Legacy: The Visionary Philanthropist Who Fueled the Right's Rise in the States

Regardless of what happens in this national election, Republicans are likely to retain a considerable amount of power in state capitals, where they've lately controlled a majority of state houses. In turn, these elected officials can count on powerful allies in the form of dozens of state-based conservative think tanks to feed them public policy ideas. 

Nobody can claim more credit for this bountiful supply of intellectual ammunition than the late Thomas Roe, the founder of the Roe Foundation and the State Policy Network. And it's hard to think of a better practitioner of targeted, high-impact philanthropy that's leveraged relatively modest resources into major influence. 

A native of South Carolina, Roe built a mid-century career as an industrial executive, serving as chairman of Builder Marts of America, as well as other corporate involvements that made him a wealthy man. All along, Roe involved himself in South Carolina’s Republican Party (it was hardly a red state back then), boosting Barry Goldwater’s failed run in 1964. Initially a local philanthropist in Greenville, South Carolina, Roe went national as a supporter and board member of the Heritage Foundation in the early 1980s.

Roe also became an informal adviser to Ronald Reagan, as part of Reagan’s so-called “kitchen cabinet.” Back home, Roe founded the South Carolina Policy Council, a think tank to promote conservative economics in the state. During that time, Roe helped convene the Madison Group, a gathering of conservative state think tanks hoping to collaborate.

Roe's basic idea was to create mini-versions of the Heritage Foundation throughout the country. That idea has been wildly successful. 

The Madison Group morphed into Roe’s most important political creation, the State Policy Network. Founded in 1992, SPN supports a network of free market think tanks across the country. Today, there are 65 affiliates and over 80 associate organizations in the network. (See the full list here.) Through the 1990s until his death in 2000, Roe build SPN into a cohesive support network in the states. Today, one of its consistent funders is the Roe Foundation, now headed by his wife Shirley. This foundation is not large, with $31 million in total assets and about $2 million in yearly grants. But it casts a long shadow in the state policy world. 

SPN enjoyed and still enjoys a tight relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a controversial nonprofit that produces model legislation for state legislators. Those bills, of course, champion conservative causes. And they aren’t limited to the strictly libertarian. In addition to bills loosening corporate (and environmental) regulations, there are efforts to block undocumented immigrants, weaken gun control, strengthen voter ID rules, and impede labor unions.

Operating on the state level, SPN doesn’t actually need much cash. It convenes and incubates with an annual budget of under $10 million. Like libertarian philanthropy as a whole, it’s focused, it’s lean, it’s policy-centered, and it's effective. 

Readers will be interested to know that a whole clique of tech companies, including Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and even Microsoft have also given small- to mid-range sums to the State Policy Network. 

Ever the pragmatic idealist, Roe worried about the fate of the Roe Foundation after he and Shirley passed away. Would bright-eyed administrators subvert donor intent, dragging his money leftward? Would the foundation follow in the footsteps of Ford and MacArthur? That’s a common worry on the right, and it led to the establishment of donor-advised funds like DonorsTrust and the Donors Capital Fund, linked entities that fund SPN.

The Roe Foundation has no dedicated website, but according to an article published by Capital Research Center in 2007, its bylaws require that Roe’s intent be respected. Grantees must adhere to three core values, including a dedication to “freedom” in the libertarian sense and a disregard for “intrusive government.” The third dictum, memorably, is that “the Judeo-Christian tradition represents the underpinnings of a just society.”

With a board consisting of Shirley Roe and members of SPN’s current and former leadership, many of the foundation’s grants go to SPN members, especially the South Carolina Policy Council. Michigan’s Mackinac Center and the Pacific Northwest's Cascade Policy Institute also rank highly among grantees. But other right-wing organizations get some love, too. Among them: Roe’s beloved Heritage Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Freedom Foundation, and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

Related: