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
* 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
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
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
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
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
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"
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.
* 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
* 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."
* 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
* 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
* 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
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
* 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
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
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."
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
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
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.
* Understanding the importance of ideology and overarching
* 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
* Creating and cultivating public intellectuals and policy
* 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.
Control and Propaganda