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Think Big, Act Small: The How's and Why's of Conservative Philanthropy

William A. Schambra

I’ve been asked to say a few words about conservative philanthropy and the way it conducts itself.

One of the central characteristics of that philanthropy, even our most ardent critics agree, is that it has a unity of purpose and a strong and clear vision about what it wants to do.

Now, all the standard guides to philanthropy will tell you that having a strong sense of mission is critical for success. And that often characterizes individual foundations. But for an entire class of philanthropy to share a vision, I suspect, is somewhat unusual.

Try to answer this question, for instance: what is the central purpose, the overriding vision, of liberal or progressive philanthropy?

Granted, every progressive foundation has in mind a particular social ill or injustice it seeks to remedy, whether environmental degradation or poverty or racial inequity. But what do all these add up to?

Very seldom do liberal foundations tell us explicitly what their overriding political philosophy is, or how they understand the basic character of the American political order, and what’s worth preserving and what needs changing.

Instead, if you add up the range of specific problems on the agenda of liberal philanthropy, we’re left with a pretty depressing view of America —an America beset by a wide range of social ills and injustices that desperately require philanthropic interventions of all sorts.

By contrast, conservative philanthropy tends to see beneath the problems America may be experiencing—many of which are of course quite serious— a profoundly decent and good political order.

And the vision is to understand and preserve that order, the American regime of liberal democracy, in the face of powerful intellectual forces that have pulled us away from that commitment.

It’s no accident, then, that conservative foundations often support programs at think tanks and universities that seem to have no immediate political purpose.

Instead, they’re devoted to studying and preserving the principles of the Declaration of Independence and its doctrine of unalienable and equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

They also seek a return to the principles of the American Constitution, whose institutions were intended to secure individual rights while insuring the consent of the governed.

To be sure, a free market economic system, a strong national defense, and a limited government are pieces of this vision. But the preservation of liberal democracy requires so much more.

It depends as well on a range of cultural attitudes and moral and religious virtues that flow from and help reinforce liberal democracy. These include personal responsibility, diligence, honesty, moderation, generosity, tolerance, and reverence.

Conservative philanthropy tends to believe that those attitudes and beliefs are cultivated best within small, local communities—communities like neighborhood groups, religious organizations, and ethnic, fraternal, and voluntary associations of all sorts. There, individuals learn to exercise rights and meet obligations, sustained and shaped by friends and neighbors. There, they learn to transcend simple individualism, by forging a sense of community membership, belonging, and moral solidarity.

It’s no accident that grant proposals to conservative philanthropies are studded with quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville. As he argued in his magisterial Democracy in America, local groups are the critical schools of citizenship within which Americans learn the skills of self-government, upon which the entire edifice of liberal democracy rests.

In the conservative view America has gotten away from these bedrock principles, and as it so happens, liberal philanthropy played a key role in that wrong turn.

About a century ago, the modern progressive movement came to view individual rights and local communities as backward, parochial, and irrational. They only gummed up the works of the smoothly humming machinery of public affairs, crafted according to the new sciences of society like sociology, psychology, and public administration.

Those sciences taught us how to organize and engineer human affairs in a rational, objective, coherent fashion, reaching beyond the weltering confusion of partial, local interests, toward a unified public interest.

But such progress required the removal of authority from local communities, into the hands of professional elites trained in the new sciences of society.

The first large American foundations—Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage—were enthusiastic supporters of this view. So their early grantmaking focused on reforming and rationalizing the elite leadership professions of American public life—medicine, law, education, and public administration. They also established research universities and policy institutions like Brookings and the National Bureau of Economic Research. They would provide the nonpartisan, objective research necessary to expand scientific management of public affairs by rationalized, centralized social service bureaucracies.

Today, the progressive vision dominates American elite politics and culture.

Sprawling social service and educational professions, well-endowed universities, and vast government agencies have been built around this idea of a coherently and scientifically administered national community, replacing the incoherent and chaotic collection of local communities.

Conservative philanthropy understands itself to be engaged in an attempt to scrape away decades of misguided social engineering inflicted on America by its elites. The objective is to restore the original view of constitutional liberal democracy buried beneath a lot of very bad progressive remodeling.

That means that it must fight a pitched political battle against bureaucracies manned by well-entrenched professionals, in an attempt to restore the regime of individual rights and local community.

This is how the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, where I worked for a while, viewed its grantmaking in the two areas where it seems to have had some lasting effect. In welfare reform, the foundation aimed to re-invigorate the welfare state’s seemingly passive, helpless clients, restoring them from dependence on social service providers, to their full status as self-governing citizens. Its education voucher program likewise intends to shift control over schooling away from the failed bureaucratic behemoths of public education back to parents, neighborhoods, and voluntary associations.

Both of these battles were waged in the face of massive counterattacks by the teachers’ unions, the social service bureaucracy, the state universities, and the media elite—to say nothing of hostile national foundations many times the size of Bradley.

Only now that you’ve learned a bit more about the purposes of conservative philanthropy—its why—can you understand its tactics or techniques – its how.

Conservative philanthropy may think big, but it must “act small.” It may have a grand ultimate objective in mind, but it formulates its immediate tactics understanding that it is pitted against some of the strongest intellectual currents and establishments of our time.

It does not believe for a minute that it is the all-conquering behemoth often depicted in the progressive literature. It knows, rather, that it is a tiny, beleaguered minority within the national elites, a rag-tag, outgunned guerilla unit harassing the flanks of a vastly superior establishment, a David versus a Goliath.

So it must necessarily remain humble and realistic in its immediate goals. Most of the time, it understands, it is not going to make visible, substantial, or conspicuous progress in this struggle, and certainly not over the short term.

Indeed, the best it may be able to do is only modestly to retard some of the trends it regards as harmful, only modestly to boost some of the trends it regards as beneficent.

Even those opportunities will be few and far between. They can only be found by an acute, thoughtful, and ever-vigilant awareness of trends, institutions, and actors across the full range of politics, economics, and the culture.

This self-understanding by conservative philanthropy explains why it must take a long and flexible view in its grantmaking. It understands there are only a limited number of organizations with the commitments, attitudes and skills necessary to sustain the conservative vision under such trying circumstances. When it finds them, it provides them with general operating support, because any intellectual guerilla struggle must remain supple, agile and adaptive, not strapped into a cumbersome and detailed contract for a specific, pre-ordained project.

Conservative philanthropy tends to support its groups over the long haul—to renew support year after year—because for this cause, the long-haul is all there is.

It’s highly unlikely that tangible results can be produced year-to-year, or that substantial, short-term benchmarks or goals can be met, much less calibrated along an elaborate system of metrics and measurable outcomes. So why bother with that farce in the first place?

Indeed, in general, conservative foundations tend not to share the immense fascination of their mainstream counterparts with multiplying, fine-tuning, and elaborating the procedural niceties of making, measuring, and monitoring grants. All that fuss is time taken away from the vastly more important and complex task of attempting to spot, in the sprawling hinterlands of public policy, the rare and obscure opportunity to make a difference for the cause.

It should also be clear by now why conservative foundations don’t talk a great deal about another preferred approach among mainstream foundations, namely, promoting social change through partnering and leveraging and collaborations and consortiums.

The bureaucratic institutions currently in charge of failed social systems, staffed by hundreds of thousands of professionals, lavishly funded with billions in public funds, will never be reformed by a few pathetic grants that seek to “bring everyone to the table to agree on change,” as the saying goes. Oh, they’ll be happy to come to the table, but only if they can be sure they can quietly siphon off the grant money toward the same failed bureaucratic formulas.

This is of course what happened to the Annenberg Challenge’s gift of half-a-billion dollars to reform the American educational system—an amount that disappeared into the oceanic budgets of its bureaucracy without leaving so much as a ripple.

Conservative philanthropy, by contrast, isn’t hesitant to take on frontally, rather than to try to bribe, the status quo.

But this means that conservative philanthropies cannot be in the business to bedeck their hallways with humanitarian-of-the-year plaques. The people who give those awards are typically the ones with the most powerful stake in preserving the status quo.

Effective conservative grantmakers must resign themselves to sustained abuse from the opinion elites—if you doubt this, just compare Google results for, say, the Gates Foundation and the Bradley Foundation.
Conservative funders are invariably treated as hopelessly reactionary and mean-spirited opponents of human progress. This is not grantmaking for the faint of heart or uncertain of purpose.

Now, America seems to be entering a period when the ideas that have animated conservative philanthropy for so long are beginning to take hold in the broader sphere of public policy. If there is a central theme to the Tea Party movement of the past two years or so, it is the spirited and vocal rebellion against the progressive experts who claim to know better than everyday citizens how their affairs should be managed.

We’ve seen a reinvigoration of the political life of our towns and communities, and a new determination by state governments to take back control of key policy sectors from what appear to be distant, alienating bureaucracies in Washington.

Strikingly, at the heart of the rebellion is a call to return to the principles of the Constitution and its dispersed and decentralized system of civic institutions, within which principles like personal responsibility and moral and spiritual community can be restored. However much conservative philanthropy may have provided sustenance to that rebellious spirit, and however much conservative funders celebrate and support it, I suspect it is under no illusions about swift or enduring changes in the status quo.

The fierce determination of the public service bureaucracies to yield no ground is vividly on display in various state capitals around the nation.

Long after the Tea Party rallies have faded away and their attendees have gone back to private sector jobs that don’t pay them to man picket lines, those bureaucracies will still be firmly in charge.

And so the lonely task of conservative philanthropy will go on. Those who practice it do so—in spite of being denounced as plutocratic exploiters of the masses—out of a firm sense that they are engaged in an enduring struggle to restore the Founders’ regime. They are impelled by a large and demanding purpose, along with the realization that its achievement is a long way off, requiring unrelenting combat with some of the most powerful elites in American politics and culture.

This kind of grantmaking requires a high tolerance for criticism and abuse, for failures and reversals, for small, immeasurable, delayed indications of progress that may in fact be nothing more than slowing down an unfavorable trend, of which there will be many.

But behind the long, twilight struggle there is a unified, coherent, overarching vision or theme—the sense that this is not only an important goal, but indeed the most important goal for friends of liberal democracy —which finally makes it all worthwhile.

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