Forget About the Kochs. Meet the Real Masterminds of Conservative Philanthropy

It's not often that somebody hands a quarter-million check to an opinion journalist, but that's what the Bradley Foundation did this week when it named the Wall Street Journal's Kimberly Strassel as a winner of the Bradley Prize. Strassel writes the WSJ's Potomac Watch column as well as unsigned editorials for the paper's fire-breathing editorial page. 

Last year, a Bradley prize went to Yuval Levin, the University of Chicago PhD who is the founding editor of National Affairs, a quarterly journal of public policy and political thought. 

What do these people have in common? They're both at the forefront of the right's ideas and message machine, which the Bradley Foundation has done more to build than any single funder in America. 

In fact, it's tough to name an influential conservative organization these days that doesn’t have the backing of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

The American Enterprise Institute? Check. Americans for Tax Reform? Check. The Federalist Society? Check that one, too.

Drawing on the wealth of two industrialist brothers from Milwaukee, the foundation’s assets have grown to more than $600 million. In an average year, it disburses more than $30 million in grants to a wide range of think tanks, universities, civic organizations, and other beneficiaries.

With such a large endowment at its disposal, the Bradley Foundation keeps a lot of fires burning, and it's been big into charter schools and choice for many years, long before this area was red-hot. (See our guide to Bradley's charter funding.) But Bradley's most significant funding works to cultivate and promote conservative and free-market policy ideas. This is done both through the traditional university system and through the network of think tanks that provide so much intellectual power for the conservative movement.

In fact, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report found that between 2001 and 2009, the Bradley Foundation gave nearly $38 million to schools like Marquette and the University of Chicago, much of it to create endowed chairs or carry out research. Bradley is also keenly focused on scholars at earlier stages in their careers, and its Fellowship Program supports graduate students and post-docs. Bradley says this program aims to strengthen America’s “intellectual infrastructure” at the higher-education level. But, of course, the focus is far narrower than that: It's to build conservative intellectual muscle in the academy and beyond. 

And it has. Bradley started its Fellowship Program in 1986, and now reports:

Of the thousands of past Bradley Fellows, hundreds teach at the country’s most-prestigious colleges and universities, while an equal number are affiliated with research institutes and hold prominent positions in government.

Meanwhile, Bradley has given tens of millions to think tanks like the Hudson Institute, the Hoover Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and AEI, the employers of those Bradley Fellows who head into the policy world. In other words, Bradley has created a clear career track for conservative scholars: It helps them through grad school, and makes sure there are jobs awaiting them afterward as endowed chairs, think tank fellows, or editors of policy journals. 

The Bradley Foundation's grantmaking looks to hit the sweet spot between social science research and hot-button policy issues. It backed Charles Murray starting in the 1980s, sticking with him even when he came under fire for the Bell Curve

In recent years, the Bradley Foundation teamed up with the Witherspoon Institute to fund a study at the University of Texas of same-sex relationships and their impact on children’s social and emotional development. While the researcher who received the grant was a self-described apolitical sociologist, its funders chose the project because they believed its results would contradict growing conventional wisdom in the scientific community that the children of same-sex couples are just as healthy as the children of heterosexual couples. They believed that this was a question researchers should answer quickly because the Supreme Court was likely to rule on the issue in the coming years. Sure enough, the controversial results of the study have been cited by many groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

The Bradley Foundation’s interests range widely. Grants have tackled issues such as climate change research at the Heartland Institute and transportation policy research at the Reason Foundation. In each case, the goal is to create a research and analytical foundation for policies that you’re likely to hear often in the most influential media outlets and the halls of Congress.

Next time you see a smart conservative intellectual on TV, keep this is mind: They've probably gotten Bradley cash at some point in their rise.