Conservative Policy Wonks: Your Favorite Sugar Daddy is Gone, But He Left Big Treats

One of the biggest accomplishments of philanthropy in recent decades has been to help pull public policy to the right by bankrolling conservative think tanks, legal groups, and advocacy organizations. 

Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to one of America's most famous fortunes, was a central figure in that push, helping found the Heritage Foundation and commanding three small family foundations: the Sarah Scaife, Carthage, and Allegheny 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.

They didn't trifle much with program grants. Instead, they picked brainy ideological groups and backed them with general support for years on end. If they could win the high ground of ideas, they believed, victory would follow.

And in many ways they were right, as Sally Covington reported in her seminal 1997 study, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: the Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, and as I wrote in a follow-up report, $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s.

In the years before his recent death, Scaife operated largely outside the spotlight, but his level of giving actually increased, as I noted back in June.

Related - Ghost of the Past? Hardly: Scaife's Philanthropic Empire Is Thriving

And when Scaife died in July, I pointed out that he had gone to his grave a very wealthy man, with an estimated $1.4 billion in assets—money that Scaife, of all people, wouldn't want the IRS to get its hands on. I predicted that Scaife would channel funds to conservative causes in his will. 

Which is exactly what he did: In particular, the Sarah Scaife Foundation—long the main vehicle for Scaife's ideological funding—is set to nearly double in size as a result of a bequest, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and end up with assets of around $800 million.

While that's a small number in today's philanthrosphere, keep in mind how focused this funder has tended to be. It gives money almost exclusively to conservative groups, and in pretty big chunks. In 2013, for example, it paid out $625,000 to the American Enterprise Institute, $1 million to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, $500,000 to the David Horowitz Freedom Center, $700,000 to the Federalist Society, $1.4 million to the Heritage Foundation, $300,000 to the Pacific Legal Foundation (which has led the lawsuits against Obamacare), and the list goes on. 

In 2012, the foundation made a pretty similar list of grants. Now, with a doubling of its assets, my bet is that the foundation will give to the same grantees, only bigger money. 

That's very good news for a conservative policy infrastructure that already raises and spends several hundred million dollars every year. Whether it's also good news for America is another story.