Take a Look at the Biggest Pot of Conservative Money You've Never Heard Of

Davis money has flowed to the Heritage foundation

Davis money has flowed to the Heritage foundation

Think of some big names in conservative philanthropy. There's Scaife and Bradley. There are the Kochs and the DeVoses. But we’re betting that the name Davis doesn't much ring a bell. 

Flying below the radar, the philanthropic arm of investor Shelby Cullom Davis and his wife Kathryn Wasserman Davis is a powerful force in conservative funding circles. Since 2008, two philanthropic vehicles have channeled the late couple’s sizable fortune, both to the benefit of conservative causes. They are the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation and Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund. 

With assets totaling about $1.5 and $2.5 billion, respectively, both vehicles are way up in the stratosphere when it comes to conservative philanthropy (and among American funders, period). By comparison, the right-wing stalwart Bradley Foundation has assets of around $1 billion. And Davis family assets extend well beyond the two entities mentioned above. From Shelby Cullom Davis on, the family is well-known for money managers, and son Shelby M.C. Davis, now retired, is emerging as an active and important philanthropist with a taste for international issues, as we've reported.

Shelby Cullom Davis once presided over a foundation the bore his name, but which ceased operations in 2008. That foundation backed a who's who of conservative policy groups during its time, including the Heritage Foundation, ALEC, and the Manhattan Institute. 

Meanwhile, the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund is a different entity and has only recently achieved its present large size. At the end of 2013, it had $51 million in assets. The following year, after a huge infusion from the estate of S.C. Davis, it reached its current size of nearly $2.5 billion. The foundation doesn't yet have a website or public presence, and its board in 2014 was mainly composed of Davis family members and chaired by Shelby M.C. Davis. Foundation Source, the philanthropic service group, played a role in getting all this organized. 

Where the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund will focus most of its grantmaking over coming years remains to be seen. Conservative causes would seem like obvious recipients, but most of the grants made in recent years by this funder have gone toward higher education, with environmental conservation and science also drawing large grants. A notable exception came in 2013, when the foundation made a $16.8 million grant to the Heritage Foundation. 

We haven't yet seen grantmaking data for 2015 and 2016. 

The conservative thrust of Davis family philanthropy runs mainly through the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, which has also grown significantly in the past few years. This funder does have a website and a public presence, even if it's not so well known.  

The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation follows in the ideological footsteps of its president’s father, Shelby Cullom Davis. Known for amassing a fortune in insurance and investments, the elder Davis was an American conservative of the old school. U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland from 1969 to 1975, Davis chaired the Heritage Foundation (talk about conservative bona fides) and served as governor of the Society of Mayflower Descendants and president of the Sons of the Revolution.

As you’d expect, Davis based his giving on a belief in limited government, individual responsibility and a veneration for the U.S. founding documents. He passed away in 1994, but his interest in foreign affairs inspires an ongoing national security focus in his daughter’s foundation. 

Over a century old when she died in 2013, Kathryn Wasserman Davis also enjoyed an eclectic career. An alumna and major donor of Wellesley College, she worked alongside her husband, introducing women’s rights and environmental themes into the family’s philanthropy. Her Davis Projects for Peace continues its campaign to seed “peacemaking” grassroots initiatives throughout the world. 

Broadly speaking, the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation’s grantmaking prioritizes two areas: education and international affairs (national defense in particular). And the foundation isn't afraid to let the two complement each other. Recent giving includes sizable contributions to conservative think tanks like the Hoover Institution and the Manhattan Institute. And the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy houses the Heritage Foundation’s research on defense and international affairs. 

As you’d expect, national security grad schools are another priority for this funder. The foundation heavily supports the Institute of World Politics, a national security school in D.C. It also bankrolled the Daniel Morgan Academy, another D.C. grad school serving students in intelligence and national security. 

Another one of the foundation’s repeated beneficiaries is the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. True to its name, NFTE operates programs to help young people from underprivileged areas learn how to start businesses. While this foundation’s support comes to NFTE from the conservative pro-business side of things, the organization enjoys support from donors as diverse as Citi, the PIMCO Foundation, and hip hop artist Sean “Diddy” Combs. 

While I’ve emphasized this foundation’s conservative bent, much of its giving goes to education, and a lot of these grants are non-ideological. Major gifts to places like Wellesley College, Harvard and Columbia aren’t overtly political.

The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation has, however, been active in conservative philanthropy’s push to correct what it sees as a march to the left in America’s academy. Conservative donors don't want to see universities use their money for projects they don’t approve of, and organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have introduced means for donors to tailor and target their academic gifts. The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation is one big facilitator there.

In the age of Trump, low-key conservative funders like Diana Davis Spencer and her family serve as interesting foils to a brash, attention-grabbing right wing. This funder doesn’t often make news, but its consistent and ideological giving can add up.