Daniel C. Searle


By Kim Dennis

This tribute was originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Philanthropy magazine.

Dan Searle was one of the earliest donors to join The Philanthropy Roundtable after it was established as an independent organization in 1991. He never gave more than the minimum suggested annual contribution level, which back then for a foundation was just $250, and he never attended a meeting. But he did read Philanthropy. When I gave up running The Philanthropy Roundtable in 1996 and hung out my shingle as a consultant, he asked if he might retain my services to help him write a mission statement for his foundation.

Until then, the D&D Foundation—as the Searle Freedom Trust was originally named—was what Dan described as a foundation for “PLUs.” By this he meant “people like us.” He supported such venerable Chicago institutions as the Art Institute and the Botanic Garden. He was a generous donor to Northwestern University, on whose board he sat, and other schools he and his family attended. What he learned from reading Philanthropy, he said, was that he could have a foundation that supported these organizations in a more fundamental way—by strengthening and sustaining the principles of freedom that enabled them and institutions like them to flourish. With Olin, Bradley, and other founders of the Roundtable as his model, he set out to create a foundation that would advance individual and economic liberty. His foundation would bear its own imprint, however, as reflected in his belief in the potential for empirical research to influence public policy.

Dan also said that he had thought a great deal about what he wanted to leave behind for his heirs. In his judgment, he had already provided sufficiently for his children and grandchildren. Moreover, he said, “All the money in the world isn’t going to do them any good if they lack economic freedom.” His legacy to his heirs, he concluded, would be to leave them a freer world in which to live and pursue their ambitions. 

The writing of the mission statement for Dan’s newly designed foundation started with my education. Dan would send me books and articles that captured his interests and concerns, I would read them, and we would talk about them. He dictated his thoughts and sent them to me, explaining the issues that were important to him and why they interested him, and how he thought the foundation might try to tackle them. We met with researchers, think tank representatives, and other foundation officials and solicited their advice and ideas. Once I thought I had a good grasp of his intent, I drew up a draft statement. Paragraphs were added and deleted, sentences were massaged, and phrases were tinkered with; not a word escaped Dan’s scrutiny. When he was finally satisfied that the six-page document was an accurate reflection of his beliefs and objectives, he made it the official statement of his philanthropic intent and never changed a word of it again. It would guide the foundation’s actions from there on out.

“From there on out” did not imply in perpetuity. The Searle Freedom Trust will close its doors in 2025. “By limiting the life of the Foundation,” Dan says in his mission statement, “I mean to prevent the fate of other foundations that over time have evolved away from the wishes of their founders. By requiring the foundation to spend itself out of existence, I seek to ensure that the foundation will always remain in the hands of people who understand my intentions and are committed to carrying out the foundation’s mission.”

Dan took the U.S. Constitution’s system of checks and balances seriously, and he built similar checks and balances into the structure of his own foundation. The Searle Freedom Trust actually has three separate governing committees: the grant advisors—members of the policy world who decide on the grants; the family advisors—members of Dan’s immediate family who are charged with reviewing the grant advisors’ decisions to ensure they are in keeping with donor intent; and the trustees—who oversee the investment of the foundation’s assets. As Dan saw it, he needed people who were intimately involved with and knowledgeable about the policy world to decide what grants to make. Yet he trusted his children more than anyone else to safeguard his intent, hence their oversight role. And there was no reason to get policy experts mixed up in the business of managing the foundation’s assets, so he assigned fiduciary responsibility to family members and a corporate trustee. 

When Dan died on October 30, 2007—the 15th anniversary of the first annual meeting of The Philanthropy Roundtable, coincidentally—we had ten years of grantmaking under our belts, and a detailed set of instructions to guide us going forward. Over the years, Dan had gradually increased the foundation’s giving. By moving money into the foundation that was originally scheduled to be donated after his death, and by spending well above the 5 percent payout requirement, he had the enjoyment of giving away more of his wealth during his lifetime than would otherwise have been the case. But just as important, he enabled his staff and board to learn from his example how he would want his money spent. The result is that even with a substantial infusion of assets to come, we aren’t faced, as so many foundations are, with a sudden jump in resources and no substantial pattern of giving to guide us. 

During the ten years we had with him, the board and staff spent just as much time learning about Dan’s view of the world as we did giving him our advice. We learned about his policy concerns, what he thought about particular issues, and the way he liked to do business with grantees. Sitting around the conference table at board meetings, we became intimate with his way of thinking. 

Indeed, when Dan died, the overwhelming feeling I had, besides sorrow, was one of disorientation. I had spent the last ten years of my life learning to see the world through Dan’s eyes, and now he wasn’t there. I felt like my guidepost was gone. But of course, it wasn’t. It will always be there, and for as long as I’m running the Searle Freedom Trust, I will go on seeing the world through Dan’s eyes and wondering what he would think about things. And when our board meets to review proposals, the question on the table will always be, “What would Dan have done?” 

Thank you, Dan, for your devotion to liberty and your commitment to leaving the world a freer place. But thank you most of all for setting the course for us so we know how to carry out your wishes. May we look back in 2025 with satisfaction, knowing we did it your way.

Kim Dennis is president of the Searle Freedom Trust. From 1991 to 1996, she was executive director of The Philanthropy Roundtable.