Streetcar Line

Establishing Firm Foundations

How to do philanthropy right…and wrong.

By 5.21.09

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Henry Regnery and Henry Salvatori did it right. Henry Ford didn't. The fate of nations may depend on getting it right.

Philanthropy, that is. Philanthropy, and investments, in support of ordered liberty. Regnery and Salvatori were among the philanthropists and investors whose contributions to the American nation have lived long after their own days on Earth. Ford's intended contributions, though, through the foundation that bears his name, have been used in ways completely opposite than he surely would have wanted them -- so badly misused, indeed, that in 1977 his grandson, Henry Ford II, resigned from the foundation's board in disgust at the foundation's outrageously leftist bent.

Two books by noted conservatives in recent years tell the divergent tales of free-market philanthropy done right and that which has gone awry. The latter, in 2007, is longtime conservative writer Phil Kent's Foundations of Betrayal: How the Liberal Super-Rich Undermine America. The stories of the former, the success stories, are told in 2008's Funding Fathers: The Unsung Heroes of the Conservative Movement, by Nicole Hoplin and Ron Robinson of the Young America's Foundation. Reading the two books back-to-back provides great insights into this essential but too-little-appreciated battlefield of the political/philosophical wars.

In Foundations of Betrayal, Kent shows in shocking detail how "thousands of foundations… are dominated by big government collectivists, globalists and radical lefties. Many of these institutions' founders would be horrified if they could have foreseen what their heirs and successors would be doing." The worse news is that the leftist foundations well outweigh those on the right: "The Capital Research Center says Ford's level of grant awarding alone is approximately 15 times the amount of the three largest politically conservative foundations combined."

Most of the leftist foundation money supports all sorts of often viciously anti-American claptrap. Racial grievance-mongering, global warming hysteria, left-wing lawsuits, anti-Semitic conferences, anti-free-market jeremiads and demonstrations, radical feminist and other counter-culture groups all exist and stay afloat almost entirely through the donations from these wealthy foundations -- whose founders in most cases intended to support the traditional American concept of liberty, not undermine it.

Again and again, the foundation founders make the mistake of attaching too few restrictions on what the foundation can do, how it will be operated, and by whom. The result, as Kent describes, is a perpetually self-renewing flow of big bucks to causes, some of them quite effectively pursued, that do great damage to the fabric of American life.

The good news is that conservative philanthropy often gets more bang for its bucks. In Funding Fathers, Hoplin and Robinson tell a series of inspirational, sometimes heartwarming stories about how this happens. Perhaps the single best investment, penny for penny, of this sort was the $2,000 check that a man named William Volker gave to Friedrich Hayek in 1945 to pay travel expenses for 17 economists, thinkers and writers to travel to Mont Pelerin, Switzerland to help found the quintessential free-market Mont Pelerin Society -- the society whose work has had a profoundly beneficial effect on world history ever since.

Historically minded conservatives will recognize many of the names (in addition to Hayek) of those 17: Milton Friedman, Aaron Director, Karl Brandt, Henry Hazlitt, Felix Morley, Ludwig von Mises, George Stigler…. All gathered together with other, like-minded free marketeers from around the world, to create thousands of publications promoting the cause of liberty. Eventually, eight Mont Pelerin Society members would win Nobel Prizes, while several others would become world political leaders (among them President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic). And all made possible, originally, largely through a single grant of $2,000!

Hoplin and Robinson tell their stories with verve and affection; rather than a dry recitation of data, they provide 12 mini-biographies good enough, if Hollywood were paying attention, for major movie material. Most (but not all) of them are true rags-to-riches tales of people who didn't merely hoard their riches but used them to give back, abundantly, to the country that nurtured and provided the opportunity for their dreams. Some of the names, such as Regnery, William F. Buckley, Joseph Coors, and Dean Clarence "Pat" Manion, will be familiar to many readers. Others, such as Antony Fisher or John Engalitcheff, may not be. All, though, implicitly teach lessons about how freedom-loving conservatives can make the most of our chances and any wealth we create, for the good of these wonderful United States, if we are resourceful and committed to our country's cause.

One thing conservative activists without such personal finances can do to encourage those smart enough to accumulate such blessings is to express deep gratitude -- not fawningly, but sincerely -- to anybody today who follows the example of those like Salvatori, Regnery, Coors and Engalitcheff. I think, for instance, of the Templeton family whose foundation gives away some $60 million annually for causes of faith, honest science, and freedom. Or the Koch family foundations, which support free enterprise. Or…but I better stop there lest, in trying to list too many of them, I inadvertently leave a few out. The point is that these people could do something far more selfish with their money, but they don't. We need to let them know how much they are appreciated. (Among the most effective of them, let it be said, is Ron Robinson's Young America's Foundation itself.)

Together, Foundations of Betrayal and Funding Fathers provide the flip sides that demonstrate how incredibly important philanthropy can be, for ill or for good. Kent ends the former by quoting Andrew Carnegie to the effect that "one of the most serious obstacles to the improvement of our [human] race is indiscriminate charity." Carnegie was right. But also correct are Hoplin and Robinson in showing us how philanthropy done wisely can help secure a legacy of liberty for untold millions yet unborn.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.