Conservative philanthropy appears to be on the threshold of a new phase in its history. The assumptions that have guided it for decades have grown weaker, and a framework for the coming years may now slowly be taking shape. No one can yet know quite what this new phase will involve. But as conservatives, it is precisely in the face of change that we ought to look to history for guidance and for insight.
The history of conservative philanthropy offers no shortage of such insight. But the most promising source may be the path-breaking work of Michael Joyce. Often called the godfather of conservative philanthropy, Joyce ran the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee for a crucial 16 years, from 1985 until 2001, seeing it through a time of change in ways that stand to offer us a particularly timely and relevant set of lessons today.
Both of us were hired by and worked for Joyce at Bradley — one of us for Joyce's entire term there. We were privileged to know him. And while we cannot say for sure what he would make of the brave new political world we now inhabit, his work and words do offer some hints that are worth following.
There is always a serious risk in "speaking for the dead," and we would not want to pretend to be confident in just what Joyce might make of our time. But provided it is clear that we are only drawing on our experience with Joyce and on his words and deeds, it might be possible to offer some broad guidance to today's conservative givers as they face uncharted waters.
Ideas and Institutions
"During the six or seven decades running from the end of World War II down to the present, conservative philanthropy has gone through at least two distinct phases and is now entering a third." So writes James Piereson in his important 2015 book Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America's Postwar Political Order. "The first phase, which began in the mid-1940s and ran well into the 1970s, was guided primarily by the doctrine of classical liberalism," Piereson continues. Conservative foundations in this phase, greatly influenced by Friedrich Hayek, funded intellectual and theoretical arguments against socialism.
"The second phase of conservative philanthropy began to take shape in the mid-1970s," he writes, "through the work of a handful of donors, especially the John M. Olin and Smith Richardson foundations and, later, the Bradley Foundation. The Scaife Trusts of Pittsburgh were also involved to a certain degree. These funders were more self-consciously conservative than libertarian."
Piereson knows of what he speaks. He became executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation in 1985 and ran it until, by its own design, it made its last grants and disbanded in 2005. He is now president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. At Olin, Piereson was the understudy of and successor to Joyce, who left to become president and chief executive officer of Bradley in 1985. Joyce left Bradley in 2001 and died in 2006 at the age of 63.
"Mike was an inspirational leader," Piereson said at the time to National Review's John Miller. He had "basically invented the field of modern conservative philanthropy — it existed before him and he didn't do it alone, but he made it far more successful than it had been." It was Irving Kristol, known himself as "the godfather of neoconservatism," who dubbed Joyce "the godfather of modern philanthropy."
"Of all the foundation CEOs in the past 40 years," progressive Center for Community Change founder Pablo Eisenberg was cited as saying in an obituary in Philanthropy magazine, Joyce "had the greatest impact on our society and its institutions." Miller concluded his National Review obituary of Joyce by observing, "I came to admire his sharp mind and its ability to see the connections between ideas and public policy....He was a unique talent, and he is irreplaceable."
Miller's two books on conservative philanthropy, Strategic Investment in Ideas and A Gift of Freedom, detail how Olin and Bradley funding helped create some of the core institutions of the modern conservative movement during the period that Piereson would consider conservative philanthropy's second phase. He highlights Olin's funding of individual conservative scholars in higher education generally, the law and economics schools of thought in particular, and the influential Federalist Society as examples. Bradley offered similar support to scholars, causes, and institutions too, including the Federalist Society.
As Piereson puts it, "The network of publications, university programs, and research centers built from the 1970s onward," with support from foundations like Olin and Bradley, led by people like Joyce and Piereson himself, "will continue to wield influence in the years ahead. But this phase of conservative philanthropy has now run its course — in part because it has done its work, in part because conditions have changed, and in part because some key donors are leaving the scene or have already left," Olin among them.
When this second phase took shape, the rosters of both conservative philanthropies and existing recipient organizations were short, and most of their leaders were known to each other. For the most part, they trusted each other. The conservative policy field, moreover, was essentially wide open, ripe for starting new nonprofit groups that could and would shape a movement. Funders faced many challenges, but having to choose grantees from among a lengthy list of good applicants was not yet one of them. That would come with time.
The phase now beginning will be different in some ways that are already apparent. "For one thing," Piereson argues, "conservative philanthropy will likely be based more on individual donors and less on philanthropic institutions than has been the case up to now." And for another, "conservative donors and policy groups are becoming more practical and specific in their objectives, and somewhat less general, intellectual, and adversarial."
Long before Joyce left Bradley in 2001, in fact, the foundation had already begun to become more practical and specific in its programmatic objectives, and so somewhat less general and intellectual. Bradley under Joyce essentially straddled the ideas-driven phase and the more policy-oriented phase of conservative philanthropy. And its trajectory can help us think about the future.