Lessons in Conservative Philanthropy
Conservative philanthropy appears to be on the threshold of a new phase in its history. The assumptions that have guided it for decades have grown weaker, and a framework for the coming years may now slowly be taking shape. No one can yet know quite what this new phase will involve. But as conservatives, it is precisely in the face of change that we ought to look to history for guidance and for insight.
The history of conservative philanthropy offers no shortage of such insight. But the most promising source may be the path-breaking work of Michael Joyce. Often called the godfather of conservative philanthropy, Joyce ran the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee for a crucial 16 years, from 1985 until 2001, seeing it through a time of change in ways that stand to offer us a particularly timely and relevant set of lessons today.
Both of us were hired by and worked for Joyce at Bradley — one of us for Joyce's entire term there. We were privileged to know him. And while we cannot say for sure what he would make of the brave new political world we now inhabit, his work and words do offer some hints that are worth following.
There is always a serious risk in "speaking for the dead," and we would not want to pretend to be confident in just what Joyce might make of our time. But provided it is clear that we are only drawing on our experience with Joyce and on his words and deeds, it might be possible to offer some broad guidance to today's conservative givers as they face uncharted waters.
IDEAS AND INSTITUTIONS
"During the six or seven decades running from the end of World War II down to the present, conservative philanthropy has gone through at least two distinct phases and is now entering a third." So writes James Piereson in his important 2015 book Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America's Postwar Political Order. "The first phase, which began in the mid-1940s and ran well into the 1970s, was guided primarily by the doctrine of classical liberalism," Piereson continues. Conservative foundations in this phase, greatly influenced by Friedrich Hayek, funded intellectual and theoretical arguments against socialism.
"The second phase of conservative philanthropy began to take shape in the mid-1970s," he writes, "through the work of a handful of donors, especially the John M. Olin and Smith Richardson foundations and, later, the Bradley Foundation. The Scaife Trusts of Pittsburgh were also involved to a certain degree. These funders were more self-consciously conservative than libertarian."
Piereson knows of what he speaks. He became executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation in 1985 and ran it until, by its own design, it made its last grants and disbanded in 2005. He is now president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. At Olin, Piereson was the understudy of and successor to Joyce, who left to become president and chief executive officer of Bradley in 1985. Joyce left Bradley in 2001 and died in 2006 at the age of 63.
"Mike was an inspirational leader," Piereson said at the time to National Review's John Miller. He had "basically invented the field of modern conservative philanthropy — it existed before him and he didn't do it alone, but he made it far more successful than it had been." It was Irving Kristol, known himself as "the godfather of neoconservatism," who dubbed Joyce "the godfather of modern philanthropy."
"Of all the foundation CEOs in the past 40 years," progressive Center for Community Change founder Pablo Eisenberg was cited as saying in an obituary in Philanthropy magazine, Joyce "had the greatest impact on our society and its institutions." Miller concluded his National Review obituary of Joyce by observing, "I came to admire his sharp mind and its ability to see the connections between ideas and public policy....He was a unique talent, and he is irreplaceable."
Miller's two books on conservative philanthropy, Strategic Investment in Ideas and A Gift of Freedom, detail how Olin and Bradley funding helped create some of the core institutions of the modern conservative movement during the period that Piereson would consider conservative philanthropy's second phase. He highlights Olin's funding of individual conservative scholars in higher education generally, the law and economics schools of thought in particular, and the influential Federalist Society as examples. Bradley offered similar support to scholars, causes, and institutions too, including the Federalist Society.
As Piereson puts it, "The network of publications, university programs, and research centers built from the 1970s onward," with support from foundations like Olin and Bradley, led by people like Joyce and Piereson himself, "will continue to wield influence in the years ahead. But this phase of conservative philanthropy has now run its course — in part because it has done its work, in part because conditions have changed, and in part because some key donors are leaving the scene or have already left," Olin among them.
When this second phase took shape, the rosters of both conservative philanthropies and existing recipient organizations were short, and most of their leaders were known to each other. For the most part, they trusted each other. The conservative policy field, moreover, was essentially wide open, ripe for starting new nonprofit groups that could and would shape a movement. Funders faced many challenges, but having to choose grantees from among a lengthy list of good applicants was not yet one of them. That would come with time.
The phase now beginning will be different in some ways that are already apparent. "For one thing," Piereson argues, "conservative philanthropy will likely be based more on individual donors and less on philanthropic institutions than has been the case up to now." And for another, "conservative donors and policy groups are becoming more practical and specific in their objectives, and somewhat less general, intellectual, and adversarial."
Long before Joyce left Bradley in 2001, in fact, the foundation had already begun to become more practical and specific in its programmatic objectives, and so somewhat less general and intellectual. Bradley under Joyce essentially straddled the ideas-driven phase and the more policy-oriented phase of conservative philanthropy. And its trajectory can help us think about the future.
IDEAS INTO PRACTICE
The growing policy-mindedness of conservative philanthropy was apparent in Joyce's insight that the foundation should gradually begin supporting not only scholarship but reform initiatives, especially at the state level. Bradley's first big policy "bets" under Joyce were supporting efforts to translate both school-choice and welfare-reform ideas into real policies to be implemented, especially in Wisconsin. They reflected the domestic-policy aspirations of Joyce's Kristol-like neoconservatism. Foreign-policy and national-security bets in line with neoconservatism would also be placed.
"For Irving, it was always: Here's the problem, here's what we might do about it," Joyce wrote in "The Common Man's Uncommon Intellectual," his contribution to 1995's The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol. Joyce liked that neoconservatives addressed real, "on-the-table" controversies, not just abstract ideas. And he made sure Bradley did the same.
School choice in the form of vouchers first emerged as an idea in a 1955 article by Milton Friedman. Bradley's support began with funding for the Brookings Institution for work on Politics, Markets, and America's Schools by John Chubb and Terry Moe, which Olin also supported. And the idea first became reality with the Milwaukee parental-choice program in the 1990s, which Bradley strongly backed, and the concept continues to make progress across America to this day.
Welfare reform as we now know it began with Charles Murray's Olin-supported book Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, and made its first meaningful progress in Wisconsin in the late 1980s and 1990s as a centerpiece of Governor Tommy Thompson's agenda. It went national in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed federal welfare-reform legislation that followed the same general model.
Bradley became even more policy-conscious in Joyce's final years at the foundation and following his departure. It led conservative philanthropy in building deep ties not only to conservative think tanks and academic programs but also (if less directly) to some policy-minded governors and legislators who would advance the ideas honed by scholars in the policy arena. This phase of conservative philanthropy took for granted an extensive overlap between Republican politics and conservative ideas. That is one reason why it might now be drawing to a close.
The coming phase of conservative philanthropy will be shaped by many factors, of course, but these will certainly include the disorientation that the presidential election of 2016 and its aftermath caused, or at least evidenced, in the conservative intellectual world. Recall the February 15, 2016, issue of National Review — the special "Against Trump" issue, featuring contributions from across the range of conservative intellectuals and policy experts. Many if not most of those contributors worked at foundation-funded academic centers, think tanks, journals, or policy groups. They had their say, but it made little impression; Trump was nonetheless nominated by the Republican Party, and elected president by the American people.
For both ideas-driven and policy-oriented conservative grant-makers, regardless of their own views of Trump, that experience had to raise a basic question about the future. The infrastructure built up over the past few decades remains important, but if it is to be politically influential, it surely seems in need of some transformation. This is clearly not a moment for mere continuity; it is a time to start a new phase. And for that very reason it is a time to consider Mike Joyce's wisdom and experience. Looking at the altered landscape we now confront, Joyce would wonder what to start and what new bets to place.
CALLING THE PLAYS
Mike Joyce was born to a family of blue-collar Catholic Democrats in Cleveland in 1942. He got a formative classical liberal education at St. Ignatius High School, and graduated just as Vatican II was about to begin. The Jesuits there gave him an intellectual discipline that he never seemed to lose and that he enjoyed exercising. He understood, and wanted to apply, a balance between science and the humanities, faith and reason. He knew the importance of time and place, of history and geography.
Joyce went to Kent State University, where he played on the football team. He liked sports and athletes. He loved Woody Hayes. He used to talk about how he stood up for his African-American teammates who, in those pre-Civil Rights Act days, were denied service in public-accommodations settings while the team traveled. Injuries sidelined him, and eventually he transferred to Cleveland State, from which he graduated with degrees in history and philosophy in 1967.
After graduation, he briefly taught history and coached football at St. Edward High School in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood. Just as a gambler means for every bet to win, Joyce would often observe, "Coaches design every play in football to score." Then he'd wonder, "How come they don't?" His answer would usually then work its way toward some expression of original sin.
Joyce joined the Education Research Council of America in 1968, before moving to Baltimore to run the Goldseker Foundation in 1975. With Kristol's backing, he then joined the conservative Institute for Educational Affairs in 1978, before going to Olin in 1979.
At his core, the Jesuitical Joyce was a pugilistic anti-progressive, combatting the "long march through the institutions" of post-modern radical secularism, as he himself would put it. He was intelligent, curious, and well read. He was an active and intense listener, though he thoroughly enjoyed engaging in lively exchange, too — whether with Ivy League professors, the bartender, or his staff at Bradley.
While always adversarial and contrarian, he was also always inclined to reach out and engage. He did not want to ghettoize conservatism. He wanted to be in the world, not withdrawn from it, and he thought conservatism needed to be there, too.
Joyce excelled at putting the right people together on the right projects at the right time in the right place. These were his Xs and Os in the playbook, and he meant to score. In fact, he would recommend, always be on offense.
He quickly sized up and seized opportunities, usually valuing them over any perceived need to achieve a "watered-down" consensus. Articulating a principle or having made a decision, he spoke declaratively — again, to whomever would listen. At Bradley, everybody always knew what he wanted and pretty much how he would want it done.
And just what, in the big picture, did Joyce really want? Broadly speaking, he was committed to indirectly influencing policymaking by affecting its underlying culture, informing it with research, and ensuring it a supply of smart, talented personnel. He resented the way that progressive philanthropists were, in his view, trying to circumvent traditional electoral politics — which could be influenced more fairly by culture, evidence, and reasoned arguments on the basis of both.
Strategically, however, we believe Joyce would recommend against funding electoral politics and individual candidates and campaigns, a practice that has become so central to conservative giving in our time. This direct funding would be too much of a departure from his strategy of straddling ideas and policy, and any political victories would only be temporary, anyway. Politicians who might become policymakers can be an X or an O on the field, but football is not an individual, country-club sport like golf (which he hated). It's a team sport, with many Xs and Os, and the whole team has to know the plays.
As a private foundation, Bradley could not and did not engage in electoral politics anyway, but he would very much dislike the short-term outlook of individual conservative givers who do. We think he would still have considered culture more important to the long-term future of America and the West than politics. His appreciation for history called for a long-term outlook, as both a logical and a practical matter.
Joyce also would likely not have been supportive of the increased libertarianism of contemporary conservatism, economic and otherwise. In fact, he was actually a little standoffish toward Olin's law and economics giving, though Bradley did join in some of it. He believed in an ordered liberty, and he often cited Kristol's famous "two cheers for capitalism" approvingly. Joyce believed in Catholic social and economic teaching in general and Pope John Paul II's Centesimus Annus encyclical in particular — which praised the role free-market capitalism can play in spreading wealth and opportunity, but with caveats for the importance of labor unions and a state that protects the poor. Joyce would surely still be citing these today, and would urge that they guide giving.
Relatedly, we think Joyce would have lamented what he would have considered the downgrading of attention to social issues in conservatism. He would thus have been receptive to those arguments linking the decline of the family to the decline of economic well-being.
And once more in the vein of Kristol, Joyce had great affection for Reagan Democrats and very much appreciated the empathy of which Henry Olsen writes in The Working-Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, a book we suspect Joyce would have liked. "[N]o element of Irving's work," Joyce wrote in his The Neoconservative Imagination chapter, "has been more enlightening or instructive than his subtle, nuanced teaching about the virtues and vices of the everyday bourgeois citizen."
Joyce would thus have had an innate, anti-progressive affection for most of Trump's supporters. Many, if not most, of these supporters, of course, either ignored or rejected the "Against Trump" exhortations of the conservative intellectual and policy infrastructure Joyce helped build. This disconnect would have led him to ask what the intellectual right was missing at least as much as what Trump's voters were missing.
ANTI-PROGRESSIVE AND ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT
Joyce would have respected these voters' regard for America's national identity, properly understood, and their contempt for the establishment, including conservative think tanks and the Republican Party, its consultants and its donor class. Much of this establishment's behavior during the past decade and a half, in fact, would surely have struck him as intellectually undisciplined, process-driven, managerially focused, and too friendly to bureaucracy.
He would likely have wanted to philanthropically express solidarity with these everyday citizens. He thought one should have great — but as he would caution, not transcendent — faith in the common sense of American citizens. He would rely upon and cite this faith often, including, for example, when rankled by voucher opponents who said there'd be schools run by witches if public funding could follow the wishes of parents.
It is impossible to know what Joyce would have thought of Donald Trump, and we would not pretend to try. But he would surely have seen some opportunities afforded by the new policymaking landscape created, if not led, by Trump. He would have tried to take advantage of them, if and when it was possible.
To an even greater degree, though, he would have worked to seize the opportunities afforded by this political moment at the state and local levels, seeing them as well-sized "playing fields" for certain philanthropies. This was part of his playbook at Bradley, most prominently including school-choice and welfare experiments in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. Knowing the importance of time and place, of history and geography, he knew what the state's progressivism had wrought, and he knew that the foundation he ran was in an industrial, Midwestern city that was not and should never be considered an island separate from the rest of the country.
PROGRAMS AND TACTICS
Programmatically, it seems plausible that school choice, welfare reform, and higher-education activism and reform probably would have remained priorities of Joyce's, but the old approach to each would need to be revised and updated to take changed circumstances into account.
We think Joyce, differing here from supporters of Trump, would still have thought that America and American philanthropy should have a prominent and active role to play in the world — though, again, he may have chosen to focus his efforts on the state and local playing fields that allow certain foundations to achieve greater effects, if more limited in scale.
He would also still have thought that religion had a place in the public square. Joyce was a "compassionate conservative" back when that's what they were called. He might have fought even harder to help secure and defend against threats to religious freedom, domestically and internationally. He'd have been appalled by the persecution of Christians internationally and would have wanted to act against it.
We have reason to think Joyce would have been very unsettled by the changed media landscape since the end of his tenure. Under Joyce's leadership, Bradley refused to support the American Spectator's investigative "Arkansas Project," which spent significant time and resources exposing Bill and Hillary Clinton's corruption there. Richard Scaife was very much behind this effort and was looking for allies, but Bradley passed, thinking such efforts would, in the end, do more harm than good — including harm to the respect the Bradley "brand" enjoyed and passed along to those who received its support. Joyce did not like the project, and would not much like the current state of public discourse in the country, either, we think. It does not engender trust in institutions or among fellow citizens.
While he might have explored taking advantage of opportunities afforded by new media technologies, he would have been wary of a conservatism journalistically ghettoized into right-of-center webzines. He had an oft-expressed distaste for conservative colleges that deliberately held themselves aloof from society in order to raise money. We think he would still have placed value on trying to get funded research and commentary on the pages and airwaves of established newspapers and mainstream media outlets. But he would have proceeded with great caution in considering new or increased philanthropic investments in media.
Tactically, Joyce would surely be seeking non-traditional allies — especially liberals — in pursuit of specific policy issues and aims. This was part of his playbook, too. Bradley used to do this all the time, in fact, in the context of its work on K-12 history education, school choice, and welfare, among other areas. This might be more difficult to do now, for many reasons he would decry, but he'd still try.
We do not believe Joyce would have wanted to partake in the increased collaboration and networking, often at some pretty nice places, that has become such a common practice among conservative funders. He'd have seen its concomitant bargaining and compromise as too much of a risk to the proper implementation of a singular donor intent, for one thing, and he didn't think committees made good quarterbacks or coaches. Huddles are for hearing the play that the coach thinks best.
Once having heard the play, in the solidarity of a huddle, every player knows his role. The play won't work if the quarterback decides to block or the snapper throws a pass. We therefore do not think Joyce would have liked funders' increasingly active involvement in the organizations they support. Sitting on a board is not an appropriate role for a funder, he'd think, and it makes it harder for them to play their actual role, which might include declining to continue support. He would have valued philanthropic agility and entrepreneurialism even more. Relatedly, he'd still have preferred general-operations to project-specific support, in part as a way of communicating trust in the grantee.
Finally, we think Joyce would still hate the self-congratulatory awards given by funders to each other to justify their already high self-confidence, as well as the table-buying at awards ceremonies and annual dinners — perhaps even more than he did when we worked for him.
INVESTING IN RENEWAL
Near the end of Piereson's description in Shattered Consensus of conservative philanthropy's shift from its ideas-driven phase into a policy-oriented phase, he ponders the question, "Does this mean that there is no longer a need to sustain and renew the intellectual basis of conservatism?" He rejects this possibility:
In the end, the struggle to shape the future must be fought out on a wider front of culture and morals as well as politics. Any movement, if it is to maintain or augment its influence, will need to wage an ongoing battle of ideas, and it will need the help of sympathetic philanthropists.
This is surely at least as true now as in the earlier phases of conservative philanthropy. The uncertainty of our political moment calls for a re-engagement in the battle of ideas — not for retreat or for alienation.
Informed by Joyce and given our own experience, we believe conservative giving strategies should try to construct and maintain a coherent intellectual framework that speaks to contemporary America's strengths and weaknesses — including the ideas and attitudes behind the Trump victory and the policies that might perhaps be furthered by or during his presidency. A small number of donors are genuinely trying to build this; others may just be pretending, merely maintaining a holding pattern until after the turbulence subsides.
In the wake of the last election, the field is wide open for the construction of new modes of intellectual infrastructure on the right — perhaps as wide open as at the beginning of each earlier phase of conservative philanthropy. We think education, including higher education, should remain as large a component of conservative philanthropy as it was in Joyce's heyday. K-12 education should still include school choice and charter schools, of course, and be constantly updated to include new technological methods to deliver the most choice to parents. It should also include, however, a focus on the history and civics education that is so sorely lacking in today's America — to such ill and sometimes even violent effect in our fractured republic.
That ill effect has been evidenced recently in higher education, even more plainly than during Joyce's days at Bradley. Investments to mitigate or prevent the erosion of university culture should be a high priority, particularly with the aim of defending and advancing free speech and academic freedom for faculty members and students.
We think the changing nature of employment, and the skills necessary for American workers to get and hold a job, should be considered something of a priority "successor interest" to the successful, work-based welfare reform of the '90s. This should be a guiding principle and major component of more conservative giving. It would encompass public-education campaigns and policy proposals to address the lower levels of labor-force participation rates and the growing numbers of work-discouraging disability claims, as well as proposals to address the opioid crisis. It would further encompass apprenticeship programs, in addition to substantial support of serious thinking about and activity regarding the effects of artificial intelligence and robots on the shrinking working class.
This employment agenda should not be read to mean helping only the white working class, as many current commentators might be quick to interpret it. The demographic character of the American workforce, and the American public, is changing rapidly. How to appeal to these workers, how to construct a coherent framework around their thinking and attitudes while respecting America's national identity as much as they themselves already do, and how to propose and implement policies within that framework should be at the forefront of conservative-philanthropic thinking now.
Funders should thus confront head on the many challenges presented by immigration, not abstractly but in real terms, addressing the real interests on all sides of the controversy. In so doing, assimilation — acculturation, really — should be a program priority, to prevent the kind of alienation from society that seems to be so rampant and that has the potential to gut the entire effort.
As the most-basic unit of Tocquevillian civil society, the family needs to be moved closer to the center of public discourse and policy discussions about how to best help working citizens. Its very definition is in question, as is its efficacy in promoting social and economic well-being. The religiosity of Hispanic- and Asian-Americans may increase the public's receptivity to conservative arguments in this context.
For this and other reasons, religion itself needs to be moved back into the public square and become a focus of conservative giving. Religious freedom is at great risk in the culture, and it should be better defended and advanced, domestically and internationally. Philanthropy can and should defend and advance it.
The economic freedom necessary for American workers and their families to flourish in the market should still be vigorously defended and advanced as well, of course, with help from conservative givers. These workers do not want to be overtaxed, and they do not want the businesses they own or for which they work to be unfairly over-regulated by an overbearing administrative state. They want the opportunity, the human dignity, recognized in the country's founding documents. This constitutional order — including its central principles of federalism and the separation of powers — needs to be restored.
Finally, and crucially, conservatives should consider looking to make these kinds of funding bets outside of electoral politics: Find another Irving Kristol or two; recruit more Xs and Os, wherever they can be found. Be on offense. Call the plays — even when that involves consciously creating more controversies, and picking more fights, to make a point and move policy in a positive direction. Meaningful incremental progress, "positive yardage," is worthwhile. Avoid progressivism itself, of course, but also avoid the tempting top-down tendencies of progressivism. All the while — and it will be a long while — change more minds. Keep, and exhibit, faith.
In light of what Joyce achieved and how, that's what we believe today's conservative givers should seek to do in this new era.