More Than Money
Issue #16

Family Foundations

Table of Contents

“The Impact of Conservative Family Foundations: Highlights from Three Recent Studies”

"Fund Change, Not Charity" is a growing sentiment among innovative funders. When Forbes Magazine asked nonprofit leader Michael O'Neill about Bill Gates' $15 million donation to Harvard and David Packard's donations to Stanford, O'Neill asserted, "That's not exactly rocket science in terms of philanthropy. I'd hope they'd give some of their brilliance to philanthropy, not just shovel tens of millions of dollars to organizations that already have billions of dollars in assets." In contrast to traditional contributions to symphonies, universities, and museums, many funders today argue that we should direct more money to advocacy groups seeking social change.

"Social change," however, means vastly different things to different people. The Coors family is a good example. They have been a powerful force for social change--through their funding and through the family's active participation on the boards of advocacy organizations seeking to restructure public policy. As investigative journalist Russ Bellant points out in his book The Coors Connection: How Coors Family Philanthropy Undermines Democratic Pluralism, "the Coors family aids and abets a network of conservative and far-right groups including those which seek to turn back civil rights, destroy trade unions, disregard the fragility of the environment, and promote racial bigotry, homophobia, male supremacy... [and] a belligerent foreign policy that has claimed lives in Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, and other countries."

The Coors family is not alone. In Moving A Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, a report prepared for the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, Sally Covington examines the giving of twelve family foundations--including the Bradley, Scaife, and Olin foundations. Between 1992 and 1994, these twelve foundations controlled assets of $1.1 billion and awarded more than $210 million in grants.

While a small drop in the sea of annual giving by mainstream foundations, the strategic grantmaking of these family foundations has garnered them unmatched success in advocating a right-wing political agenda and setting the terms of the national public policy debate.

According to Covington, "the heavy investments that conservative foundations have made in new right policy and advocacy institutions have helped to create a supply-side version of American politics in which policy ideas with enough money behind them will find their niche in the political marketplace regardless of existing citizen demand."

Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, the authors of No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda, deplore the aims of right-wing foundations, yet admire their effectiveness. According to Stefancic and Delgado, "the dedication, economy of effort, and sheer ingenuity of much of the conservative machine are extraordinary." They argue, however, that right-wing funders "have no monopoly on brains or money." What's needed, they say, is a little more "ingenuity, planning, and hard work" among funders with a different vision of social renewal. They point out that the majority of large liberal family foundations have avoided funding projects that make explicit political statements; a cadre of conservative foundations have not. To be successful, liberal and progressive funders, as well as other conservatives, would do well to learn strategic lessons from effective right-wing foundations.

Covington spells out seven of these lessons in her report. Grantmakers must: 1) understand the importance of ideology and overarching frameworks; 2) help build strong institutions by providing ample general operating support; 3) maintain a national policy focus and concentrate resources on a few winnable issues; 4) recognize the importance of media, marketing, and persuasive communications; 5) support public intellectuals and policy leaders; 6) fund multiple social change strategies including advocacy, leadership development, and constituency mobilization; and 7) take a long-haul approach. As she notes, "much can be accomplished given clarity of vision and steadiness of purpose."

--Steve Chase, managing editor

Sources: Russ Bellant, The Coors Connection: How Coors Family Philanthropy Undermines Democratic Pluralism , Boston: South End Press, 1991. Sally Covington, Moving A Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations , Washington, DC: National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, 1997. Available for $25 from NCRP, 2001 S Street NW, #620, Washington, DC 20009; 202-387-9177. Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda , Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.


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