IFAS | Freedom Writer | January/February 1997 | funding.html

Funding the right

By Matthew Freeman and Rachel Egen

Ever wonder why right wing groups can afford their own radio and television shows? Or how they pay for issue advertising? Or how former Reagan and Bush administration officials manage to have a Sunday-morning talk show afterlife years after their presidents leave town? The answer is simple: money.

Right wing money comes from a number of sources, but one of the biggest and most reliable is right wing foundations, which pour millions of dollars each year into national and regional think tanks, universities, journals, magazines and student publications, cable television networks and radio programs. To be sure, progressive groups get grant monies from a variety of foundations sympathetic to their work. But several things distinguish the right wing funding stream: first, its size; second, its highly pol itical nature; third, the comprehensive approach applied to funding decisions.

Large grants

With a few exceptions, progressive political groups scratch and claw to bring small to medium-sized grants in the door. In the right wing world, grants in excess of $1 million are commonplace. It's also standard procedure on the right wing for foundations to make what are called "general support" grants gifts not earmarked for specific projects, but available for institution-building or for other purposes at the discretion of the recipient. In addition, right wing foundations are considerably more willing to engage in multi-year grants, while the major foundations backing progressive groups generally insist that recipients look elsewhere after three years of support.

Overtly political grantmaking

The Washington-based Heritage Foundation illustrates how right wing foundation money is used to support plainly political activity. Heritage served as the intellectual mother-ship of the Reagan administration. Its "Mandate for Leadership" series was a virtual blueprint for conservative policy during the Reagan years Heritage even brags of it. But here's the rub: because foundation money is tax-free, it's illegal for foundations to support lobbying activities. So Heritage always includes a stock disclaim er in its various publications that asserts that its work is not intended to advocate for or against specific policy proposals a thin fig leaf, but apparently enough to keep the IRS off its back.

Comprehensive strategy

In the words of one right wing watcher, the foundations support right wing policy development at every stop on the "conveyor belt." With that in mind, the foundations have poured money into a broad array of organizations and institutions, aiming not just to win specific policy battles, but rather to reshape the American political dialogue.

Three areas of funding have made a particular difference: think tanks (both national and state-level), academia, and media.

Think tanks

An enormous share of foundation money flows to a variety of right wing think tanks. In fairness, that description probably does a disservice to more traditional think tanks, because what these new institutions really specialize in is not thinking so much as promoting and advocating. By producing a steady stream of cleverly packaged political propaganda, these organizations have managed to help shape the dialogue on a variety of issues and that's exactly their goal. Look again at Heritage.

Begun with seed money from beer magnate Joseph Coors and banker Richard Mellon Scaife, Heritage now receives millions in support from the Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation.

One of the real institutional revolutions of the past decade is the creation of a loose network of state-based think tanks, such as New York's Manhattan Institute, Illinois' Heartland Institute, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and others. These outfits do at the state level what Heritage and others do at the national level: provide a stream of right wing newspaper Op-Eds, journal articles, books, and other publications on right wing issues, and serve as a ready source for conservative comment for the media.


Enormous sums of money are poured into academia by right wing foundations hoping to buy research that legitimizes their policy positions, while nurturing promising young conservatives. For example, the Collegiate Network funds and links conservative and far-right campus newspapers, while the National Association of Scholars unites right wing faculty against "politically-correct" multicultural education and affirmative action. In addition, millions are poured into conservative law, economics and history programs around the country.


Shaping public debate requires media access, and foundations wisely allocate millions for conservative papers, journals and broadcast media. The New Criterion, National Interest, Public Interest, American Spectator, National Empowerment Television (the ultraconservative cable network sponsored by Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation), and William F. Buckley's "Firing Line" all receive substantial foundation support. A recent article by In These Times associate publisher Beth Schulman revealed that right wing foundations had poured some $2.7 million into four conservative publications, while their progressive counterparts received less than 10 percent of that amount in foundation grants.

All told, right wing foundations make an enormous difference in the capacity of their grantees to shape the political landscape. If the progressive foundation community matched the effort, the field would be expensive, but level. Unfortunately, grantmaking for progressive causes lags, and until that changes, the right wing will enjoy a considerable advantage.

Matthew Freeman is senior vice president of People For the American Way. Rachel Egen is research assistant at People For the American Way, and the lead researcher for Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics, the organization's recent study on which this article is based. Copies are available for sale by calling 202-467-4999, or on the organization's web site at http://www.pfaw.org.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.