For a century, foundations have been sources of private wealth for public purposes; they have committed great resources to address society’s ills – but they have remained wary of straying too close to the political sphere. Foundations are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity and from lobbying elected officials about legislation. So foundations have often viewed their funding as a counterweight to public spending, supporting, for example, domestic social services or international public health initiatives.

Yet a notable portion of foundation spending – a growing portion for some foundations – is targeted almost directly at the political process. This spending is intended to win the “war of ideas” under way in American politics. It supports research and advocacy that aims to influence how elected officials and the public think about a broad range of policies. This “war of ideas” is fundamentally a battle between liberals and conservatives, progressives and libertarians, over the appropriate role for government. Some progressive writers argue that conservatives have been winning battles in the war of ideas because liberal foundations are not spending near the amount that conservative foundations are on the war and the liberal money is not deployed nearly as effectively.1

My research suggests that while it is true that conservatives have been more effective than progressive funders, this is not because they spend more money. Nonconservative foundations – what might be labeled “middle of the road,” “mainline,” or “liberal foundations” – have devoted far more resources than conservatives to influencing thinking about public policy. This spending simply has not been as deliberate or effective.2 Conservative think tanks have quite successfully provided political leaders, journalists, and the public with concrete ideas about shrinking the role of the federal government, deregulation, and privatization.

They are succeeding by aggressively promoting their ideas. By contrast, liberal and mainstream foundations back policy research that is of interest to liberals. But these funders remain reluctant to make explicit financial commitment to the war of ideas, and they do relatively little to support the marketing of liberal ideas.

It’s Not About Money

The 15 largest foundations are spending more than $100 million a year on public policy institutes, and these are not conservative foundations supporting conservative think tanks. These are large, mainline foundations often led and staffed by progressively minded people that do not share the agenda of reducing the role of government. In the 1990s, their endowments grew, and their interest in supporting groups in Washington grew as well. As Table 1 (p. 21) illustrates, in 2002 these foundations spent $136 million supporting public policy institutes that are mostly in Washington producing policy-relevant work.

These foundations do not generally make policy research one of their top funding priorities, but it remains an important part of their annual giving.

An evaluation of how these foundations apportion their funding to policy institutes relative to scores of other categories of spending reveals that funding for public policy institutes ranges from the thirdhighest category to the 26th, with the exception of one foundationRICH that makes no grants in this area.3 (Table 1, right-hand column.)

To put these amounts in context, I updated an analysis done by Michael Shuman in 1998, published in the Nation. In Tables 2 and 3 (p. 21, 23), I have listed the 2002 assets and spending on public policy institutes by 12 notable conservative foundations and 12 of their liberal counterparts.

The conservative foundations, which have been a focus in three reports since 1997 by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCPR), are often characterized as central to the conservative efforts in the war of ideas. These foundations are all significantly smaller than the 15 largest foundations in the United States. The largest one had 2002 assets totaling $580 million, compared with between $2.5 and $32 billion among the 15 largest foundations. The total amount these conservative foundations spent on public policy institutes was about $29.5 million – less than one quarter of what the largest mainline foundations devoted to such work.

Any idea of a funding edge to the conservative foundations is further diminished after looking at 12 loosely comparable progressive foundations that are members of what’s known as the “National Network of Grantmakers,” a network of funders focused on supporting causes that promote social and economic justice.4These foundations spent $37 million in support of think tanks. Comparing the two sets of 12 foundations, the progressives spent $12 million more on public policy institutes in 2002.

Given these numbers, it’s hard to attribute the conservatives’ success in the war of ideas to their greater resources. The advantage lies in how the money is spent. Conservatives have found ways to package and market their ideas in more compelling ways, and their money is providing more bang for the buck.

Indeed, a closer analysis suggests that conservatives structure their financing much differently than liberal and centrist foundations. A look at the data from 2002 reveals that conservative foundations consistently make funding policy institutes one of their top three priorities, while the liberal and mainline foundations rarely treat it this way. (Tables 2 and 3, right-hand column.) To understand the significance of this difference, it’s necessary to consider how the different types of think tanks and foundations evolved.

From Science to Ideology

Think tanks made their debut just after the turn of the century with missions reflecting a Progressive Era confidence that expertise from the burgeoning social sciences could solve public problems and inform government decision making. Progressive reformers looked to experts to generate the “scientific knowledge” that would move policymaking beyond rancorous logrolling and partisan patronage.The first generation of foundations and the industrialists who established them played a critical role in creating and sustaining the first think tanks. John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and the Rockefeller Foundation, founded in 1913, became the single greatest contributors to the Institute for Government Research (which became the Brookings Institution). The foundation provided similar core support in the early days for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), formed in 1919.

The industrial magnates who were first interested in supporting social research saw it as wholly desirable for think tanks to become credible voices in policymaking circles without becoming promotional or ideological. Under attack themselves from some corners of government, the industrialists were publicity-shy. They and the foundations they established actively discouraged the think tanks from including high-profile marketing among their efforts. Until 1970, the total number of think tanks active in American politics remained relatively small (fewer than 70). Those that existed had little public profile, devoting their efforts instead to policy research made available quite straightforwardly – and sometimes discreetly – for consumption by public decision makers.5

The founding of the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1973 marked the birth of a new type of politically aggressive and openly ideological expert organization. Ideological, marketing-oriented think tanks modeled after Heritage proliferated, particularly on the right (e.g., the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Progress and Freedom Foundation), although also in the center (e.g., the Progressive Policy Institute) and on the left (e.g., the Economic Policy Institute, the Center for National Policy). The number of think tanks more than quadrupled between 1970 and 2000, growing from fewer than 70 to more than 300. More than half of the new think tanks that formed in this period were identifiably ideological. Two-thirds of these were identifiably conservative – mostly producing and promoting work supportive of limited government and free markets.6

How Conservatives Took the Lead in the War of Ideas

The dramatic growth of conservative think tanks in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s was made possible principally with support from a small corps of newer conservative foundations, such as the Bradley, Smith Richardson, and Sarah Scaife foundations. Before the 1970s, many conservative foundations and their patrons reviled government so much that they refused to support efforts related to what was going on in Washington. But with the advent of increased government regulation in the late 1960s, the leaders of these foundations wanted to stop the tide of government activism. Funding organizations to fight the war of ideas became their way of doing it.

During this same period, mainline and liberal foundations scaled back their support of a number of efforts that engaged politics and government in Washington. Many of the older, more progressive foundations were disappointed by what they perceived as the failures of Great Society programs in which they had invested. Perhaps more important, many of the older, nonconservative foundations were operating with less. The endowments of many of the largest foundations lost hundreds of millions of dollars when the stock market declined in the 1970s.

Many older foundations put the brakes on activities in Washington that seemed overtly or overly political.7These foundations happened to be those that supported what today are often thought of as more liberal or progressive think tanks and public policies. The Ford Foundation is the best example. For several decades before 1970, Ford was the principal source of support for the Brookings Institution and Resources for the Future, and it provided key support to many more think tanks, including the Institute for Policy Studies. Ford moved to cut much of its core support for think tanks in the 1970s and ’80s.

Yet the financial advantage that the conservative foundations enjoyed in financing policy work as the mainline foundations cut back was short lived. Despite complaints by some liberal advocates of insufficient backing, in the 1990s, think tanks and policy institutes actually became beneficiaries of restored support from mainstream and progressive foundations, as their endowments grew. The data from 2002 are evidence of this trend.

The Conservative Advantage

Funding for think tanks was largely restored, but between the 1970s and the 1990s, Ford and other foundations changed their missions, their structure, and, in some cases, their staffing in ways that affect how that funding is distributed. For those on the left who desire more support, the problem is that the mainline/progressive/ liberal foundations are now often not organized to effectively provide support to progressive think tanks or other organizations in the broad-based war of ideas – or even to see that as their role. On the one hand, these foundations tend to be organized by issue area. That means that prospective grantees are also organized that way. Think tanks on the left tend to be organized by issue area – around women’s issues, poverty, or the environment – rather than taking on the broad range of issues with which Congress and the president deal.8

The specialization of think tanks and advocacy organizations on the left tends to mirror the programs and organization of their main foundation funders. These more specialized groups can be – and have been – tremendously effective. But they are not organized to do battle in the same ways as their conservative counterparts, across a broad range of topics. Whereas a multi-issue, conservative group can redirect portions of its resources and energy from promoting ideas for, say, environmental regulation to Social Security reform as the immediate priorities of Congress and the president change, more narrowly focused progressive think tanks cannot be so nimble – and, as they are currently organized, many would not want to be.

To make matters more difficult, progressive think tanks have a hard time getting general organizational support. Foundations want to support projects – specific, well-defined, discreet projects. The generally progressive Mott Foundation, for instance, gave slightly more to policy institutes in 2000 ($7.45 million) than the conservative Bradley Foundation ($6.53 million), but most of its funding was devoted primarily to specific projects. By contrast, the majority of Bradley’s funding went to general organizational operating support. In this regard, Bradley outspent Mott by roughly eight to one, investing about $3.8 million to Mott’s $460,000.9

By providing general operating support to policy institutes far more rarely than their conservative counterparts, progressive foundations make it difficult for progressive organizations to sustain operating staff and functions. As James Piereson, executive director of the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, commented about his liberal counterparts: “The liberal foundations became too project oriented – they support projects but not institutions. They flip from project to project. … We, on the other hand, support institutions. We provide the infrastructure for institutions.”10

Preoccupation with Neutrality

There is one more distinction between conservative and liberal foundations that affects the disparities in their level of support: Funders on the left appear to have a different view of the role of the researcher – and the role of the research organization – than those on the right. For many of the mainline foundations and the foundations that are more clearly progressive, the primary concern when it comes to funding think tanks is in funding rigorous research that strives to be neutral. For them, think tanks and policy institutes should be homes to the disinterested expert.

Concern for neutral, unbiased research is not a preoccupation of the foundations on the right. As one longtime think tank leader observed, “Liberal foundations are liberal not just in their belief in social and economic justice, but also in their belief in the possibility of neutrality, which makes them uncomfortable with making grants that seem too ‘political.’” The comments of a research director of a new progressive think tank are even more pointed: “If you’re on the left, you have to go to the foundations and say you’re neutral, unbiased – not politicized. You’re certainly not liberal. If you’re ideological, they don’t want to support you. It’s frustrating – because, by contrast, if you’re on the right, the foundations will only fund you if you toe the ideological line, if you want to do battle for the conservative cause.”

So where is much of the money from the more progressive or liberal foundations going? It is going to think tanks that shun being classified as either liberal or conservative, including the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute, and Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). This type of think tank – think tanks of no identifiable ideology – makes up the greatest proportion operating in American politics, and these groups receive the biggest portion of resources that go to think tanks. In 1996, there were more than twice as many think tanks of no identifiable ideology (96), like Brookings and MDRC, operating in national politics than think tanks that were identifiably liberal (38); the total dollar amount devoted to these think tanks of no identifiable ideology was more than six times more than that spent on liberal think tanks.11 For the most part, however, these groups are not major players in the war of ideas. They are not a counterweight to conservative think tanks, and they don’t want to be. The Brookings Institution is qualitatively different from the Heritage Foundation. Brookings and its researchers are not so concerned, in their work, in affecting the ideological direction of the nation. Brookings tends to be staffed by researchers with strong academic credentials, whereas Heritage is staffed by researchers with more political experience.

And while Brookings devotes most of its budget to research, Heritage puts a substantial portion into media and government relations. In 2004, Brookings spent 3 percent of its $39 million budget on communications; in 2002, the most recent year for which information is available, Heritage spent 20 percent of its $33 million budget on public and government affairs.12 Reflecting on this difference, Herb Berkowitz, Heritage’s former vice president for communication, observed: “Our belief is that when the research product has been printed, then the job is only half done. That is when we start marketing it to the media. … We have as part of our charge the selling of ideas, the selling of policy proposals. We are out there actively selling these things, day after day. It’s our mission.”13

Today, it is not so much that progressive foundations will not support policy research. The problem now is that these foundations will not support progressive policy think tanks that are focused, in the ways that conservative think tanks are, on promoting progressive policy change through research, advocacy, and the marketing of ideas.

Ideas Need Strong Organizations

The war of ideas remains a loosely defined phenomenon and more substantial examination of the ways it is (or is not) being won by conservatives demands further research. Yet the preliminary evidence suggests that conservative think tanks have made marketing conservative ideas a priority with the full knowledge and support of conservative foundations. This is what the conservative funders want them to do, and it is what makes conservative think tanks not only well funded but also influential.

Some new evidence suggests that a few more progressive or mainline foundations may be starting to engage the war of ideas in earnest – more or less on the terms set by their conservative counterparts. The creation in 2003 of the Center for American Progress (CAP) by President Clinton’s former chief of staff, John Podesta, is perhaps the best example. CAP is a new progressive think tank organized to do battle in the war of ideas following a model similar to that of the Heritage Foundation on the right. George Soros and his foundation, the Open Society Institute, provide substantial support to CAP. Still, CAP and several other new progressive initiatives are raising at least as much support from individuals as from foundations, where some of the obstacles outlined in this article are still in place.

New commitments by nonconservative foundations have been modest and suggest that interest in investing in the infrastructure for the war of ideas remains weak. The missions and complicated leadership structures of some of these foundations may make adjusting to the war of ideas difficult or undesirable. But in light of the stakes for American politics and policymaking, nonconservative foundations should at least reconsider their political role, how they do grantmaking, and the return they hope to achieve on their investments.

At this moment, conservatives are still winning in the war of ideas, and that success cannot be chalked up only to the power of their ideas. It is because these ideas have a winning organization behind them.

1 See Jeff Krehely et al., Axis of Ideology: Conservative Foundations and Public Policy (Washington, D.C.: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2004); Callahan, D. $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s (Washington, D.C.: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1999); and Covington, S. Moving a Public Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations (Washington, D.C.: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1997).

2 A similar argument was made in a 1998 article in the Nation by Michael Shuman, former director of the Institute for Policy Studies. He pointed out: “Foundations that support progressive causes actually have lots of money, more than their conservative counterparts. The real problem – and it finally needs to be aired publicly – is that too much of this money is spent foolishly.” Shuman, M. “Why Progressive Foundations Give Too Little to Too Many,” The Nation (Jan. 12/19, 1998): 12.

3 The Foundations 1000, 2002/2003 directory (2002) that I used in compiling the information classify spending into more than 75 categories that range from museums to human service agencies to libraries to international NGOs.

4 This list is similar to the group of foundations that Shuman examined in his 1998 article in the Nation.

5 Rich, A. Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

6 Rich, Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise.

7 Congressional investigations of the Ford Foundation and foundation activity generally in the 1960s informed some of the changes at foundations as well. These investigations culminated with enactment of the Tax Reform Act of 1969.

8 Rich, Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise.

9 Grants are designated as either general operating support or project-specific support depending upon how all, or the bulk, of the foundation support was designated. In cases where the foundation provided both general operating and projectspecific funding, the grants are designated under the category where the greatest amount of support was designated for the year, based on information available.

10 Author interview with James Piereson, Feb. 2, 1999.

11 More than $319.2 million was spent on think tanks of no identifiable ideology; only $47.8 million was spent on liberal think tanks. In 1996, roughly $156.4 million was spent on conservative think tanks. See Rich, Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise, p. 18-24.

12 These two categories of spending are not directly comparable, but even with a margin of error, the numbers illustrate the stark differences in how Heritage and Brookings are organized.

13 Author interview, July 22, 1996.


ANDREW RICH is an assistant professor of political science at City College of New York. He is the author of “Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise” (Cambridge University Press, 2004), and he is writing a book about the war of ideas in American politics. He can be reached at ARich@ccny.cuny.edu.

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