If Altruism Is Overrated, Who's Backing Ayn Rand's Ideas?


It's easier to donate a few thousand to charity and think oneself noble than to base self-respect on personal standards of personal achievement. It's simple to seek substitutes for competence—such easy substitutes: love, charm, kindness, charity. But there is no substitute for competence.

Few American writers have inspired more controversy than Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum, a young woman who fled Soviet Russia and became Ayn Rand, the 20th century’s foremost literary defender of capitalism, free enterprise, and “rational self interest.” Author of works like Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and Anthem, Rand was also the founder of objectivism, a philosophical movement that advances her ideas.

Today, with record infusions of philanthropic cash—and amid a surge in the closely related ideology of libertarianism—objectivism is going strong. 

The quote above, taken from Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead, gives us a glimpse of her mixed views on philanthropy and charitable giving. While she didn’t oppose charity outright, Rand’s worldview denounces altruism as a primary virtue. A life spent helping others, she argued, demeans both the giver and the receiver.

Rand’s provocative views have drawn scorn for decades. Both her books and her philosophy are regularly attacked for everything from elitism to misogyny, from deifying the rich to just not making much sense at all. Pushing against this are Rand’s acolytes and true believers, a group associated with the political right and with libertarianism in particular.

As might be expected, Ayn Rand fans include many successful Americans who are only too happy to help spread her ideas. While some of us encounter her in the bookstore, at the library, or in casual conversation, there are two main nonprofits out there promoting Rand: the Ayn Rand Institute and the Atlas Society. Meanwhile, there have also been extensive activities on colleges campuses to promote Ayn Rand's ideas. 

Who’s funding this work?

The Money Behind the Ayn Rand Institute

Founded by Rand’s heir Leonard Peikoff, the Ayn Rand Institute does a lot to promote objectivist ideas from its home base in Irvine, California. Having grown up in Irvine, I actually remember a representative from ARI visiting my high school to spread the word.

As it turns out, that kind of thing is a regular tactic for ARI, which claims to have distributed over 3.2 million free copies of Ayn Rand’s books since 2002, many of them to teachers, schools, and colleges. ARI also reaches out to students via its annual essay contest, which has received more than 350,000 submissions since 1986. In its capacity as a think tank, ARI employs a team of writers and intellectuals to apply objectivism to modern policy issues and speak about Ayn Rand’s ideas. It's leader, Yaron Brook, is the author of multiple books and an indefatigable spokesman for objectivism in speeches around the country. 

ARI does all this on a yearly budget of about $10 million, which has grown in recent years and comes from individual contributions. But there have been several regular donors from the foundation world, and there's a definite corporate tenor here. The BB&T Charitable Foundation is one steady supporter. BB&T Bank’s affiliation with ARI stems from former president and CEO John A. Allison, who served on ARI’s board of trustees. Throughout the 2000s, BB&T contributed regularly to ARI in the five- and six-figures. (See more below on BB&T's college funding related to Ayn Rand.)  

Additional funders who often donate to ARI include the Balyasny Foundation (a charitable arm of Balyasny Asset Management), the Howard Charitable Foundation, and the Rodney Fund. Donors Capital Fund, one branch of the conservative community fund known as DonorsTrust, has contributed over $500,000. Funds have also flowed to ARI through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, presumably from a donor-advised fund of one of those libertarian techies we always hear about. A former managing director of Goldman Sachs, Arline Mann, is currently board chair of ARI. 

Related:Rightward, Ho! Ten Top Funders Behind the Surging Libertarian Movement

The Atlas Society

What about the other major objectivist organization? Despite their shared devotion to Ayn Rand, the two institutions are not on good terms. In 1990, a philosophical disagreement led Atlas Society founder David Kelley to split from ARI and start his own shop. For those interested, more information on the schism can be found here. Both organizations claim to know Ayn Rand best, but there is some overlap between their funding sources, believe it or not.

Financially, the Atlas Society is only a fraction of ARI’s size, prohibiting programs like massive book giveaways. It functions as a think tank, publisher and conference host, and there is a focus on bringing young people into the fold. More than ARI, the Atlas Society is willing to engage with the wider libertarian world. Its current CEO, Jennifer Grossman, served as director of education at the Cato Institute, and the organization’s board of advisors includes people from the Reason Foundation, the Atlas Network, and Students for Liberty.

Topping the list of the Atlas Society’s foundation donors is Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking, a Florida-based libertarian funder that we’ve profiled here. Dunn’s has given over $1 million to the Atlas Society over the years. The MD Bond Foundation is another regular. At a lower level, the Brigham Family Foundation and the River Oaks Foundation have supported both the Atlas Society and ARI over the years.

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

Big Donors

Ayn Rand’s stories are chock-full of heroic male capitalists, and it’s no surprise that many major Rand funders hail from the ranks of business success. Philadelphia philanthropist Ed Snider is one. His objectivist bona fides include a hand in funding ARI when it first got up and running in the 1980s as well as an executive producer credit on the film Atlas Shrugged Part I.

I already mentioned John Allison, the BB&T Bank exec with a deep love for Rand. The financial sector is brimming with further examples including ESL Investments’ Edward Lampert ($100,000 to ARI), Donald Smith, Arthur Dantchik (who supports ARI and other libertarian think tanks via the Claws Foundation), and Kenneth D. Moelis.

Two years ago, a new avenue for Rand-related funding opened up: the Objectivist Venture Fund. The man in question is Carl Barney, who made a fortune on for-profit colleges (he’s chairman of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education).

A longtime devotee of Rand and an ARI board member, Barney’s fund awards grants to well-defined awareness and marketing campaigns that spread Objectivist ideas. Barney has committed $1 million so far to this effort, with $500,000 already disbursed. And that’s not all. Barney also heads an entity called the Prometheus Foundation, which has given ARI large grants over the years topping $3 million each.

I should note that the Atlas Network (formerly the Atlas Economic Research Foundation) is not directly affiliated with Rand, despite its name and ideological leanings. It does, however, feature Rand-related material on its website. This speaks to Ayn Rand’s iconic status among libertarians in America, a position these funders have done a lot to maintain.


Objectivism on Campus

For years, John Allison has been intent on ensuring that young people are exposed to Ayn Rand's ideas, especially if they're studying business. So, for example, a while back, the foundation of BB&T Bank offered $1 million for business education to Western Carolina University, a public state school in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Among the reported stipulations of the gift was that the university’s College of Business make Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, required reading for students. The school took the money.

This was not an isolated episode. Allison, who is now the president of the Cato Institute, had offered similar deals to at least 63 schools going back over a decade. Allison has framed his goals as a pushback against the pervasive liberal orthodoxy on campuses. “It’s really a battle of ideas,” he once told a reporter. “If the ideas that made America great aren’t heard, then their influence will be destroyed.” Allison said in 2011 that he hoped to extend his grants to 200 schools, but by 2015, BB&T claimed that it was no longer making such grants. 

RelatedHow Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation Funds "Economic Freedom" on Campus