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Earlier this week, the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal hosted a panel discussion titled “What Is Conservative Philanthropy?” The panel might have better been titled “Whither Conservative Philanthropy?” as the conversation focused on the trajectory of conservative philanthropy.

The panel included two presentations by leaders in conservative philanthropy -- James Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation, and Lenore Ealy, executive director of The Philanthropic Enterprise (and Philanthropy Daily blogger) -- as well as two presentations by those associated with liberal philanthropy or views, Gara LaMarche, now senior fellow at New York University’s School of Public Service but formerly of the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Institute, and Steven Teles, associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

Conservative philanthropy in the post-war period through the 1980s (or there about) focused on promoting big ideas. Led by founders who worried about threats from fascism, communism, and socialism, postwar conservative philanthropy emphasized the intellectual foundations of liberty and free societies. The Volker Fund, the Earhart Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and a cadre of like-minded foundations and philanthropists funded conservative scholars and thinkers, including Milton Friedman, George Stigler, James Buchanan, Allan Bloom, Samuel Huntington, Douglass North, James Q. Wilson, and Michael Novak. These and other conservative scholars wrote books and articles that set the conservative agenda for many years.

The panelists agreed that conservative philanthropy no longer emphasizes big ideas. Not that there aren’t significant conservative thinkers -- but supporting their work is not central to conservative philanthropy.

While the panels agreed that big ideas are no longer so important to conservative philanthropy, but they advanced different hypotheses about why this is so. Each of these hypotheses is contestable, and these hypotheses are not entirely compatible with one another:

During the Reagan administration and subsequently, conservatives became focused on governance and implementing specific policy proposals; during the same period, they became identified with the Republican party. Partisan politics and governance questions led conservative thinkers to descend from big ideas to the minutiae of policy development.

Some conservative donors always were more interested in promoting policy proposals than in big ideas. But in the postwar period, there were only a few conservative organizations to support, and these were focused on big ideas. Conservatives’ very success during the 1980s in founding institutes, think tanks, and journals has changed the landscape for donors; the increased competition among conservative institutes and organizations for conservative donors’ dollars has let policy-oriented donors persuade more organizations to focus on short-term policy wins rather than big ideas.

Conservatives are funding campus programs for undergraduates who will go on to business careers rather than further academic training. That is, conservative funders are focused on shaping the opinion of future community and business leaders rather than on investing in professors and scholars who will develop big, new ideas.

Conservative foundations are newly concerned with metrics as well as with encouraging conservative thinkers to be more active in social media; metrics are more easily applied to short-term policy initiatives than to long-term big idea projects, and the quickness of social media is incompatible with the slow germination of big ideas.

Conservatives are convinced that the threats to liberty have become so dire that there isn’t time for a leisurely development of big ideas but it is urgently necessary to focus on political events of the day.

There was disagreement both on the panel and in the audience about whether conservatives should be troubled by the turn away from big ideas. One panelist suggested that the United States is entering a period of crisis that, like the postwar period, will germinate new, big ideas in response to extreme social and economic pressures. Some in the room urged responding to current political issues rather than investing in big ideas.

But ideas do matter -- the postwar conservative philanthropists were right that politics and policy bubble out of people’s deep-down convictions. If we are indeed in a period during which big ideas are less conspicuous, we need to think about how best to encourage the scholarship of those who will provide the intellectual leadership for decades to come.

A transcript of the panel will be available at the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal website in a fortnight.

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