A few months after the 2004 presidential election, former Democratic senator Bill Bradley took to the pages of the New York Times to explain why his party had lost. The problem, he said, wasn’t the candidate, the fundraising, or a missing ballot box in Ohio. It was something much deeper: For more than a generation, certain philanthropists had funded “a sweeping, coordinated, and long-term effort to spread conservative ideas on college campuses, in academic journals, and in the news media.” At the heart of this enterprise were “big individual donors and large foundations” that chose to “finance conservative research centers.”
By contrast, wrote Bradley, “there is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas.” He called on liberals to mimic their foes and invest heavily in think tanks: “It will take at least a decade’s commitment, and it won’t come cheap. But there really is no other choice.”
Wealthy liberals appear to have responded. They’ve created the Democracy Alliance, an umbrella group of donors who seek to coordinate their giving. It has already raised more than $50 million “in what organizers say is the first installment of a long-term campaign to compete more aggressively against conservatives,” according to the Washington Post. Beneficiaries have included the Center for American Progress, a think tank led by John Podesta, a White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, as well as the Center for Progressive Leadership, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and many other groups.
Meanwhile, conservatives have wondered about the effectiveness of their own vaunted infrastructure, especially with the federal government managed by Republicans but nevertheless growing at an eye-popping clip. Perhaps the time has come for a renewed engagement with public policy not only among liberals, as Bradley advises, but also among conservatives. Earlier this year, former Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp said as much when he recommended a think-tank revival movement “so that scholars can have a safe haven in which to think and work and the freedom to generate new ideas.” His message was aimed specifically at his friends on the Right: “Conservatism needs to restore the raw intellectual spirits that made the movement great—independent thinking and the fierce defense of those ideas, no matter whom they offend or who is in office.”
For this to happen, of course, it will take more than sheer brain power—it will also require new forms of philanthropy. That’s especially true in the wake of the closing of the John M. Olin Foundation, one of the donors that Bradley specifically mentioned as making possible the success of conservatism. For years, it served as a kind of venture-capital fund for free-market think tanks and other causes. Starting in 1986, it gave at least $10 million per year, and often much more, in support of limited government and individual liberty. But it shut down last fall, after committing its final resources and following the wishes of John M. Olin, who died in 1982, that it not survive him by more than two or three decades. Although other right-leaning foundations remain on the scene, its passing leaves a big black hole for conservatives to fill.
The bottom line is that donors across the political spectrum are looking for effective ways to advance their public policy goals outside the direct arena of politics and elections. Many of them are quite sensibly deciding to invest in think tanks. They’re interested in identifying successful models, distinguishing best practices, and exploring new ideas. Their challenge is to build and sustain a set of enduring institutions that truly matter.
What are think tanks? They may be defined in dozens of ways, but in essence they are nonprofit public-policy research organizations. One academic, R. Kent Weaver, semi-famously described them as “universities without students”—they are places where scholars can focus on their work and not worry about the distractions of teaching classes or grading blue-book exams. Although some think tanks offer varieties of “membership” to their financial contributors, they are not interest groups that have constituencies in the traditional sense. Rather than shaping public policy through conventional political muscle or lobbying, they try to do it through the power of the ideas they generate and promote.
Think tanks are a global phenomenon, and by now they’re seen as instrumental to modern democracies: The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently provided seed money for a think tank in Afghanistan. Yet of all the places they’ve taken root, the United States, their birthplace, remains a uniquely attractive home. Our tax structure encourages nonprofit giving. Our political system affords many points of entry and opportunities to affect decision-making: A federal system of national, state, and local governments; executive, legislative, and judicial branches; and a party system that does not enforce loyalty and discipline the way parliamentary governments do. Moreover, the media love think tanks because they are ready sources of expert opinion and commentary.
Will Marshall, president of the Democrat-aligned Progressive Policy Institute, has called his organization an “analytic guerrilla group.” That’s a clever description, as well as one of the many military metaphors commonly deployed in conversation about public-policy groups that launch “campaigns” in the “war” of ideas. The term “think tank” actually comes from the Second World War, and it describes a room in which officers could meet to discuss tactics and make plans. The label was soon applied to quasi-military organizations such as the RAND Corporation, which was established shortly after the war to provide the government with research services on strategic and technical matters.
In the 1960s, the term was expanded to include just about any organization that engaged in policy work, military or otherwise, and today think tanks are some of the most familiar features on the political landscape. A few are large, with multi-million-dollar endowments and diverse interests, such as the American Enterprise Institute (founded in 1938) and the Cato Institute (1977). Others are more like boutiques, with shoestring budgets and specialized areas of expertise. These include the Tax Foundation (1937), the Center for Security Policy (1988), and the Center for Equal Opportunity (1995) on the right and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (1981), the Retirement Research Foundation (a 1978 spinoff of the MacArthur Foundation), and Environmental Defense (1968) on the left. By some estimates, there are currently more than 1,600 think tanks in the United States alone, and perhaps as many as 3,500 across the globe.
Think tanks existed in concept long before they earned their modern moniker. At least they did to humorists. The earliest example, as Albert Keith Whitaker has pointed out [Philanthropy, May/June 2006], may go back to the ancient Greeks: Aristophanes (c.450 BC-c.388 BC), in his play The Clouds, poked fun at Socrates and his Athens-based “Thinkery.” Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) did much the same in Gulliver’s Travels, when he described the Grand Academy of Lagado, where experts labor to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, build homes from the roof down, and compile books of broken sentences.
The first modern think tanks, of course, were hardly exercises in futility. If they had been, it is unlikely that practical-minded men such as Andrew Carnegie, Robert Brookings, and Herbert Hoover would have established the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (in 1910), the Brookings Institution (in 1916), and the Hoover Institution (in 1919). What they mostly shared in common was a Progressive Era faith in the ability of technicians to solve economic and social problems.
By mid-century, they were joined by the research organizations that gave think tanks their lasting moniker: Groups that contracted with the government, in the belief that experts who were at least one step removed from the public payroll would offer smart and honest advice. The RAND Corporation (whose name literally derives from the term “R&D,” as in “research and development”) is the prototype of this model; in the 1960s, the Hudson Institute and the Urban Institute joined it.
During the 1960s and 1970s, liberalism embraced “advocacy philanthropy”—a concept pioneered by McGeorge Bundy of the Ford Foundation. Liberal-left foundations poured millions upon millions of dollars into this project, spawning batches of issue-oriented groups that weren’t think tanks but which nevertheless pushed for certain public-policy goals, often through litigation. By one measure, these organizations were remarkably successful: They gave birth to new environmental regulations, employment and contracting quotas for women and racial minorities, bilingual education for non-English-speaking students, public broadcasting, and large expansions of the welfare state. By another measure, however, they went too far: They alienated voters who came to be known as Reagan Democrats, setting the table for the electoral rise of the conservative movement.
Whatever their legacy, the philanthropy that underwrote them left behind a collection of groups, from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to various women’s studies programs on campus, that remains a powerful force in politics, law, and culture. When Bill Bradley complains about liberalism’s failure to create a network of think tanks, he must remember that it hasn’t been for a lack of dollars. The Left in fact has had enormous resources at its disposal: Before the recent rise of the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation owned America’s biggest philanthropic endowment. Ford, plus many other like-minded donors, bankrolled liberalism.
Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Andrew Rich of the City College of New York has calculated that the country’s 15 biggest foundations spent more than $136 million on public-policy institutes in 2002. Very little of this money would have found its way to conservatives, who instead relied on a dozen foundations to provide less than $30 million that same year.
These trends toward advocacy influenced think tanks and gave rise to a third wave of them in the 1970s: More aggressive, more media savvy, and more involved in the daily grind of public policy than their forebears. They were different in other ways as well: Many of them were explicitly conservative, or at least right-of-center, in their outlook. Because of this newfangled orientation, some commentators have described these groups as “advocacy” or “ideological” think tanks.
There is truth in these labels, but also a fundamental confusion because they tend to assume a golden age of thinkery when all the experts were objective, all the wonks were fair minded, and all the white papers were above average. In reality, this new breed of think tank revolted against the profound but unstated biases of many of its predecessors. Those predecessors, in keeping with their Progressive roots, often prescribed a large role for government in addressing the challenges of poverty, health, and education—much larger than the emerging conservative movement considered appropriate.
The third-wave think tanks of the 1970s not only transformed public policy, but also created a new set of vehicles through which philanthropists might exercise influence. The challenge for particular donors is to figure out how to take advantage of existing organizations or invent new ones so that they may advance their own goals. The first step is to determine what makes a think tank successful. This can be difficult, and measuring performance is tricky. [see sidebar 1]
Yet it is by no means impossible to draw a few broad lessons from recent experience. First, the most effective public-policy organizations possess a clear sense of purpose. Second, they focus not only on the creation of ideas but also on the marketing of them, so that their audience of opinion leaders and decision makers comes into contact with them. Third, success requires patience, as well as a long-term commitment that is durable enough to survive perceived setbacks, especially electoral ones.
A corollary of this third rule is the notion that ideas need time to mature so that they can flourish when favorable political circumstances arise. “Milton Friedman may have put it best,” says Roger Hertog, an investment manager who has served as chairman of the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank. He points to a passage from the preface of the second edition of Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom: “Only a crisis— actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
Finally, think tanks are perhaps best at creating the conditions for success, as opposed to being directly responsible for the success itself. The manager of a baseball team cannot take credit for the performance of his players, but he is in charge of assigning positions, assembling a batting order, and selecting pitchers; he can make his team’s victory or defeat either more or less likely based upon choices he makes before anybody swings a bat. Likewise, it is nearly always impossible to draw a straight line from the product of a think tank to the enactment of a specific policy. No single entity, for example, convinced Congress to reform welfare in the 1990s or the Bush administration to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty five years ago. Yet a handful of think tanks played significant roles in these decisions, in large part because they worked on them for years before the political environment allowed action.
The best way for philanthropists to understand how they can influence public policy through think tanks may be to look at how a few organizations have achieved success in several arenas. And because the Heritage Foundation is perhaps the most iconic example of a third-wave think tank, it makes sense to begin with its story—a story that any philanthropist can learn from, even if he doesn’t care for the conservatism of Heritage.
In the early 1970s, a small group of conservatives looked at the political scene and made an assessment that was similar to Bill Bradley’s of 2005. They saw a president who was a Republican but not a close ally and a Congress that seemed permanently controlled by Democrats. Moreover, conservatives could not count on the intellectual support of a big, venerable, and respected think tank such as the Brookings Institution. The universities, in the process of falling into the clutches of tenured radicals, were even further off limits as sources of intellectual ferment.
At the time, beer magnate Joseph Coors was looking for creative ways to promote conservative policies. He had a great mind for business: He took the regional beer company he had inherited from his grandfather, Adolph, and transformed it into the country’s third-largest brewer. He knew that wise investments pay off over time, and in 1972 he wrote a check for $250,000 that made possible the establishment of the Heritage Foundation. “There wouldn’t be a Heritage Foundation without Joe Coors,” says Edwin J. Feulner, the longtime president of Heritage. This philanthropic seed money is possibly the most consequential that ever has been spent in the world of public policy. Today, the Heritage Foundation has a budget of $35 million and a staff of 200 that can boast of expertise in any number of fields, from defense policy to international trade to the federal budget.
From the start, the Heritage Foundation was a think-tank innovator in several ways. Most obviously, it was explicitly conservative in its outlook—earlier think tanks had not worn their politics on their sleeves the way Heritage chose to do. Moreover, Heritage devoted itself to serving the needs of Congress. It has always maintained its office on Capitol Hill, rather than a mile or two away in downtown D.C., and it began to specialize in quick critiques of proposed legislation. This was part of its overall marketing strategy. Just as Coors became the first American beverage company to sell six-packs of beer in aluminum cans, Heritage became the first think tank to flood Congress with eight-page backgrounders on the topics of the day.
Having gotten its start with Coors cash, Heritage attracted more donors. At first, most of them were big givers like Coors. But the think tank began to broaden its appeal, gain visibility, and become attractive to philanthropists who were less interested in taking a chance on a startup than supporting an organization with a track record.
Heritage took its biggest step in this direction following the presidential election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, with the publication of Mandate for Leadership, a massive and detailed set of policy recommendations for the new administration. The idea for it had arisen at a board meeting a year earlier, and Heritage decided to make a substantial investment in the project—an investment that largely would have been lost if Jimmy Carter had been re-elected. The gamble paid off, and Mandate for Leadership detailed more than 2,000 specific proposals on a wide range of issues. Nearly two dozen conservative contributors found jobs in the Reagan administration, including William J. Bennett, who would head the National Endowment for the Humanities and Department of Education, and James Watt, who would lead the Department of the Interior. For the wonking class, an abridged edition became required reading. According to the Washington Post, even an aide at the Soviet embassy bought a copy for $12.95.
The 1980 edition of Mandate for Leadership became one of the most influential publications ever issued by a think tank. Interestingly, it did not have any specific philanthropic backing. “We just paid for it out of general expenses,” says John Von Kannon, a vice president at Heritage. “Then we talked about its success and increased our operating income.”
A testimony to its influence is the fact that Heritage continues to publish updated versions every four years, as well as the fact that so many other think tanks now issue their own variations on this Heritage theme. (The latest edition of Mandate for Leadership is actually a slender book, but an online version features links to an enormous archive of position papers.) Manuals providing advice for an incoming administration or a new Congress now comprise a subgenre of think-tank literature.
The experience of Mandate for Leadership provides an important lesson for donors because it illustrates one of the main ways in which think tanks can shape public policy: They are effective during periods of political flux, such as when parties move in and out of power, during presidential transitions, and early in election cycles when candidates are searching for big themes and new ideas. To a certain extent, organizations can plan for these events. They may not know who is going to win an election, but at least they know when an election will occur, they can make judgments about the nature of the opportunity, and they can prepare accordingly.
In 1992, Heritage went a step further. At the suggestion of Kate O’Beirne (who is now a colleague of mine at National Review), it offered a training course for incoming freshmen congressmen. This was modeled on a liberal program sponsored by Harvard’s Kennedy School. Feulner spoke at the Heritage event and encouraged his audience to view his think tank as a “weapons factory.”
In The Power of Ideas, a history of the Heritage Foundation by Lee Edwards, former congressman Martin R. Hoke described the Harvard style as “eggheady” and “somewhat condescending” and the Heritage approach as “much more nuts and bolts, practically oriented toward the implications of policy decisions on people’s lives.” Again, Heritage used a moment of transition to spread its message and establish itself as a resource for the future—a full-service research organization for policymakers who share its outlook.
Today, a large majority of Heritage donors are not big-time philanthropists like Coors, but much smaller givers. In just the last 12 months, the think tank has received contributions from 275,000 sources. (And only about 5 percent of its funding came from corporations, compared to about 21 percent of the American Enterprise Institute’s support.) The motives of these more recent donors are different as well. Whereas Coors was thinking strategically about a conservative movement that had not yet achieved political power, many current Heritage donors are contributing to a well-established cause. “We try to create a sense of community among them,” says Von Kannon. The Heritage Foundation in fact runs two websites: a main one ( heritage.org) that caters to congressional staffers, the media, and others with an interest in the minutiae of policy, and a separate one (myheritage.org) that is aimed at donors who are more casual in their consumption of Heritage products and who want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. A sign in the elevator at the Heritage headquarters is an example of the broad-based pitch they receive: “Building an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.”
Darrell and Lynn Dobresk, small-business owners in suburban Atlanta, are typical examples of this type of donor. They try to give several thousand dollars each year, and they pay their own way to a pair of “President’s Club” conferences the think tank puts on for donors each year in Washington. Before hooking up with Heritage, they had been financial supporters of their congressman, Newt Gingrich. When Gingrich’s congressional career collapsed, however, they searched for another outlet.
“We were looking for a way to make a difference, and we were more interested in doing something to help the conservative movement as opposed to the Republican Party,” says Lynn. A friend introduced them to Heritage, and now they’re deeply involved—not only do they contribute money, but they’ve also made the services of their video-production company available to the think tank at no charge. “I really like the conferences,” says Lynn. “I come back to Georgia armed with great information. This is what my money does for me.”
Danny Wettreich, a Dallas-based venture capitalist, takes a similar view. “It’s extraordinary to see Heritage produce so many position papers on so many topics,” he says. “On any issue, you can find expert opinion and detailed analysis. There’s so much there, it’s impossible to agree 100 percent of the time. But Heritage represents my views broadly, and supporting it is an excellent way to have a voice in public policy.” Both Wettreich and the Dobresks participate in regional councils that bring in speakers from the Heritage Foundation—events that allow Heritage to spread its message, build a sense of conservative community on the local level, and troll for new contributors who can help Heritage continue to grow. Roughly 60 percent of those now giving more than $10,000 to Heritage started out as direct-mail respondents who wrote checks for less than $100.
What big donors such as Joe Coors and smaller ones such as Wettreich and the Dobresks share in common is a commitment to the conservative movement—and a willingness to send checks to the think tank and let its staff decide how to use their money. Some important donors to Heritage, however, don’t come from the traditional right-wing fold. Nor do they give general support. The John Templeton Foundation, based in Philadelphia, is best known for its annual prize on spiritual matters—an award that holds a bigger financial purse than any other award in the world, including the Nobels. Yet this is a relatively small part of a much larger grants program. One of Templeton’s strongest interests is character development, especially in children. Last year, Templeton made its first major gift to the Heritage Foundation—a grant of precisely $843,314, over three years—to support a database of research on the family, society, and religion from peer-reviewed journals, books, and surveys.
The Templeton Foundation does not accept unsolicited grant applications, so its staff is always on the prowl for promising recipients and projects. At a conference on childhood a couple of years ago, Arthur Schwartz of Templeton bumped into Pat Fagan of Heritage. Fagan described his idea of cataloging the most important findings of social-science research on a website that both academics and non-specialists could use. “This was really appealing because we believe in the importance of empirical research,” says Schwartz. “You lead and advocate with data, not with your heart or with right belief.”
He invited Fagan to apply for a grant, which Fagan did. After a thorough review—Templeton employs outside experts to critique proposals—Schwartz informed Fagan that the Heritage application was not adequate. “We wanted something bigger and more ambitious,” says Schwartz. In particular, Schwartz wanted the project to place more emphasis on dissemination. “I see this from time to time: A think tank stresses the quality of its data and its state-of-the-art research techniques, and it forgets to think about marketing.” Heritage responded with a revised proposal that included a 16-page marketing plan, and Templeton approved a grant to cover this cost in its entirety, without chipping away at the project’s empirical core. Since then, Heritage has employed a team of graduate students to post summaries of research findings on a website, familyfacts.org.
Although he’s still compiling data, Fagan says it’s possible to reach a few conclusions. “It can be said with almost total confidence that the academic debate is over: The best place to raise a child is within an intact married family.” A parallel finding involves religion: “On every outcome we measure—criminality, drug use, premarital sex, and so on—those who worship at least once per week do better than those who worship less,” says Fagan. “The policy implication is clear: Marriage and worship give the nation what government tries to deliver. They do it better, especially for the poor, and they do it at no cost to taxpayers.” He concludes that government must take special measures to protect marriage and also speak highly of religious faith.
That may sound like common sense, but proving that common sense makes sense is one of the Templeton Foundation’s goals. “We live in a skeptical world,” says John M. Templeton Jr., the foundation’s president. “It demands a demonstration of efficiency. We’re convinced that good science can help us understand and promote the idea that a family committed to the well-being of a child within a moral framework—that’s the best start in life.”
The Heritage website reviews thousands of studies, such as this one on a journal article by Tom Luster: “Children’s being read to by their mothers or caregivers as preschoolers was correlated with subsequent high academic performance.” Another summary, of a working paper by Arthur C. Brooks, states: “An increase in welfare income has no effect on individuals’ informal, personal donations, while an increase in earned income is associated with an increase both in formal donations to charitable organizations and informal giving to friends and family.” Reference information follows each entry, so that researchers who seek more detail can find it. “We’re taking data that’s buried in obscure places, translating it into regular English, and making it available to the public,” says Fagan. What’s the most interesting discovery he’s made so far? “For kids who live in disorganized communities, going to church has the same educational effect as if they had moved into a middle-class neighborhood.”
For philanthropists who want to influence public policy, supporting political candidates is an obvious avenue. But some have discovered that they can achieve far more by working with think tanks. “It isn’t worth it for me to spend $100,000 on politicians,” says Dietrich Weismann, a New York investor. “I might get breakfast with the president, but he isn’t going to listen to me.” Although Weismann occasionally does cut a check to a pol, he’s far more active in public-policy philanthropy—both as a donor and as chairman of the Manhattan Institute. “Our motto is ‘influence through intellect,’ and that’s really what we try to accomplish,” he says. “It can be a slow process. You don’t change anything in 20 minutes. You need two or three years, or maybe even a decade. But if you keep banging away at it, you can do something great.”
The intellects at the Manhattan Institute certainly have achieved considerable influence. In the 1980s, the group sponsored and promoted Losing Ground, the book on welfare reform by Charles Murray. Today, it is widely regarded as the starting point of a movement that culminated in 1996 when President Clinton signed a welfare-reform law based on several of Murray’s principles. Clinton went on to acknowledge that Murray “did the country a great service.”
Other public figures also have praised the Manhattan Institute, especially for its focus on urban issues. “As the man who became mayor in order to reform the city, and presided over the city during this transformation, I could not have done it without the Manhattan Institute,” said Rudy Giuliani.
“We’re trying to think deeply about critical issues in an objective way,” says Byron Wien, a hedge-fund manager who is vice chairman of the Manhattan Institute as well as a card-carrying Democrat. “I’m not always in 100 percent agreement with what our scholars say, but even when I disagree I get a fair hearing and I know they’re elevating the level of public discussion.”
The Manhattan Institute has kept one foot in national issues and another in local ones. Some think tanks have shown that it’s possible to think nationally and act locally—they function almost exclusively at the state level, where public-policy organizations have made large strides in recent years but where there also remain tremendous opportunities for growth and improvement. One of the first important state-level groups was the Heartland Institute, based in Chicago. It was established in 1984 by David H. Padden, a bond trader who has served on the board of the libertarian Cato Institute, and Joseph L. Bast, who was then an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Although the Heartland Institute has broadened its focus since then, it originally concentrated on state legislation in Springfield.
Around the time of Heartland’s founding, similar think tanks were getting started in other states. By the late 1980s, representatives from about a dozen of them would gather in Washington, D.C. to share ideas and moral support. They met at the Madison Hotel, calling themselves the Madison Group. Thomas A. Roe, the longtime head of a building company, was one of the most active members. He not only helped sponsor the South Carolina Policy Council, but he was also on the board of the Heritage Foundation. Roe once talked about franchising the Heritage brand in state capitals around the country, but this never happened. Instead, the Madison Group institutionalized itself in 1992 as the State Policy Network, with Roe writing the check to make it happen. Today, the SPN includes 48 groups in 42 states, with a combined budget of roughly $35 million. The size and quality of these think tanks vary dramatically. In state capitols where they are small or non-existent, philanthropists may discover excellent prospects for promoting sensible budgets, free-market tax policies, and school choice.
One of the finest state-level think tanks, nearly all observers agree, is the Mackinac Center, based in Midland, Mich. With a clear record of success and an annual budget of more than $4 million, it serves as a model for like-minded groups to emulate. Twenty years ago, however, it didn’t even exist. “After the election of Ronald Reagan, we saw the role of think tanks on the national level,” says Joe Olson, an insurance executive. “It made us think it would be nice to have one here in Michigan to focus on state issues.” Olson and several friends, including Lansing attorney Richard McLellan, circulated a short proposal for a think tank, which they were able to turn into a reality because of a favorable political environment, a helpful network, and quality personnel.
What made the environment favorable was the governorship of Jim Blanchard, a Democrat. “He offered the wrong solutions to the state’s problems—his proposals just weren’t working,” says Margaret Ann Riecker, one of Olson and McLellan’s partners and head of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. The need for reform was in the air, and an ambitious Republican in the state legislature was looking for ideas. John Engler encouraged the Mackinac Center’s founders to establish a permanent organization. Initially, they had trouble raising money because the think tank had produced nothing. A report written by Bradley Smith (who was recently chairman of the Federal Election Commission) and jointly published with the Heartland Institute, in the kind of friendly collaboration that has marked a great deal of SPN activity, became the first entry in what would become a very long paper trail. Another key moment was the decision to hire Lawrence Reed as the Mackinac Center’s president. “Almost every organization makes a few mistakes with leadership early on,” says McLellan. “But we hit a home run with Larry.”
In many cases, such as with the Heritage Foundation, think tanks are started by people who come up with a business plan and then seek funding from philanthropists. The Mackinac Center is a case of the opposite, with a small group of original donors getting things started and then handing off the day-to-day operation to a professional staff. “The donors found me,” says Reed, who remains at the helm. “I’m not a founder of the Mackinac Center, but I’m its first employee.”
In 1990, the Mackinac Center served as Engler’s brain trust in his underdog campaign to unseat the incumbent Blanchard. When Engler scored a surprise victory, the group’s influence was felt throughout his administration and across the state. “People once said that the Mackinac Center was a front for Engler,” says Olson. “Later on, they said that Engler was a front for the Mackinac Center.”
The think tank can take credit for plenty of successes, such as helping make the charter-school movement possible, rewriting the state telecommunications law, and constantly chipping away at the strongly held perception among Michiganders that unions always have the public interest in mind. Its influence is perhaps magnified by the fact that the state’s legislators are term limited: They come into office without much policy expertise, have little time to develop any, and look to groups such as the Mackinac Center for ideas and support.
Another energetic member of the SPN is the John Locke Foundation, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Its founder and major donor, Art Pope, presents an excellent example of how much a single philanthropist can accomplish in a state capitol. Pope’s father, the late John William Pope, had built a chain of dime stores in rural North Carolina and throughout the Southeast. “He wanted me to get a business degree, but I got one in political science,” says Art, who became involved in state politics and worked in the administration of Gov. James G. Martin, a Republican. There, he observed the policymaking process up close. “I learned that we didn’t have the resources to come up with the ideas necessary to fight those who think government can solve all of our problems,” he says. “I knew about Heritage and Cato and some of the state think tanks, so I started talking about doing something here.”
At first, the results were disappointing. “I couldn’t find many takers,” he says. Around this time, he helped start the John William Pope Foundation, his family’s grantmaking arm. Although much of its philanthropy was conventional, Pope began to explore its public-policy potential. He tried to work with an existing group that was not explicitly committed to limited government, but the outcome didn’t please him.
In 1989, Pope founded a brand-new think tank, named after the 17th-century English political philosopher. Few people realize it, but John Locke was an intellectual forefather of the North Carolina state constitution, having written a statement on religious tolerance during its colonial days. “His writings on the origin of government and the right to private property had a big influence on me,” says Pope. In choosing the name, he wanted to advertise the group’s connection to North Carolina as well as send a message about its outlook.
Serving in the state legislature further convinced Pope of the need for a state-level infrastructure. “A lot of good ideas come from national publications, but they need to be applied to the specifics of North Carolina so that we can win policy debates here,” he says. “We also need to develop a relationship with the public, opinion leaders, and the news media on the state level.”
The John Locke Foundation did all of this, through a series of publications, conferences, and speaker programs. It excelled at providing accurate information in a form that policymakers and their aides could digest—a lesson Pope learned during his days with the governor. “I knew that when Gov. Martin was on the fly, you didn’t give him a 30-page policy paper,” says Pope. “You gave him the one-page summary, and you prepared yourself to answer his questions from having read the whole report.”
The John Locke Foundation offered it all, and in the process it has played an important part in holding down the growth of the state budget, rolling back an unemployment insurance tax, and increasing local flexibility in education. “In public policy, it’s hard to measure results—in a business, there are profit and loss statements, and in a political campaign, you either win or lose,” says Pope. “But I’m convinced we’re making a difference in North Carolina.”
Pope is so convinced of this, in fact, that he has increased his commitment to state-level policy. Today, the John Locke Foundation has a budget of more than $3 million. Pope also backs the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, which was incubated within the John Locke Foundation. Other beneficiaries have included the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law, which has filed lawsuits against the state’s industrial-policy practice of offering financial incentives to companies that move to the state, and the John William Pope Civitas Institute, which provides leadership training for people interested in politics.
The Raleigh News & Observer recently labeled these groups “Pope Political, Inc.” Pope doesn’t like this phrase, but he knows that it can get much worse. “If you go into this business, you’ve got to be prepared to have your name in the news and to be attacked,” says Pope. “Judging from some of what’s been written about me, you might think my family had made a fortune by selling blood diamonds from the Congo rather than by running retail stores that sell shoes, socks, and underwear.”
Pope won’t make a fortune selling ideas, but he may do something far more important: He may leave a legacy, written in policy.
Sidebar 1: Measuring Think Tanks
Whatever their own political views, philanthropists who seek to shape public policy share a common concern: What are the best think tanks and why are they effective?
A favorite saying of conservatives who inhabit think tanks is Richard Weaver's old aphorism: "Ideas have consequences." Yet it is notoriously difficult to determine which ideas have consequences and what role think tanks play in making them consequential.
The question has spawned its own subgenre of academic research, and the answers aren't very satisfying. "When institutes like Brookings and [the American Enterprise Institute] promote ideas, they can never be sure what effect those intangible entities will have on other Washingtonians, no matter how suggestible," wrote David M. Ricci in The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks.
In a more recent book, Do Think Tanks Matter?, author Donald E. Abelson points to the basic dilemma: "Every successful policy idea, as many have claimed, has a hundred mothers and fathers; every bad policy idea is always an orphan."
There is no shortage of ways to measure the performance of an individual think tank: How many times have newspapers cited it? How frequently do its experts provide commentary on radio and television? How often do its scholars offer congressional testimony? How many publications does it put out? The answers to these questions surely measure something, though it isn't necessarily their actual influence.
A think tank can be quoted a thousand times on why a particular piece of legislation is worth passing—but if lawmakers ultimately fail to vote on it or reject it outright, then all of the attention arguably came to naught. Or maybe it didn't, if an early failure is a necessary step on the road to success.
When it comes to philanthropy and public policy, perhaps it is worth recalling the humble maxim of John Wanamaker, the department-store entrepreneur who is considered the father of modern advertising: "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don't know which half."
Sidebar 2: Sustaining Think Tanks
Excerpt from Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power, by Thomas B. Edsall, Basic Books, 2006, pp. 227-28:
"Structurally, Democrats have, over the past forty years, had problems sustaining institutions and have lacked continuous investment in party-building enterprises. In 2003-2004, Democratic donors led by financier George Soros and insurance magnate Peter Lewis contributed a total of $132 million to create Americans Coming Together (ACT). Their goal was to create a permanent institution with headquarters in every battleground state to turn out Democratic voters.
But, when ACT and its sister organization, the $59.4 million Media Fund, failed to produce a Democratic presidential victory, however, Soros and Lewis quickly pulled the plug, forcing the closure of both ACT and the Media Fund and effectively writing off nearly $200 million as a failed gamble.
The story of ACT stands in sharp contrast to the creation of the Heritage Foundation. In 1973, thirty years before ACT, Paul Weyrich and Edwin Feulner Jr., backed by Joseph Coors and Richard M. Scaife, created the conservative Heritage to act as a counterweight to the then-dominant liberal ideological presence in the nation's capital.
Success did not follow quickly—if anything the setbacks were more severe than those suffered by Democrats in the course of Kerry's 2004 defeat. In 1974, a year after Heritage was established, the Republican Party was crushed in the wake of Watergate. Two years later, in 1976, the Republican Party lost the White House.
Coors and Scaife, the two conservative donors—early counterparts to Soros and Lewis—did not abandon Heritage after the debacles of 1974 and 1976. Instead, Coors and Scaife, along with a growing number of other conservative donors, stuck with Heritage through thick and thin. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, Heritage had become the premier think tank on the right in Washington, exercising significant policy influence on the Reagan administration."
Contributing editor John J. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.