Conservative Policy Wonks: Who Among You Doesn't Love the F.M. Kirby Foundation?

History remembers Fred Morgan Kirby as a businessman and philanthropist. Cofounding the Woolworth retail chain in the 1880s and starting the F.M. Kirby Foundation in 1931 were his claims to fame. But libertarian politics drove Kirby, too, and his charitable giving included heavy championing of individual liberty and limited government.

His descendants run the foundation today, and keep his legacy very much alive: While the majority of its grants go to nonpartisan medical research and to apolitical social services like museums, homeless shelters, and local YMCAs, Kirby is also one of the best friends out there for policy wonks on the right. 

"We believe that private philanthropy, at its best, if provided compassionately and prudently, encourages self-reliance and diminishes government’s role," reads the foundation's mission statement. And like many conservative funders, Kirby believes that investments in public policy work offer the most bang for the buck in terms of downsizing government.

History supports that view: A strong conservative policy infrastructure played a key role in slowing the growth of government in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as rolling back some features of the New Deal/Great Society legacy—most notably, knocking off the federal welfare entitlement in 1996. More recently, these institutions have provided the intellectual ammunition to translate broad Tea Party demands into specific policy proposals to reduce spending and cut taxes. 

The F.M. Kirby Foundation has been a key backer of this infrastructure for many years, and shows no signs of letting up.

One of the reasons that conservative policy leaders love foundations like Kirby is because these funders understand that winning ideological debates requires investments for the long haul, and ideally grants in the form of general support. Most of Kirby's grants take this form, and it's stuck by some of its core grantees for many years now. For example, Kirby has made healthy grants to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute year after year, investing in an organization that promotes conservative principles on college campuses. This kind of supportrenewing grants that nonprofits can always count onis invaluable. 

The conservative foundations that have built up the right's policy infrastructure since the 1970s tend to be considerably smaller than big progressive foundations like Ford and Kellogg, and Kirby is a good example. But they've compensated for that by being strategic, collaborative, and patient, working together to scale up a strong set of institutions over a long time period. In turn, those policy groups have had considerable influence in any number of areas. This success is a leading example of leveraged, high-impact philanthropy in the past half century. 

The Kirby Foundation's "Public Affairs/Society Benefit" grants are spread around pretty widely, going to a host of right-of-center think tanks that call for minimizing government's role in society altogether. Around 30 think tanks in the Washington, D.C., area alone are among these, including the Cato Institute, which got $90,000 in grants in 2013-2014; and the American Enterprise Institute, which got $70,000 over that same stretch of time.

Plenty of think tanks outside the Beltway get Kirby funding, too, and sometimes in even larger amounts. The Manhattan Institute (which is in New York City, as the name suggests) received $210,000 in grants over the course of 2013 and 2014, for example.

The three grantees above advocate free-market positions on a wide range of issues. Other grantees, though, are more narrow in their focus. Immigration-focused organizations have been getting a lot of Kirby's attention lately. It's given recurring annual grants in the last few years to the Center for Immigration Reform and the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The foundation has also been sharing its wealth with groups that defend individual liberty, such as the Center for Individual Rights, which has gotten $270,000 in Kirby funding in the last few years. (Among other things, CIR has been involved in efforts to stop Obamacare through legal action.) And Kirby is also an ally of organizations that want to curtail the power of labor unions; as evidenced by the $200,000 it's given recently to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Groups involved in education reform, fathers' rights, and other issues that conservatives tend to support have also received Kirby funding of varying amounts.

While Kirby has a longstanding stable of grantees in the policy area, the foundation says it does accept new applicants, and is open to letters of inquiry. History suggests that groups that get through this door may see support for a long time to come.