistent with their policy agenda. In fact, the contemporary origins of the conservative funding movement go back to the early 1970s, when William F Simon former treasury secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford, and other prominent conservatives, began to urge donors to align their philanthropy with their presumed political and public policy interests.

For Simon, who became president of the John M. Olin Foundation in 1977 and still holds that title, one key element of that alignment involved funding public intellectuals who could provide a sound defense of free-market policies and government rollback that were so ardently desired by new right enthusiasts. In Time for Truth, Simon wrote: "Funds generated by business must rush by the multimillions to the aid of liberty ... to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers, and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty" He called on the business community 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 those more "pro-freedom" and "pro-business."

Since then, a variety of investigative reporters and scholars have documented the hundreds of millions of dollars that conservative donors have invested to reshape the nation's political conversation and policy priorities. One such report, published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the early 1980s, documented the millions of dollars that Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to the Mellon oil fortune and chair of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, alone has invested in right-wing policy institutions. Dubbed the "financier of the right," Scaife was found to have made substantial investments over the 1970s and early 1980s in more than 100 ``ideological organizations."

A more scholarly analysis of right-wing funding found that 10 conservative institutions received a total of $88 million between 1977 and 1986 to finance their policy activities. Sociologist Michael Patrick Allen found that the 12 "sustaining" foundations increased their support of these ten policy institutions by over 330 percent during the 10-year period studied. These and other data demonstrate a long-term pattern of politically motivated investment by conservative donors.

The role that conservative foundations have played in reinvigorating the intellectual, institutional and leadership base of US conservatism does not have a significant parallel in the philanthropic mainstream. While conservative donors see themselves as part of a larger movement to defeat "big government liberalism," and fund accordingly, mainstream foundations operate within a tradition of American pragmatism by adopting a problem-oriented, field-specific approach to social improvement. The ideological commitments of conservative foundations and the caution of mainstream one have exacerbated, if not created, a gap in the resources available to multi-issue public policy institutions working on the right and left of the policy spectrum. Consider, for example, that the combined revenue base of such conservative multi-issue policy institutions as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, the Cato Institute, and Citizens for a Sound Economy exceeded $77 million in 1995.

In strong contrast, the roughly equivalent progressive (e.g., multi-issue, left-of-center groups whose work focuses on domestic policies at the national level)-the Institute for Policy Studies, the Economic Policy Institute, Citizens for Tax Justice, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities-had only $9 million at their collective disposal in 1995. Adding the Twentieth Century Fund, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, OMB Watch, and the Center for Community Change would push the combined 1995 budgets of these eight organizations to $18.6 million, still less than a quarter of the top five conservative groups. While revenue base may be only one factor underlying (or contributing to) organizational capacity and effectiveness, surely it is a critical one.


Reshaping the Institutional Landscape

The long-term investments that conservative foundations have made in building a "counter-establishment" of research, advocacy, media, legal, philanthropic, and religious sector organizations have paid off handsomely These donors have altered the mix of organizations actively seeking to influence public policy in Washington, DC, and in state capitals. In doing so, they have reshaped _ the institutional landscape of US politics and policymaking profoundly. Their long-term support of policy institutions has occurred at a time of significant change in American politics-change that has facilitated the emergence of groups like the Heritage Foundation as particularly influential policy actors.

Among the most important of these changes are the long-term decline in electoral participation, the deepening class skew to US voting patterns, the transformation of political parties into top-down fundraising vehicles, the growing role of money in politics, the rising political importance of the media, and the decline of institutions (such as unions and political parties) that once played a stronger balancing role in setting national, state, and local priorities. Over time, these changes interacted in a way that reduced opportunities for low income people to exercise influence while enlarging such opportunities for upper-income constituencies. Philanthropic money thus converged with political opportunity in a way that has not only pushed the debate to the right but also exacerbated America's "participatory inequality .

Beyond the groups previously mentioned, the institutional actors receiving significant support over the 1992-1994 period include media groups, legal organizations, state-level advocates, and religious sector organizations. The following list represents a sampling of grantee institutions and activities.


Media Organizations:

* American Spectator Educational Foundation received grants totaling $1.7 million with more than $600,000 to expand editonal staff and reporting at The American Spectator, $515,000 in flexible general operating support, and $485,000 in special project funding. lts subscription base lunged from 38,000 in 1992 to 335,000 today

* National Affairs is the funding vehicle which handled grants for The Public lnterest and The National Interest ($ 1.9 million), and the Foundation for Cultural Review for The New Criterion ($1.6 million).

* Commentary magazine got a tidy $1 million.

* American Studies Center. Grants worth $410,000 helped ASC spread "Radio America" to 2,000 radio stations across the country, produce conservative programming, and support two conservative daily radio shows-the "Alan Keyes Show" and "Dateline Washington."

* Firing Line (William F Buckley), Think Tank: (Ben Wattenberg), Peggy Noonan on Values, and other conservative public television public affairs programs, got $3.2 million.

* Center for the Study of Popular Culture (CSPC), Accuracy in Media, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the Center for Science, Technology and Media, the Media Research Center, the Media Institute, and others were granted $5.2 million "to perpetuate the myth of a liberal bias in mainstream media reportage, with particular criticism leveled against the Public Broadcasting Service. With seed money from the Sarah Scaife Foundation, CSPC launched the Media Integrity Project in 1987 to attack PBS for "left-wing bias." Other critics, including Laurence Jarvik, a former Bradley Research Scholar at the Heritage Foundation and a current fellow at the Capital Research Center, have called for cutting funds or privatizing PBS. Accuracy in Media criticized PBS for "blatantly pro-Communist propaganda.

The efforts of these media grantees have made right-wing issues and views increasingly respectable and have pressured major media to become more responsive. Through scandal-mongering and issue emphasis, conservative media outlets help to shape the news agenda for more established media while organized attacks on public television have pushed PBS to augment already substantial conservative public affairs programming. The result is an even further narrowing of viewpoint. As the former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Ben Bagdikian observes, "what gets reported enters the public agenda. What is not reported may not be lost forever, but it may be lost at a time when it is most needed."


Legal Organizations:

* The Institute for Justice (IJ), the top grant recipient, received $2.9 million in 24 separate grants to support litigation, training, and outreach activities focused on four areas: private property rights, economic liberty, school choice, and the First Amendment. The IJ's budget increased to more than $1 million less than a year after it was founded in 1991 and is presently $2.3 million.

* The Center for Individual Rights and the Washington Legal Foundation were also heavily funded to reverse affirmative action programs of the federal government and in higher education.

These foundations not only emphasized litigation, but worked to nurture and coordinate a growing network of like-minded law students, alumni, and attorneys. The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, founded by two Yale law school students in the early 1980s, received $1.6 million in grants to support its efforts to transform the legal profession, which it sees as "currently dominated by a form of liberal orthodoxy "advocating] a centralized and uniform society" According to the Federalist Society's 1995 annual report, its Student Division has more than 4,900 law student members in more than 140 law schools across the country, up from 2,137 members in 1989. Its Lawyers Division boasts more than 15,000 attorneys and legal professionals and more than 50 active chapters. The Society also publishes The Federalist (circulation 57,000), and other legal monographs and reports, and sponsors a Continuing Legal Education program.


State/Regional Think Tanks I; Advocacy Groups:

* The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, heavily funded since its inception by the Bradley Foundation, has pushed to shape state education and welfare policy in accordance with key conservative principles.

* The Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research aggressively worked for California's Proposition 209, the ballot initiative to eliminate that state's affirmative action program.

* The Heartland Institute publishes Intellectual Ammunition, a glossy 25-page journal featuring condensed versions of policy statements and position papers of most of the think tanks and advocacy organizations to which the 12 foundations directed grants between 1992 and 1994. The May/June 1996 issue introduced Policy Fax, a regular insert described by Illinois state senator Chris Lauzen as:

a revolutionary public policy fax-on-demand research service that enables you to receive, by fax, the full text of thousands of documents from more than one hundred of the nations leading think tanks, publications, and trade associations. PolicyFax is easy to use, and its free for elected officials and journalists.

The 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week service features topics from crime to the economy to welfare, including South Carolinians Have Nothing to Worry about from Concealed Handguns; Four Steps to Reforming Superfund, Medical Savings Accounts: The Right Way to Reform Health Care: Benefits of the Flat Tax; and Effective Compassion.

* The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the newer State Policy Network. Provide technical assistance, develop model legislation, and report about communications activities and conferences. ALEC, well-funded by private family foundations and corporate contributors, is a powerful and growing membership organization, with almost 26,000 state legislators-more than one-third of the nation's total. The organization, which has a staff of 30, responds to 700 information requests each month, and has developed more than 150 pieces of model legislation ranging from education to tax policy It maintains legislative task forces on every important state policy issue, including education, health care, tax and fiscal policy, and criminal justice.


Religious Sector Organizations:

The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), founded in 1982, believes that "the National and World Councils of churches are theologically and politically flawed." Its early focus was international, supporting US foreign policy in Central America during the Reagan years. Today, IRD publishes Faith and Freedom and monitors "mainliners and other Christian groups that often claim to speak for millions but really represent only an extreme few."

The Institute on Religion and Public Life and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty both seek to influence the religious community through seminars, colloquia, sponsored research, book projects, newsletters, and journals. They work to instill a stronger appreciation of the morality of capitalism in the US and around the world. To counter "the clergy's disturbing bias against the business community and free enterprise," the Acton Institute runs three-day conferences for seminarians and divinity students to "introduce them to the moral and ethical basis of free market economies." In 1995, it also launched a national welfare reform initiative to help shape national policy debates, believing that "churches and private individuals and organizations, not the government, can best help change people's lives."

Other national think tanks, both large and small, have decried the national moral decay and blamed teenage pregnancy, single-parent families, crime, and drugs on ceaseless expansion of the Leviathan state. This linkage between morality, poverty, and government spending-consistently propagated by a wide range of conservative grantees-has contributed to the movement's overall political coherence, helping unite religious right activists and the often more secular fiscal conservatives. When moral failure is invoked to explain the plight of the poor, both can unite around a policy agenda stressing market discipline and the replacement of government social programs with personal responsibility. As James Morone noted, "Once the lines are drawn [between a righteous us and a malevolent them], one can forget about social justice, progressive thinking, or universal programs. Instead the overarching policy question becomes, "How do we protect ourselves and our children? Never mind health care- build more jails."


Integrated Strategy

Conservative foundations bring to their grant making programs a clear vision and strong political intention, funding to promote a social and public policy agenda fundamentally based on unregulated markets and limited government. They have created and anchored key institutions, concentrating their resources to sustain and expand a critical mass of advocacy, litigation and public policy groups working on the right of US politics and culture. The results have been cumulative and impressive. Scholars develop the intellectual basis for conservative social perspectives and policy views. Conservative think tanks and advocacy organizations produce hundreds of policy reports, briefings, action alerts, monographs and analyses on matters both broad and specific, from national fiscal policy to regulatory reform. Business sponsored law firms pursue strategic litigation to advance conservative legal principles. Conservative media outlets profile policy approaches and proposals to inform and mobilize opinion while attacking the political and journalistic mainstream. And fellowships, internships, and leadership training programs create an effective pipeline for moving young conservatives into the fields of law, economics, government and journalism.

Further leveraging their investments, the 12 foundations have targeted their grants to support activities and projects intended to bring conservative scholars, policy analysts, grassroots leaders, and public officials into frequent contact with each other. Think tank leaders attend meetings to learn how to use new information and communication technologies for greater public opinion and policy impact. Grassroots activists are linked by satellite to training conferences focusing on how best to frame issues for public consumption. Students are subsidized to participate in public policy programs that teach them the essentials of free market economics and place them in think tanks, advocacy organizations, law firms and media outlets for further training. And organizations and projects are supported to build linkages and communication between grant making institutions and grant recipients.

In funding a policy movement rather than specific program areas, these 12 foundations distinguish themselves from the philanthropic mainstream, which has long maintained a pragmatic, non-ideological and field-specific approach to the grant making enterprise. The success of conservative foundation grantees in developing and marketing both general principles and specific policy proposals has also been enhanced by the institutional weaknesses of those who would place alternative policies on the table for political debate.

The political implications and policy consequences of this imbalance have been profound. First, the heavy investments that conservative foundations have made in New Right policy and advocacy institutions have helped to create a supply-side version of American politics in which certain policy ideas find their way into the political marketplace regardless of existing citizen demand. Second, the multiplication of institutional voices marketing conservative policies and policy approaches has resulted in policy decisions with disastrous and disproportionate consequences for low income constituencies.

The strategic grant making of the 12 foundations offers valuable lessons for those grant makers and others interested in national and state public policy matters. Seven stand out in particular. They include:

* Understanding the importance of ideology and overarching frameworks;

* Building strong institutions by providing ample general operating support and awarding large, multi-year grants;

* Maintaining a national policy focus;

* Recognizing the importance of marketing, media, and persuasive communications;

* Creating and cultivating public intellectuals and policy leaders;

* Funding comprehensively for social transformation and policy change by awarding grants across sectors, blending research and advocacy, supporting litigation, and encouraging the public participation of core constituencies; and

* Taking a long-haul approach.

While each of these lessons alone has funding power and significance, it is the combination that has given conservative philanthropy its vast clout.



Sally Covington is the Director of the Democracy and Philanthropy Project of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. This article was adapted from Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, prepared for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2001 S Street, NW, Suite 620, Washington, DC 20009, 202/387-9177. It covers the three-year period from 1992-94.

Democracy watch

Media Control and Propaganda