Researching Conservative Philanthropy

Thursday, September 22, 2016

In the summer of 2015 I spent one week at the Hagley collecting research on organized philanthropy, funded by an exploratory grant from the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society. My time at the Hagley, spent in the letters of businessmen, philanthropists, and various political activists, were some of the most rewarding and picturesque of my archival trips.

I visited the Hagley to study the history of conservative philanthropy during the Cold War. The idea that philanthropy can be political, divided along lines of right and left, is commonplace in today’s punditry. I wished to know, however, if philanthropy was so partisan in the past, and what, in fact, conservative philanthropy even meant. I wanted to tell this story, moreover, from the perspective of philanthropists and non-profit staffs themselves. The Hagley’s collections on J. Howard Pew, one of the founders of the Pew Memorial Trust, as well as the papers of Jasper E. Crane, a creator of the Foundation for Economic Education, were of special use to my research. These two former businessmen dedicated much of their lives to funding and organizing non-profits to challenge liberal ideas.

The Pew and Crane collections provided rich insights into how Cold War conservatives thought about private wealth in a democracy. A letter written in 1946, for instance, reveals how Jasper E. Crane, former vice president of Du Pont, envisioned non-profits as nothing more than consumer goods purchased by philanthropy. This posed something of an obstacle for Crane, however, as his own nonprofit organization, the Foundation for Economic Education, required regular funding. In particular, he needed the support of philanthropic businessmen. Unfortunately, Crane wrote, businessmen were not “discerning and discriminating buyers” of the various “’world saving organizations” clamoring for their dollars. So far non-profit “salesmen” had stolen philanthropic dollars, Crane explained, promising all manner of remedy but delivering little. Crane’s solution, as he told Pew, was to “vote [advocacy groups] in or out with [his] support just like we do gasoline with our purchases.” If the Foundation failed to sell, Crane stated somewhat dramatically, it would be “executed.”[1] Crane and Pew’s exchange shows how they coupled a faith in the free market with philanthropy. But the same letters reveal how this made Crane’s foundation dependent on a handful of client donors like Pew.

The letters of Crane and Pew formed a major part of my forthcoming paper on organized philanthropy and private foundations. Here I argue, among other points, that conservative and liberal philanthropy, despite the philanthropic right’s rhetoric about free enterprise and voluntary action, is more similar in practice than scholars have noted. In trying to create organizations to counter mainstream foundations, conservatives ended up practicing politics and strategies similar to those they claimed to condemn. In fact, it may be misleading to think of philanthropy—and private foundations—in partisan terms.

[1] Jasper E. Crane to J. Howard Pew, November 20, 1946. Jasper E. Crane Papers. Box 34, FEE. Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807.


Micah David McElroy is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University.