Changing Hearts, Minds, and Laws

History shows that donors can have big, healthy effects on public policy—if they are prepared

The traditional categories of philanthropy are familiar and broadly accepted:  religious works, medicine, scientific research, education, almsgiving and economic uplift, disaster relief, environmental conservation, the arts, and so on. It may not be self-evident that trying to reshape public policy by promoting particular ideas and organizations is an equally worthy cause. Yet donating money to change public thinking and government policy has now taken its place next to service-centered giving as a constructive branch of philanthropy.

Today, many donors view reform of public policy as a necessary adjunct to their efforts to improve lives directly. From charter schooling to creation of think tanks of all stripes, from tort reform to gay advocacy, philanthropists have become involved in many efforts to shape opinion and law.

This is harder than it sounds. Public-policy reform requires philosophical perspective, understanding of governmental practice, and administrative care. Public-policy philanthropists may encounter opponents operating from different principles who view them as outright enemies. Moreover, public-policy struggles never seem to end: victories one year become defeats the next, followed by comebacks, then setbacks, and on and on.

Where can philanthropists turn for the expertise they need to become effective at this increasingly important branch of giving? To history. American donors have been active in reforming public policy for generations. Modern givers can learn much from prior examples.

Abolitionists go to court

The most consequential change of all in American public policy was the abolition of slavery. Private donors were right at the heart of that effort. The abolition movement showed there is no cause too big for philanthropy.

Central New Yorker Gerrit Smith donated the equivalent of about a billion dollars in present funds to help banish human bondage. His spending ranged from buying enslaved families and giving them their freedom, to underwriting Frederick Douglass’s newspapers, to organizing civil disobedience and rescues in response to the Fugitive Slave Law. He even funded John Brown’s gunrunning to abolitionist forces in Kansas, and Brown’s raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal, which sparked the Civil War. As an act of reconciliation after the war, Smith paid the bail to free Jefferson Davis.

Wealthy businessmen and evangelical Christians Arthur and Lewis Tappan were among the most devoted and successful philanthropic campaigners for abolition. One of Lewis’s great successes came in 1839, when the human cargo aboard a slave transport called the ­Amistad rose up against their captors. They gained control of the ship and intended to sail for Africa, but their navigators—hostages from the crew—tricked them into making for the United States, where they were imprisoned for piracy and murder. The decision to treat the Africans as criminals for trying to free themselves outraged Lewis Tappan, who formed a committee to aid them.

He found a man capable of translating the obscure Mendi dialect spoken by the defendants. He paid Yale students to tutor the jailed Africans in English and American social practice. Lewis hired top-flight legal counsel, and even recruited former President John Quincy Adams to represent the Africans before the Supreme Court—which ultimately ordered their release in 1841.

The Amistad trial, as Lewis had anticipated, was a vivid teachable moment for the American public. It brought the moral arguments around slavery onto the nation’s front pages for many months, and highlighted the horrors of the slave trade. It became a public-relations coup for abolitionists, and built emotional support for their claims of justice.

Arthur and Lewis Tappan gave deeply of both their talents and their money in the effort to change slave policies. For their troubles they endured savage attacks from opponents, including burnings of their homes and personal possessions, murder attempts, and regular vilification. Both brothers lived to see the end of the Civil War, though, and enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that slavery, at long last, had been banished from American society, in no small part because a handful of major donors, backed by thousands of small givers and volunteers, had refused to be silent.

Reimagining welfare

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation has had great success in influencing public policy in recent decades. It was in welfare reform that the foundation arguably made its greatest achievement. It did so by starting on the local level, creating a smashing triumph in its home state of Wisconsin, and then using potent ideas, savvy strategy, and patient funding to lead the way to a national transformation of the way our governments aid poor people.

By the mid-1980s, Wisconsin was more than ready for a fresh approach to welfare. Its benefits were generous, abuses were common, and the public was becoming fed up with the social dysfunction encouraged by having whole neighborhoods dependent upon the “mailbox economy” of government checks. So the Bradley Foundation began a multiyear effort to uncover a better way.

Bradley both practiced its own ­public-policy philanthropy and built on successes by other foundations. In 1982, social scientist Charles Murray published a long article in the Public Interest, an influential quarterly journal co-edited by Irving Kristol that was itself an important product of private philanthropy. With special grants from the John M. Olin Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation, Murray expanded his article into a pathbreaking book about the problem of dependency. Losing Ground changed the national conversation about welfare.

The Bradley Foundation next generated some political consensus around what Murray, Olin, and Smith ­Richardson started. One of its initial grants, for $300,000 in 1986, supported a yearlong seminar that brought together some of the country’s top scholars on welfare, including both conservatives like Murray, Lawrence Mead, and Michael Novak, and liberals such as Franklin Raines, Robert Reischauer, and Alice Rivlin. Called the Working Seminar on Family and American Welfare Policy, it produced months of cooperative investigation, a series of research papers, and a highly readable book-length final report.

The seminar report, which Michael Novak drafted and shepherded to unanimous approval, sketched a remarkable new consensus. The conservatives in the group allowed that “a good society is judged by how well it cares for its most vulnerable members.” The liberals acknowledged that “no able adult should be allowed voluntarily to take from the common good without also contributing to it.”

By the time Tommy Thompson was elected governor of Wisconsin in 1987, Bradley had blazed a whole network of paths toward reform. With additional practical, intellectual, and financial assistance from Bradley, Wisconsin’s new chief executive committed his state to put a bold transformation into effect. The welfare establishment resisted vehemently, insisting starvation and social disorder would result.

Thompson began to implement a series of piecemeal reforms. People weren’t simply kicked off welfare, they were required (and helped) to find jobs as a condition of receiving any public benefits. Welfare enrollments began to plummet.

Many Democrats in the legislature had supported Thompson’s initial agenda. By 1993, though, they thought the reforms had gone far enough. To press the brakes without getting blamed by the public for obstruction, they tried a risky political maneuver: They voted to abolish Wisconsin’s welfare system entirely. They expected that Thompson would veto such a dramatic move, blurring perceptions about which party backed real change. Thompson decided to call their bluff, and signed the bill.

This gave the governor a blank slate and chance to build an entirely new system. His state could apply insights discovered by the various investigators backed by Bradley and other public-policy philanthropists. But he would have to do this under strict deadline, risking chaos if a substitute program couldn’t be designed quickly to replace the old regime.

So Thompson, relying heavily on the Bradley Foundation for rapid funding, turned to the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank then based in Indianapolis. Hudson agreed to do much of the detailed research and design work needed to transform Wisconsin’s system from its old focus on income maintenance to a new emphasis on supporting work by poor individuals. Bradley ponied up around $2 million, starting in 1994, to fuel this urgent work.

The ultimate results were striking. When Thompson took office in 1987, Wisconsin had 98,000 people on its welfare rolls. The numbers dropped every year after the workfare reform—to just 11,000 by 1998, an astonishing 89 percent reduction. And recipients, families, and children ended up with a better quality of life. Family and child poverty dropped, and indicators of well-being turned upward.

The new Republican Congress elected in 1994 created a landmark federal welfare-reform statute modeled on Wisconsin’s example, and President Clinton signed the measure into law in 1996. The new system offered extensive child, medical, and job help, but ended any long-term entitlement to an annual income. Recipients had to work, and families were limited to five years of assistance. Wisconsin was the lodestar, and the Bradley Foundation had ordered the universe from which it emerged.

Shifting a state from red to blue

In 2004, Colorado was a solidly Republican state, with the governor, both U.S. senators, and five of its seven members of the House belonging to the GOP. That same year, Colorado gave its electoral votes in the Presidential election to George W. Bush.

By the time of the 2008 elections, however, the politics of the state had been turned upside-down. After all the ballots had been counted, the governor, both U.S. senators, and five of seven House members were Democrats, plus Barack Obama carried the state. It was a full-fledged flip.

A key part of this dramatic shift could be ascribed to a group of liberal philanthropists who set out to remake Colorado politics through a mix of public-policy giving and campaign donations. The so-called Gang of Four consisted of Rutt Bridges, a venture capitalist; Tim Gill, founder of the software firm Quark; Jared Polis, an Internet businessman who would win election to Congress as a Democrat in 2008; and Pat Stryker, the heiress of a ­medical-equipment company.

All were motivated to some degree by gay rights. “Nothing can compare to the psychological trauma of realizing that more than half the people in your state believe that you don’t deserve equal rights,” Gill told the Chronicle of ­Philanthropy after Colorado voters amended the state constitution to prohibit the government from granting protected status on the basis of sexual orientation. By the late 1990s, Gill and his allies were determined to elect Democrats to office at all levels of government.

In 1999, Bridges gave $1 million to found the Bighorn Center for Public Policy. The short-lived think tank pushed successfully for new rules on campaign finance, setting the stage for the Gang of Four to fund an infrastructure of nonprofit organizations that issued reports, investigated politicians (usually Republicans), and generated controversy. They gave Colorado Media Matters, a left-wing pressure group, enough money to keep a dozen people on staff. With their support, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in ­Washington, a liberal group that works to publicize scandals involving conservative political leaders, opened a Colorado field office, as did other advocacy nonprofits.

Through their combination of ­public-policy philanthropy and traditional campaign contributions, the Gang of Four built a well-oiled machine. In an investigative story for the Denver Post, reporter Karen Crummy explained how the various pieces fit together: “A liberal group with a nonpartisan name like ­Colorado First puts out a list of polluters and demands official action. A ­Republican running for Colorado office is on the list. Paid liberal bloggers chatter. An online liberal publication with a newspaper-like name writes an article about the candidate and his company polluting Colorado’s streams. A liberal advocacy group puts out a news release, citing the group and the pollution, which sound reputable to an ordinary voter. They mass e-mail the release and attach a catchy phrase to it like ‘Dirty Doug.’ At some point, the mainstream media checks out the allegations.”

The overall spending by the Gang of Four and their allies dwarfed that of their conservative rivals. It was an impressive effort, made even more impressive by the result—a wholesale transfer of ­Colorado’s political allegiance from one party to the other. Nothing is permanent in politics, and in the deep-red 2014 election, Republicans reclaimed one of the two U.S. Senate seats in Colorado. But the incumbent Democrat governor won re-election, and the other Senate seat and three of the seven House seats remain with Democrats. Colorado is now a purple state.

And the Gill/Bridges/Polis/Stryker donor structure remains in place. Through investments in skillful policy entrepreneurs, they took ideas that were out of favor and made them seem inevitable. In a remarkably short period of time, these donors sparked a large swing in governance.

Serendipity and strategy

Pressing the government or fellow citizens for new policies isn’t the only way to change public life. Over the years, some American philanthropists have chosen to have their effect by transforming important institutions of intellectual life. National change may be less immediate or direct when it is pursued in this way, but planting seeds of revised thinking can eventually have long-lasting influence on law and culture.

The donors who created think tanks like the Brookings Institution or the Heritage Foundation have tasted these long-term effects. And the fresh ideas produced by such institutions have indisputably improved the health of American governance and public life. By hiring top scholars, working on a broad range of topics, and pumping out research closely timed to the cresting of issues in ­Washington or state capitals, donor-funded think tanks have become a major part of American problem-solving.

Of course there is another branch making public policy in America, and that is the courts. Liberal philanthropists pioneered the concept of ­public-interest law firms, starting in the 1960s and ’70s. Suing at every opportunity, often on novel grounds, these litigators have exerted enormous influence on public policy, especially in areas of civil rights. Legal activism has become a powerful change strategy, offering funders the possibility of sparking enduring reform.

Public-policy breakthroughs often cannot be predicted. So one of the secrets to successful policy-oriented philanthropy is to position oneself so as to be ready when an opportunity for action opens up. Serendipity is not a strategy, but the reality is that some of the greatest achievements in ­public-policy philanthropy were unexpected. And when the stars do align, if some sage giver is standing prepared and in position, a comparatively modest investment can sometimes have powerful effects.

Contributing editor John Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. Karl Zinsmeister is vice president of publications at The Philanthropy Roundtable. This is adapted from the Roundtable’s new guidebook, Agenda Setting: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Influencing Public Policy.