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Intimidating foundations

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Conservative groups view persuading or, if necessary, coercing foundations from funding groups deemed too 'liberal' as critical to ensuring conservative ascendancy in the 21st century.

In a book review for the Philanthropy Roundtable, the senior program officer at the JM Foundation, Carl Helstrom pined for conservative dominance in philanthropy. "Advocates of private philanthropy and the free enterprise system of which they are an integral part have now spent close to a century in the wilderness. By recovering the capital of their intellectual forbearers [sic], they may just have the opportunity to turn the world right-side up again in the next century," he wrote. [1]

One strand of the conservative campaign has been to challenge the moral right of foundations to support mainstream and 'liberal' causes by disputing that such grants are consistent with donor intent. In particular this line of argument has been promulgated by Martin Morse Wooster and the Capital Research Center (CRC).

For example, the May 2004 edition of the Capital Research Center's publication, Foundation Watch, featured an article by 'wise use' movement leader Ron Arnold on the Pew Charitable Trusts. Arnold cited Wooster's book, The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent, when criticising the use of Pew funds, which originated from an oil company, to support work on climate change. (Undisclosed to readers was that in 2003 ExxonMobil funded both the Capital Research Center and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise). [2]

In the context of Pew's financial restructuring, a February 2004 editorial page column in the Wall Street Journal, echoed the complaint that foundations were not complying with 'donor intent'. "Congress writes the laws that make this possible, but the last time Congress seriously debated the issue of foundations and donor intent and the tax breaks that guarantee perpetuity was the famous Patman hearings of the 1960s. Looks to us as though someone on the Senate Finance or House Government Reform Committees hasn't been minding the store," the WSJ wrote. [3]

But even if conservatives were successful in enforcing their version of 'donor intent', they would still be aggrieved. CRC for example, complains bitterly about the projects funded by George Soros. [4] [5] [6] For his part Ron Arnold has complained about the philanthropic activities of Ted Turner's Turner Foundation. [7]

In the last four years efforts by conservative groups to publicise the role of foundations in funding projects have taken off. A range of publications and online databases criticising foundations and specific non-profit groups deemed to be 'liberal' have proliferated.

The conservative group most active in this area is the Capital Research Center, publishing its monthly Foundation Watch, Organization Trends and Labor Watch newsletters. It also hosts an online database on foundations and NGOs Searchlight. However, profiles in the Searchlight database contain very dated information - such as the one on the CRC itself - creating the impression that the organizations enthusiasm for the project is flagging.

Rick Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) is also active in this area hosting the ActivistCash.com website. While CRC explicitly criticises foundations, ActivistCash.com and CCF opts for a softer 'divide and rule' strategy. It publicly seeks to undermine the credibility of specific non-profit groups and, while it identifies their foundation funders, refrains from commentary. CCF apparently hope their profiles will 'chill' foundations from financially supporting profiled non-profits.

Ron Arnold's Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise also hosts an online database, Undue Influence, with information on both non-profit groups and foundation funders. While Undue Influence has extensive information, like CRC's Searchlight, it too is rather dated. While there are also numerous reports on groups and foundations on the CDFE's site, 2002 appears to have been the high-water mark. In 2003 only three new profiles were added. In 2004 Arnold has only added one profile, the republication of an article on Pew Charitable Trusts from CRC's Foundation Watch. [8]

Arnold's complaint is not that foundations fund projects out of touch with the views of the American public, but that they are in tune with them, thereby depriving 'wise use' groups of potential resources. The lack of funding for grassroots 'wise use' groups, he said in an interview, was "... a result of the overall liberal cast of American society, which has thoroughly permeated many big foundations, so you find that $3 out of every $4 given by foundations go to left-leaning groups rather than to right-leaning groups". [9]

While conservative groups would welcome government initiatives to curtail 'liberal' grantmaking by foundations, they can still achieve much simply by trading on fear. The strategy of conservative groups appears to be aimed at 'chilling' foundations from making grants to groups that offend conservatives policy preferences.

Just as there have been a small number of public interest groups singled out for particular attention, so too have conservatives zeroed in on a number of foundations supporting environmental and other groups. These include:

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