This Foundation Is a Stalwart Backer of Libertarian Policy. Have You Heard of It?

Most of the time, it’s hard to pick up on a foundation’s funding philosophy from its name alone. Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking makes it easier than most.  

At IP, we write often about top conservative funders generously backing the think tanks, intellectuals, and academic institutions that share their ideologies. Many of these foundations aren't very large, but they grasp the power of ideas and are in big fights for the long term, reliably pumping out grants to sustain the right's policy infrastructure year after year.

Founded in 1994, Dunn’s Foundation is a great example. It isn’t the oldest or most well-known funder around, but its low profile belies grantmaking of about $10 million a year, money that goes a long way in the think tank world. 

Dunn’s Foundation is devotedly libertarian in its outlook. While the foundation maintains no website or social media presence, public tax documents reveal a twofold purpose: to advocate for free enterprise and market capitalism, and to “reduce the impact of the use or threat of force by coercive organizations (both public and private) against the people of America and the world, principally through education.”

Since the year 2000, Dunn’s Foundation has provided major and ongoing funding to some of the biggest names in libertarianism like the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Atlas Society. Dunn’s persistent support for the Marijuana Policy Project cements the foundation’s libertarian status—as opposed to traditional social conservatism.

Another feature of Dunn’s grantmaking is its direct support for several libertarian public interest law firms. Some highlights: the Institute for Justice ($5,910,000 between 2002 and 2013), the Pacific Legal Foundation ($3,713,000), and the Landmark Legal Foundation ($2,340,000).

By all accounts, founder William A. Dunn practices what he preaches. A theoretical physics Ph.D., Dunn left the sciences for finance in 1974, establishing what is now DUNN Capital Management, LLC. According to the firm’s website, Dunn was an early pioneer of quant trading in commodity futures, applying then-new computer technology to manage financial portfolios. 

William Dunn’s dedication to the libertarian cause is steadfast. As well as leading his firm and foundation, he is a Reason Foundation trustee and sits on the board of the Cato Institute, both major recipients of his money. To the extent there’s a libertarian power elite, he’s part of it.

Dunn is said to maintain strict control over his foundation’s grantmaking. Despite assets of around $130 million, Dunn’s Foundation has a small, tight-knit board of trustees and few apparent staff. In addition to Dunn himself, officers include Dunn’s wife Rebecca Walter Dunn, DUNN Capital general counsel David Dreyer, and Thomas A. Beach, who is also current chairman of the Reason Foundation. In fact, William Dunn once served in the same role, so expect a tight relationship between the two organizations in the future.

Dunn’s Foundation funds a pretty wide range of policy shops, and support is often ongoing. In addition to the grantees mentioned above, others include the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Americans for Limited Government, Chapman University, the Heartland Institute, and the Institute for Humane Studies.

In each case, grants often run into six figures, which is big money when it comes to policy research and advocacy. The foundation has also given around $4 million over the past decade to the Property and Environment Research Center, a proponent of free market solutions to environmental problems and a critic of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

As of right now, Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking will persist until the death of its founder, at which point it will transfer to his wife Rebecca. Upon her death, the foundation will dissolve, and it’s unclear at this point whether all assets will be spent down. We'd bet that will be the case, since funders on the right are very wary of establishing foundations in perpetuity that might later be hijacked by liberal philanthropoids or heirs.

Meanwhile, until the Dunns pass on, their foundation is set to bankroll America’s free market thinkers well into the coming years.