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Politically-minded donors: should you spend out to advance your cause, or patiently support reform rather than revolution?

There are quite a lot of debates going on within conservatism right now, most of them healthy. One of the most important, which underlies many of the others, also has serious ramifications for another, narrower discussion ongoing among conservatives — concerning philanthropy. 

Burke or Paine?
The debate was well outlined by Hudson Institute senior fellow John Fonte last December in an essay for American Greatness titled “Disruptive Politics in the Trump Era: Yuval Levin or Victor Davis Hanson?” One side is inclined to believe that conservatives basically “share the same principles with American liberals but differ with them over policy and how best to implement those principles.” Fonte takes the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, as representative of this position (though there could have been others). 

The other side thinks we are in a “much deeper existential struggle over the very nature of the American ‘regime’ itself — its principles, values, institutions, mores, culture, education, citizenship, and ‘way of life,’” as Fonte provocatively puts it. Exemplary of this point of view, with which Fonte agrees, is the work of military historian and conservative commentator Victor Davis Hanson (though there could have been others here, too). 

“We are called to enable a revival, not mount a revolution,” Levin wrote last year in an essay for Modern Age. To be successful, according to this line of thinking, such a revival must have a long time horizon and rely on a good, patient, Burkean respect for and trust in institutions. Contrast this with Publius Mecius Mus’ “Flight 93” line of thinking about what should be done with these institutions. The problem, as Fonte writes, is that “some form of disruptive activity (in politics, the academy, the media) against progressive hegemony is necessary at first in order to achieve the renewal that Levin and the rest of us seek.” To that end, Fonte floats the notion that there could perhaps be a “good cop-bad cop” accommodation of both sides: 

The American Revolution itself is a classic example. Without the radicalism of Tom Paine and Samuel Adams the moderation of George Washington and John Adams would not likely have succeeded. 

In this light, we could see Hanson as somewhat Paine-like, declaring, for instance, in a piece for American Greatness quoted by Fonte, that we are in a “larger existential war for the soul of America.” Against whom? Radical progressivism, including its ever-expanding administrative state and its assault on the Constitution. 

“Flight 93” Philanthropy
A contemporary conservative giver need not pick a side in this debate to realize the serious ramification it has for philanthropy. For instance, is it better to put a time limit — or “sunset” provision — on a philanthropic vehicle’s existence? In that case, that organization’s grant-making has to be accelerated, as it spends out its assets in the form of grants to meet the self-imposed time limit.

Or is it preferable for the giving entity to remain in existence for perpetuity? In that case, the pace of grant-making would have to be moderate enough to allow underlying assets to grow to keep pace perpetually.

If we’re in a Revolution, you’d spend out. 

Sunsetting would certainly help meet the need for policy-oriented nonprofit organizations to engage in a “regime” struggle. Depending on a giver’s selected time limit, it could even be considered urgent and necessary “Flight 93” philanthropy in an existential war for the soul of America. But it might run the risk of presentism.

Perpetuity, by contrast, would go better with enabling policy nonprofits to foster a revival of constitutionalism. It is patient, Burkean — respecting institutions and emphasizing reform rather than revolution. But it might run the risk of complacency. 

Manhattan Institute vice president Howard Husock’s March 2017 “When Policy-Oriented Foundations Sunset” examined 64 major U.S. foundations that fund research aimed at influencing public policy — 28 of them right leaning and 24 left leaning. Of the foundations that have announced decisions to sunset or begin spending down, eight were right leaning and seven were left leaning. 

That means 20 of the right-leaning foundations and 17 of the left-leaning ones are not sunsetting or spending down. Sunsetting left-leaning foundations had much larger assets ($1.94 billion on average), though, than the right-leaning ones ($238 million on average). And overall, the left-leaning policy foundations had far greater assets ($38.38 billion) than the right-leaning ones ($7.41 billion).

For a conservative, these data might add to the revolutionary urgency of the times. On the other hand, they might call for an even more resolute patience in pursuit of future revival. If you’re a conservative giver, are these the times that try your soul?

This article was originally published at Real Clear Policy and is republished here with permission.

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