These Conservative Funders Want to Close the "Marriage Gap"

When many of us hear the phrase “family values,” what immediately comes to mind is a whole slew of divisive partisan issues: the marriage equality fight, abortion and “religious liberty” among them. What can get lost in the turmoil are actual family relationships, and practical thinking about how to improve such relationships—especially marriage.

The conservative philanthropic establishment (think Bradley, Scaife, the Kochs) has long professed a deep concern about the decline of the American family. But only a tiny slice of its giving over the past several decades has been for work that seeks to repair frayed family ties in a hands-on way. For example, as we've reported, promising initiatives to strengthen the role of fathers in their childrens' lives don't attract nearly as much support from conservative funders as you might think. Instead, liberal funders like Kellogg and Annie Casey have been the main players on bolstering fathers and, more broadly, it is these funders who've become most closely associated with the defense of families.

Related: These Donors Dig Dads: How Fatherhood is Getting Attention from Philanthropy

Given the gap between conservative talk and actual grant dollars when it comes to strengthening families, we've been intrigued to see the Philanthropy Roundtable's Culture of Freedom Initiative. Despite the libertarian-inflected name, the grantmaking here is all about supporting marriage, and not just with words. And it’s not about insisting that marriage must be between a man and a woman (though many involved probably believe that). Instead, the Culture of Freedom Initiative musters conservative dollars to close the “marriage gap” on the ground, in communities.

In a piece for Philanthropy magazine, Heather Wilhelm explains by quoting the controversial Charles Murray, a darling of the conservative philanthropic establishment: “The marriage gap between upper-middle and working-class Americans, he has noted, now spans a whopping 35 percentage points—up from 10 in 1960. Single parenthood exhibits the same class split.”

That marriage gap translates into a wide array of negative outcomes related to economic security and outcomes for children. Even many liberals these days acknowledge that efforts to strengthen marriage and bolster "fragile families," as Brookings report put it, can make a lot of sense. Meanwhile, research backed by the Russell Sage Foundation has shown that the rising marriage gap is also a factor behind growing inequality in household income and wealth.

The Culture of Freedom Initiative has raised $18 million over the past year for its pilot programs. The initiative aims to provide small grants to neighborhood nonprofits in three areas (Phoenix, Arizona; Jacksonville, Florida; and Dayton, Ohio), bolstering marital success and family participation in religious services. By the end of next year, the program’s fundraising goal is $40-50 million.

With the Philanthropy Roundtable, it can be hard to tell where, exactly, the money’s coming from. The Bradley Foundation is one of the Roundtable’s biggest supporters, and it’s likely involved. The William E. Simon Foundation, with its past work in this area, is another one to watch. The Roundtable cites Annie E. Casey’s work on marriage initiatives, as well as the National Christian Foundation. The Kirby Foundation, DonorsTrust, and the Donors Capital Fund are other likely sources. (Kirby has backed pro-fatherhood work in the past, as we've reported.) Several Culture of Freedom staff at the Roundtable previously worked for the Kochs.

Culture of Freedom of Initiative grantees include Creciendo Unidos in Arizona, Live the Life in Florida, and the RIDGE project in Ohio, each of them neighborhood nonprofits offering counseling, programming, and activities to promote stable marriages and family interaction. The Philanthropy Roundtable has also tapped the private sector to essentially market marriage to a 21st-century audience. Partnering with Right Brain Research and Cambridge Analytica, the Culture of Freedom Initiative is funding targeted outreach to put likely demographics in touch with the pro-marriage nonprofits it sponsors.

Those interested in hearing more should check out the Philanthropy Roundtable’s guidebook on marriage philanthropy to get a sense of where it's coming from. In it, William J. Doherty writes, “Some ‘liberal’ foundations have avoided marriage because they emphasize diversity of family forms and are afraid of stigmatizing single parents. Some ‘conservative’ foundations have viewed marriage as a personal value, not a public value—a private moral issue and not a societal issue.”

Now, though, it seems like there's room for new common ground among funders across the ideological spectrum who share the goal of strengthening marriage and families.