Conservative Intellectuals Love This Foundation. Here's Why

When it comes to spending money to influence public policy makers, the pharmaceutical industry has everyone beat: It's outspent every other industry in the United States on lobbying since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But few pharmaceutical executives will ever match the influence of the late Daniel C. Searle of the G.D. Searle & Company.

Searle not only poured millions into right-of-center public policy organizations every year until his death in 2007; he's continued to do so from beyond the grave. He did it all by way of the Searle Freedom Trust, a foundation that he started in 1998 to advance research and scholarship in support of a "just, prosperous, and free society." Around $14 million to $15 million (or more) in Searle money goes out to conservative think tanks and advocacy groups every a year.

Searle is less well known than other top conservative foundations, like the Sarah Scaife and Bradley foundations. But it's long been part of the cadre of funders who have patiently built and sustained a robust conservative policy infrastructure over time. We write often about these funders for a simple reason: They have been extremely effective in shifting the terms of debate in key areas of policy—such as taxes, regulation, education, healthcare, and the social safety net.

Funders like Searle have keenly understood the power of ideas, rightly seeing investing here as a high-impact leverage point for philanthropy, and they have played the long-game in terms of sticking with their main grantees for decades, often with general support grants. 

In the case of the Searle Freedom Trust, though, the money won't keep flowing forever. Searle stipulated before his death that the trust must "spend itself out of existence" by 2025—his way of making sure that it wouldn't end up in the hands of a later generation that didn't share his values and that might change the trust's mission to one that he wouldn't have approved of. (This is a major fear of many conservative philanthropists, and rightly so, given that their heirs are often more liberal, as are professional philanthropoids.) 

The mission Searle left it with was a decisively libertarian one. In the founding statement that Searle wrote back in 1998, he put economic freedom and individual liberty front and center.

“I am concerned about certain social, political, and economic trends that I see in our society. I believe that if these trends continue unabated, future generations will end up living in a world dominated by big government, devoid of ethical values, and lacking in individual initiative and responsibility,” he wrote.

Searle decided to focus on research and scholarship, which is where the well-known John M. Olin Foundation had focused—before it spent down and closed shop in 2005. The Searle Freedom Trust retains this focus. It's an ideas-centered foundation that is more likely to pay for a new book, policy paper, or journal article than a public-outreach campaign or lobbying drive. Think tanks are its primary beneficiaries. It gave the American Enterprise Institute $3 million in 2011-2012 to publish analyses of the impacts of government regulation on economic growth. And it issued $12,500 to the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government in that same time period to host a workshop on academic entrepreneurship, as well as $175,000 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute to compile research questioning the scientific consensus on climate change.

Other beneficiaries in recent years include the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose work on state fiscal reforms got $35,000 in Searle support one year and $50,000 the year following; and the Cato Institute, which received a combined total of $225,000 in grants to publish a series of studies on financial regulation by scholars Bruce Yandle and Adam Smith. Searle additionally gave the American Family Business Foundation $50,000 to conduct a study on the estate tax and federal budget deficits.

Searle looks for some opportunities to directly influence public policy making, too, through public outreach, lobbying, and in some cases litigation. It's been a generous funder of the Pacific Research Institute's battles against Obamacare. And it funded the Project on Fair Representation's lawsuits against universities that take college applicants' race into account during the admissions process.

As we're now in 2016, the trust should have around nine years of giving left, with plenty of money likely to go out the door between now and then. It claimed $114 million in assets in 2013, and the gave out nearly $15 million in grants that year.