Introduction: Overseas

Donating money to modify public thinking and government policy has now taken its place next to service-centered giving as a constructive branch of philanthropy. Many donors now view public-policy reform as a necessary adjunct to their efforts to improve lives directly. From school choice to creation of think tanks of all stripes, from tort reform to gay advocacy, donors have become involved in many efforts to shape opinion and law. 

This is perhaps inevitable given the mushrooming presence of government in our lives. In 1930, just 12 percent of U.S. GDP was consumed by government; by 2012 that tripled to 36 percent. Unless and until that expansion of the state reverses, it is unrealistic to expect the philanthropic sector to stop trying to have a say in public policies. 

Sometimes it is not enough to pay for a scholarship; one must change laws so that high-quality public schools exist for scholarship recipients to take advantage of. Sometimes it’s not enough to build a house of worship; one must erect guardrails that protect the ability of citizens to practice their faith freely. 

Because public-policy philanthropy has only become common recently, this list has more entries dating from the latest generation, compared to our other lists of U.S. philanthropic action. And since one man’s good deed is another man’s calamity when it comes to giving with political implications, we have included policy advocacy of all sorts on this list. 

Not all public policies split neatly into “Left” or “Right” variants. But for those that do, the reality is that much more philanthropic money has been deployed leftward than rightward. Detailed quantification in the book The New Leviathan showed that 122 major foundations with total assets of $105 billion provided $8.8 billion of funding for liberal causes in 2010. That same year, 82 foundations with total assets of $10 billion provided $0.8 billion for conservative causes. In other words: there is eleven times as much foundation money going into public-policy philanthropy that aims left as aims right. (Individual donors are more evenly split, though still predominantly on the left.) The Washington Post once observed that the Ford Foundation alone has given more to liberal causes in one year than donor Richard Scaife (sometimes called the Daddy Warbucks of the Right) gave to conservative causes in 40 years. 

Whatever your aspirations for American governance and society, tracking the deeds of previous public-policy donors—summarized below—will help you find the best ways to succeed. 

— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister with assistance from Christopher Levenick, Evan Sparks