During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was shrouded in secrecy, making intelligence gathering a dangerous game of cloak and dagger.
Today’s Islamic terrorists, in contrast, publicize their aims, using online, print and broadcast mediums to rally support and threaten America. That’s one reason the Stuart Family Foundation funds analysts who gather this “open source” material and publish reports on terrorist threats worldwide.
“Our foundation is dedicated to strengthening America, at home and abroad,” says Robert D. Stuart Jr., who established the Lake Forest, Illinois, foundation in 1986 and still guides its work at age 91. Stuart is the former chairman and CEO of the Quaker Oats Company, which his family founded a century ago, and a former U.S. ambassador to Norway.
“We fund policy programs because we think that’s the most effective way to redress problems. We support the mechanisms that have made America a great nation: the core values of its civil society, its honest and efficient government, and its strong national defense. All of our major program areas—media, civic education, national security and federal campaign finance—reflect this philosophy.” The Stuart Family Foundation’s mission is ambitious, and its $19-million endowment means it’s a challenge to maximize influence and stay focused. In 2006 grants totaled $3.1 million with the primary emphasis on media groups like the Parents Television Council and Common Sense Media, both of which encourage family-friendly programming. Other significant grants have gone to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution. The grants are diverse, but there is an ideological current that underlies each donation. The goal is to influence public policy and bolster high ethical values and patriotism.
Gifts must be strategic when taking on some of America’s biggest problems. Board member Bob Thurston says the biggest challenge is to leverage grants—the average is roughly $70,000—so they have the maximum effect on public policy. The issue comes up at every meeting, Thurston says.
Executive Director Truman Anderson, the foundation’s only full-time employee, says it is also a struggle to stay focused with so many areas of interest, and to provide oversight to programs funded by the foundation. That means saying “no” to many areas of interest. The foundation would love to tackle issues like school reform, tort reform and immigration policy, but the decision so far is to avoid getting heavily involved.
“We try to invest in programs where a little money is going to go a long way,” says Anderson. “Often that means doing things the government isn’t necessarily doing, either as a result of policy differences or merely oversight.” The Jamestown Foundation—which produces the “open source” reports on worldwide terrorism—is one of many examples of this “loaves and fishes” approach to grantmaking. Michael Scheuer is a senior fellow at Jamestown and previously spent nearly 25 years in the CIA, including a stint as chief of the bin Laden Unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999. He says Jamestown is filling a gap left open by the U.S. intelligence community.
The gap exists because many policymakers are stuck in a Cold War mentality, says Scheuer. Unless a document is “stamped ‘Top Secret,’ people don’t consider it intelligence.”
“Policymakers have an ingrained bias against open source,” says Scheuer. “But there’s a tremendous amount of material to be exploited that the government passes over because it wasn’t acquired by satellite, or human spy or image overhead.”
Many of America’s influencers—in the government and media—are reading Jamestown’s reports. Jamestown’s annual budget is less than $1 million, and Lt. General (ret.) William Odom says few organizations do so much with so little. Jamestown’s publications on Chechnya and terrorism are “followed closely within the Joint Staff at the Pentagon and much of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” he writes in a letter supporting Jamestown.
“I have received emails from a diplomat in the American embassy in Moscow forwarding to me items from Jamestown’s Daily Monitor and Chechen Weekly,” says Odom.
The Stuart Family Foundation has given Jamestown grants of $75,000 in each of the past three years, and is considering a larger project. Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, says the Stuart Family Foundation has a “deep appreciation” and understanding for putting timely information into the hands of U.S. policymakers.
The foundation is also one of the primary supporters of America Abroad Media, a bipartisan nonprofit engaged in the “battle of ideas” in the United States and overseas. Anti-Americanism is rampant in the Muslim world and an obstacle to reform efforts, says Aaron Lobel, president of America Abroad Media. He says it stems from misinformation thats spread about America, which has a heightened profile in the Middle East since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“The United States needs to listen clearly, accept legitimate criticism, admit mistakes where they’ve been made, and then push back against the dangerous rhetoric,” says Lobel.
America Abroad Media produces, among other things, televised international town hall meetings between the United States and Islamic nations. One of the programs, “America and Turkey: The Uncertain Partnership,” features a split screen, with hosts in Washington, D.C. and Turkey asking questions of diplomats from each country and fielding queries from a live studio audience. The shows are broadcast in prime time in the Muslim nations featured, with the goal of correcting misinformation, expanding understanding and building bridges between the cultures.
“The idea is to promote a constructive discussion where America has an opportunity to present itself, which is more than is going on there now,” says Lobel.
The Stuart Family Foundation’s support extends beyond its financial contributions. America Abroad Media started four years ago, has a $1.2-million budget, and is fighting for grants, says Lobel. The Stuart Family Foundation first donated $50,000 in the fall of 2006, then asked Lobel to request $150,000 annually for each of the next three years.
The proposed funds would be undesignated, which demonstrates the board understands the business side of the operation, says Lobel. “It’s one thing to understand the substance—why there’s a battle of ideas. But then to also really understand what it takes to build an organization—those two things together are very significant.” The Stuart Family Foundation also supports many programs inside the United States. One of its goals is to improve the level of civic education for American students, which is lagging in part, according to Anderson, because of the influence of special interest groups on the textbook industry.
Because of these constituencies, textbooks become “laundry lists” of events, where centrally important events get light treatment, says Anderson, who has a Ph.D. in history. “This is a democracy, and the understanding that ordinary citizens have of the big issues and problems facing the country really matters. A citizen who does not understand the principles of American government and the Constitution is really not likely in the long run to make good decisions as a voter.” One approach the Stuart Family Foundation has taken to address the problem is a $260,000 grant to the Bill of Rights Institute to train teachers and create a distance-learning program for educators so they can train young people about America’s founders.
The Stuart Family Foundation also contributes to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) to support its American Civic Literacy project, a massive, statistically valid survey that seeks to learn whether colleges and universities are increasing a young person’s knowledge of American history, government and market economy. The foundation has given $491,976 to ISI since 2000, including $225,976 in 2006.
The survey’s inaugural findings, released in September, were startling. Overall, college seniors from 50 schools flunked the 60-question civic literacy exam with an average score of 53.2 percent. The senior’s scores were, on average, only slightly higher than those of the freshmen at their same school.
Anderson says the ISI survey is important because statistics show that the students who did best on the test are also more likely to vote and volunteer. “The takeaway is if you teach [American history and civics] you really do get a more engaged citizenry.” Stuart is known for his involvement in Republican politics, and his foundation generally supports programs that are conservative but also bipartisan. Sometimes the foundation goes against the grain of both political parties. The Stuart Family Foundation has given about $300,000 to the Campaign Legal Center, a legal watchdog battling for campaign finance reform.
The Stuart Family Foundation played a venture capital role in starting the Campaign Legal Center, which provides legal support for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002—known as “McCain-Feingold” for its principal sponsors in the United States Senate. In several cases the foundation board provided quick turnaround for urgent grants, says Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center. Whereas large foundations may wait for a board meeting nine months in the future to consider proposals, the Stuart Family Foundation’s board—Thurston, Stuart, his four children and a son-in-law—can circulate an urgent request and respond in ten days, says Potter.
Additionally, whether it’s through conversations with Anderson, Stuart or other board members, Potter says he’s found they follow the field and provide useful advice.
“I come away with a perspective or ideas I didn’t have before,” says Potter. “That’s a different relationship from many larger foundations.” In the future, Anderson says the Stuart Family Foundation aims to partner with like-minded organizations to maximize their influence on policy. Another goal is to grow, through increased donations by Stuart, while at the same time spending down the endowment by about 70 percent, he says. Stuart prefers vigorous spending that has an immediate impact to leaving money around indefinitely, says Anderson.
Marshall Allen is a journalist in Las Vegas.