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Conservative Philanthropy and the Larger View

William A. Schambra

With the recent passing of Hilton Kramer, co-founder of The New Criterion, it is worth recalling the role conservative philanthropy played in the establishment of that influential journal of criticism in the arts and culture. And it gives rise to a question: would conservative foundations be interested in such a project today?

The New Criterion, noted Kramer in the initial issue in 1982, was designed to address “the feeling of dissatisfaction with existing journals, and with the ideas and practices that govern them,” a feeling that is

likely to be especially acute just now for anyone capable of recalling a time when criticism was more strictly concerned to distinguish achievement from failure, to identify and uphold a standard of quality, and to speak plainly and vigorously about the problems that beset the life of the arts and the life of the mind in our society.

Philanthropy’s role in the journal’s founding was described in a recent note from James Piereson, now president of the William E. Simon Foundation, but then a program officer at the John M. Olin Foundation in New York City: “the main figure behind The New Criterion was [Olin Foundation executive director] Mike Joyce, who worked with [music critic] Samuel Lipman to recruit New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer as the initial editor. He then worked with Dick Larry [at the Sarah Scaife Foundation] and Les Lenkowsky [at the Smith Richardson Foundation] to raise the $300,000 annually needed to fund the magazine. Each foundation put up $100,000 per year for the initial three years.” (The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee would later become a major funder after Joyce was recruited to be its president.)

In conversations around the Bradley office, where I served for some ten years, Joyce often pointed to The New Criterion as a prime example of conservative philanthropy’s approach to public policy, and why it is at once so simple and yet so difficult.

The approach’s simplicity is suggested by Piereson’s terse description of the journal’s founding. Following some brief, informal conversations, the major conservative foundations quickly and quietly put up sufficient funds to launch and sustain a major new publication. And there’s not much else to it.

No agonizing by the foundations’ leadership for months and months over the major obligations and potential pitfalls of this major new departure; no endless negotiations among the foundations about the responsibilities of each in the collaboration; no strategic plan submitted, critiqued by staff, redrafted to satisfy the various donors, and repeatedly resubmitted; no detailed budgets; no elaborate power point presentation to the boards of directors by the potential grantees; no projected benchmarks and measurable outcomes; no theory of change or logic model; no elaborate and barely credible promises about how the magazine will become “self-sustaining” after the first three years.

Instead, there was a quick consensus about the value of the project based almost entirely on the reputations of the editors, followed by some pro-forma paperwork to secure substantial, multi-year grants for general operating support, punctuated by minimal annual reporting. A decade ago, when conservative philanthropy drew so much acclaim for its methods from liberal observers, these were precisely the characteristics so often cited as the keys to its success.

But The New Criterion also illustrated the difficulty of this sort of grantmaking, as suggested by a story Mike Joyce often told. He frequently faced challenges from otherwise well-meaning, wealthy conservative donors, he noted, for supporting “small magazines” like The New Criterion, Public Interest, and American Spectator. This is how Joyce would deal with their critique: “So, instead of a journal that circulates among a small but critical audience,” so his recounted conversations went,

you’d rather have a magazine that appeals to the vast majority of Americans? It should feature short, punchy, easily understood stories that sing the praises of the free enterprise system and family values? It should contain dashes of humor and entertainment? It should even be self-supporting through sales and advertising? Good news! We’ve already got that magazine. It’s called Readers’ Digest.

No matter how often he went through this explanation, though, doubt about the utility of the small magazines would persist. Wealthy conservatives, who had witnessed first-hand the wonders of the free market system, simply could not understand why freedom required such a round-about, indirect defense from a bunch of obscure cultural critics who never seemed to get around to a full-throated defense of the commercial system that supported them. Why wasn’t it enough directly and unabashedly to teach the masses about the market’s manifest superiority through simple, clever, bite-sized lessons, and maybe to endow a few chairs in free market studies at universities?

The larger problem that Joyce and his allies were trying to solve, as suggested to them largely by Irving Kristol, was that the mere material superiority of the market system was an inadequate response to the moral arguments against it. The moral charge was that capitalism debased human beings, reducing them to grasping, parochial, bourgeois clerks. A thoroughly anti-bourgeois art and culture were required to free the human soul from this bondage. Against this view, tributes to an ever-expanding GNP served only to reinforce, rather than to refute, the charges of moral impoverishment and philistinism.

As Kristol and his neoconservative colleagues themselves illustrated, some intellectuals in the 60s and 70s began to balk at the notion that the chief purpose of art and cultural criticism was simply to epater le bourgeois. They continued to believe that it needed to “identify and uphold a standard of quality, and to speak plainly and vigorously about the problems that beset the life of the arts and the life of the mind in our society,” as Kramer put it.

This sort of criticism might acknowledge the role that capitalism plays in preserving a free and vigorous cultural life, and the damage done to genuine culture by its recruitment into the war against the bourgeoisie. But still, the intellectuals that began to publish in the newly established conservative small magazines were not simplistic, Chamber-of-Commerce boosters of markets and traditional values. Indeed, they were typically willing to extend only “two cheers” for them. That they were nonetheless critical allies in the struggle to preserve our democratic republic, skirmishing continuously with the anti-capitalists all along its cultural flank, was something that Kristol understood and taught early foundation executives like Joyce and his colleagues.

These executives were open to that message in large part because they were themselves liberally educated, market-friendly generalists. They were widely read, and sometimes credentialed, in economics, political science, and foreign affairs, and grasped as well the importance of arts and culture. But they humbly understood that they were not the experts in any of these fields, and so were prepared to defer to those who were by granting them time and space to develop their programs as they saw fit. At the same time, they were able—and were called upon, time and again—to make the case for a moral and cultural defense of capitalism to wealthy enthusiasts who might otherwise be inclined to devote their giving to simple-minded, pro-market indoctrination.

As suggested by the example of The New Criterion, the early conservative foundation executives developed a comprehensive, subtle view of the whole of the conservative enterprise. They understood it, and sought to promote it, on all its fronts, not just economic, but political, cultural, and moral as well. And in their humility, they were open to an extraordinarily wide range of projects that might conceivably benefit conservatism and the American republic.

If one had a good idea in the salad days of the Olin/Scaife/Bradley/Smith Richardson foundations—and it could be an idea for a magazine, a think tank, a special project, a public affairs campaign, almost anything that could plausibly advance the cause—a few phone calls to the executives there could quickly establish interest in the concept, or lack thereof. Although of course there was paper to file and board reviews to undergo, initial enthusiasm for a project by one foundation leader typically brought with it support from the others.

With absolutely none of the fuss and bother that typify grant-seeking at foundations today—including conservative foundations—new, unorthodox, sometimes even far-fetched ideas could be launched with sufficient time and support to see them through. Some flourished, like The New Criterion; some vanished without a trace. But all testified to the extraordinarily comprehensive and coherent vision held by these early executives, along with their generosity, flexibility, and humility. All of these factors, too, were understood and widely praised by liberal observers, who extolled conservative philanthropy’s means while condemning its ends.

Today’s conservative philanthropy is a far cry from this earlier state of affairs. Perhaps as an understandable reaction against the drift of so many foundations to the left over the past several decades, the concept of “donor’s intent” has become the chief—indeed, it seems at times as if it’s the only—virtue to be honored in grantmaking. Conservative foundation advisers today vehemently defend the right of donors to pursue whatever interest strikes their fancy; urge them to define that interest as precisely, specifically, and narrowly as possible; recommend measurable outcomes as a way to track activities against intent; and promote other institutional safeguards to insure that the donor’s original intention, and only this intention, is pursued by the fortune bequeathed.

If a conservative grant-seeker has an interesting, “out of the box” idea to promote some aspect of the movement, it’s no longer possible quickly to ascertain potential interest in it by a few quick phone calls. At almost every conservative foundation, grants now involve a numblingly exhaustive application process and endless negotiation with foundation staff, all of whom tread lightly and timidly lest they inadvertently invite some project that might fall outside the narrowly prescribed intention of the donor, which is the foundation’s sole legitimate purpose.

Now, if you happen to have an idea that could helpfully illuminate the intersection of science and religion, there is a substantial conservative foundation where you might go. Likewise, if your project could be described as promoting entrepreneurship. You’re also likely to attract support if your idea can plausibly be linked immediately and legally to securing electoral victories for conservative candidates.

But very few of the substantial conservative foundations today are governed by anything like the broad, encompassing vision that characterized its leaders three decades ago, or are moved to act by a careful, balanced, thoughtful survey of the full range of economic, cultural, political, moral and religious factors that must work together for the conservative movement to prosper over the long term.

They serve instead narrow sets of objectives haphazardly and unevenly distributed across the range of possible issues according to the idiosyncratic preferences of the original donors—preferences that are now enshrined as the primary source of legitimacy for philanthropic activity, and that deflect any substantive critique with the sure-fire response, “it’s my money.”

Ironically, the doctrine of donor intent has proven to be almost completely useless as a way to prevent the high-jacking of foundations by the left. When a conservative donor wishes to staff a new foundation, he or she all too often heeds the advice of legal and financial experts to hire other “experts” in giving. Trained in our universities or coming up through the ranks of “mainstream” foundations, philanthropy professionals invariably turn out to be liberal, and particularly adept at rationalizing otherwise manifestly leftist grants as somehow a fulfillment of explicitly conservative donor intent. As for the broadly educated and widely read generalists who once managed conservative foundations—no need to apply.

Indeed, the only kind of foundation staffers prepared to abide religiously by donor intent turn out to be the only ones who could otherwise be entrusted to live by its spirit, rather than by its letter, and to exercise a bit of the initiative and imagination that characterized earlier conservative grantmakers. Even though it’s the lodestone of conservative philanthropy, donor intent may only inhibit the best kind of grantmaking, while doing little or nothing to constrain the worst.

However well-educated or wise the executives at today’s foundations, they are typically not free to experiment with daring, unorthodox initiatives or institutions that might advance conservatism broadly understood. It is therefore difficult to imagine where a Hilton Kramer and Sam Lipman would turn today, to fund a project as remote as is The New Criterion from the well-defined and carefully honed mission statements of our largest conservative donors. In fact, the conservative movement in general might be living off—and failing to replenish—the cultural capital still with us in institutions like The New Criterion, initiated during and left over from the era of broad-based intellectual activism undertaken by Joyce, Larry, Piereson, and Lenkowsky, when they ran the most significant foundations.

This may cushion us for a while from the distortions to conservatism introduced by the narrowly focused personal preferences of our newer large donors, who are secured against open and honest criticism by conservatisms self-silencing ordinance of donor intent. But as the old institutions are pushed aside by newer ones more amenable to the peculiar tastes of today, the damage will become evident.

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