Joe Coors Brews Up the Heritage Foundation

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1972

After backing Ronald Reagan’s Presidential bid in 1968, beer magnate Joseph Coors concluded that an intellectual infrastructure for shaping public policies was just as important as good candidates. Liberals already had a policy infrastructure in universities and organizations like the Brookings Institution. Coors decided that conservatives needed think tanks of their own—so in 1972 he wrote a $250,000 check to begin the Heritage Foundation. Other philanthropists like the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and Richard Mellon Scaife joined the cause, but the Coors cash was catalytic, and also consistent. Coors continued to invest in the Heritage Foundation over many years, including a $300,000 gift in 1980 that allowed it to move to improved offices.

As Ronald Reagan finally took office in 1981, the Heritage Foundation issued Mandate for Leadership, a book of nearly 1,100 pages that became a policy blueprint for his administration. The think tank became active in virtually every area of government action, from welfare transfers to national defense. It eventually grew into the biggest and at times most influential think tank on the right.

Coors was also a principal backer of the Free Congress Foundation (a D.C. think tank focused on social issues), the Mountain States Legal Foundation (a public-interest law firm), and the Independence Institute (a Colorado-based free-market think tank). Yet Heritage remained his largest legacy. “There wouldn’t be a Heritage Foundation without Joe Coors,” said longtime Heritage president Edwin Feulner. In 2014, the organization spent $78 million, 75 percent of it raised from individual donations.

  • Nicole Hoplin and Ron Robinson, Funding Fathers (Regnery, 2008) 
  • Lee Edwards, The Power of Ideas: The Heritage Foundation at 25 Years (Jameson Books, 1997)