“Rather than being very cloistered and sort of exclusive, maybe we can make some of our knowledge base accessible so that other foundations can follow.” That’s how Rajasvini Bhansali, executive director of the Solidaire Network, a group of about 200 donors and foundations, describes the growing interest in pooled philanthropic funds. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, dozens of these efforts to combine the giving power of various foundations and individual donors have emerged—most in support of left-wing causes. Funds like the California Black Freedom Fund (whose donors include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Annenberg Foundations) or the Black Liberation Pooled Fund (whose donors include the Packard Foundation) have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. But there don’t seem to be equivalent funds on the right, which could put conservatives at even more of a disadvantage. According to a 2017 Manhattan Institute study of 52 public foundations with an evident liberal or conservative cast, “left-leaning policy foundations overall have far greater assets ($38.38 billion) than right-leaning policy foundations ($7.41 billion).”
Up to now, right-leaning foundations have been averse to combining efforts. Aside from a collaboration by the Olin, Scaife, and Smith Richardson foundations to establish The New Criterion, the largest conservative foundations have rarely coordinated their donations. A network of donors loosely aligned with the Charles G. Koch Foundation worked together for many years to give to libertarian causes, but that has largely ceased.
Conservative donors often give to the same organizations but don’t agree on where to donate ahead of time. They often have a more “individualistic approach,” says Lawson Bader of DonorsTrust, a donor-advised fund that appeals to conservatives. He notes that successful entrepreneurs are often inclined to create organizations from scratch rather than give to existing groups, or they wish to cut out the middle-man. Why give to a philanthropic fund when you can give to an organization directly?
An aversion to centralization may also push conservative donors to give to a broader array of groups around the country, rather than a single fund that is funneling money into one area. The principle of federalism often informs these gifts, making donors more willing to experiment with different groups.
Finally, the importance that many conservative philanthropists place on the principle of donor intent may also lead them away from pooled funds. Kim Dennis, president of the Searle Trust, says that it’s hard for the heads of conservative foundations “to commit to a pooled fund. We’re all driven by our individual interests in adhering to what the donor wanted.” Committing money to a vague cause without knowing which specific organizations will benefit is “a nonstarter,” she says.
Pooled funds, however, have the benefit of a large and immediate impact. Whereas conservative donors tend to be, well, more conservative in their giving—paying small amounts over a long period of time—many liberal foundations have gone all out in recent years. The Ford Foundation recently floated $1 billion in 30- and 50-year bonds to increase grantmaking through the Covid crisis. While much of this is wasted on overhead (Ford’s was over $202 million in 2019), combining the resources of these large foundations with other smaller donations has unleashed sums previously unheard of in the nonprofit world.
The landscape may be shifting on the right, though. As younger conservative donors with $20 million or $30 million to give away start to forego the formation of foundations in favor of setting up donor-advised funds, they don’t have to worry about what their parents or grandparents wanted them to do with the money; they’re free to consider collaboration. With donors under 40, Bader says, “their first question is who else is doing this and how can I augment what they are doing?” The fact that they don’t have foundation staffs helping them to make these decisions may also encourage them to seek information and counsel from others in a similar position. Larger conservative foundations with staffs could act like Ford has in some cases: start out by pledging a large sum and ask smaller donors to pitch in, with the allocations made by the large donor.
Despite the recent warnings by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about the nefarious effects of conservative “dark money,” the truth is that liberal foundations are much wealthier and are giving away their money much faster. Though conservative donors have reason to be wary of pooled funds, such collaborations might point the way toward more effective philanthropy.
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