High Impact Philanthropy: Lessons From the Right

We all have our favorite examples of high-impact philanthropy. My own favorite is how conservative funders helped to pull U.S. public policy to the right over a period of several decades by pumping money into think tanks, legal groups, journals, and leadership training institutes. 

I wrote yesterday in a post on Richard Mellon Scaife, and the bequests he recently made to his three foundations:

These outfits, like many on the right, didn't have very large endowments or grantmaking budgets. But Scaife and likeminded funders were able to run circles around places like Ford by banding together and focusing laser-like on leveraging their resources in the intellectual and public policy spheres.

While conservative philanthropy is on my mind, I thought it'd be helpful to distill a few lessons from looking at the accomplishments of these funders.

1. Ideas Are Extremely Powerful Levers

Funders like Scaife, along with the Bradley and Olin foundations, invested heavily in ideas and policy work with the goal of redirecting the overall narrative of political debates and also expanding the range of acceptable alternatives considered by policymakers. They sought to move ideas on the fringe, like privatizing Social Security or eliminating the federal welfare entitlement, into the mainstream. This work, including financing Charles Murray's research on safety net programs, succeeded exactly as planned, legitimizing ideas once seen as radical.  

2. Be Patient Money

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, conservative funders were under no illusions that they would topple the liberal order overnight and roll back the key achievements of the New Deal and Great Society anytime soon. Rather, they saw themselves as playing a multi-decade game, and they settled in for the long haul. So, for example, it wasn't until 2005 that partial privatization of Social Security was championed by a sitting president, nearly three decades after groups like Cato first started working on this issue. Funders like Scaife and the Kochs hung in all along the way. 

3. Train Your Own People and Offer Them Career Security

Because academia was seen as hostile territory, conservative funders of intellectual work set out to build their own cadre of thinkers from scratch and, as importantly, created a clear career track for these people. That track started with paid internships at conservative policy shops, writing gigs at well-funded conservative journals, graduate fellowships to snag a Ph.D., and then securing jobs as policy wonks or senior fellows or editors at journals. 

4. Offer General Support to Key Institutions

Most of the grants given out by Scaife's foundations take the form of large chunks of general operating support, and many other conservative funders operate the same way. By and large, these grants get renewed year after yearand often, decade after decade. This strategy ensures that the right's favorite intellectuals aren't spending too much time chasing those annoying program grants that many foundations favor, much less writing detailed grant reports. And conservative foundations are able to keep their administrative expenses low because they don't need legions of program officers to micro-manage grantees. And predictable funding streams allow conservative think tanks to invest in long-term work without worrying about losing the grants for that work. 

5. Don't Be Discouraged by Failure

After George W. Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security went down in flames, did conservative funders give up? Nope. They've kept funding this work, waiting for the window to open again. And, judging by the perseverance of these funders, that will likely happen.