In case you missed it, the Heritage Foundation, arguably the nation’s most influential conservative think tank, just got what it described as “one of the largest gifts in [its] 50-year history” last month: $25 million over five years from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation.
On one level, this is hardly shocking news. The family behind the foundation has a relationship with Heritage going back to the 1970s, and they’ve spent the past couple decades pumping millions into conservative institutions, including Heritage. There’s also a lot more where that came from. DDSF’s assets stood at nearly $1.5 billion as of 2020, and it isn’t even the largest foundation associated with the Davis clan.
This chunky Heritage Foundation commitment is worth noting, though, not only for its magnitude — $25 million is a lot for a think tank gift, any way you slice it — but also for what it says about what we’ve called “the biggest pot of conservative money you’ve never heard of.” And then there’s the even bigger question: how conservative philanthropy is evolving, or stagnating, as it funds in a space co-opted and overshadowed by Trumpism.
The biggest pot of conservative money you’ve never heard of
For better or worse, the conservative policy world owes a lot to the Heritage Foundation, and Heritage owes quite a bit to Diana Davis Spencer and her family. Spencer is the daughter of late philanthropists Shelby Cullom Davis and Kathryn Wasserman Davis, both of whom had close relationships with Heritage, with Shelby chairing its board for a time.
In recent years, that relationship has carried on through the younger generations via Diana Davis Spencer and her daughter Abby Spencer Moffat, the longtime CEO of DDSF and a Heritage Foundation trustee since 2009.
Abby Spencer Moffat is a figure to watch, both in the conservative philanthropy orbit as well as among the ranks of notable philanthropic heirs. Having played a role in scaling up the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation using assets of two previous foundations named after her grandparents, Moffat went on to grow her mother’s foundation into a leading player on the philanthropic right, if a quiet one.
The family’s longstanding support for the Heritage Foundation includes substantial gifts over the years. One of the largest was a $26 million commitment a decade ago to fund the think tank’s Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies. DDSF also gave Heritage about $2.5 million in grants in 2019.
Other right-leaning policy support from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation includes grants to a laundry list of major conservative think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution and the Manhattan Institute, as well as regular contributions into a donor-advised fund at the conservative DAF sponsor DonorsTrust.
Meanwhile, plenty of additional giving flows from other foundations associated with the family, including the Shelby Cullom Davis Charitable Fund (which boasted assets of over $2.7 billion as of 2020) and the S&G Foundation ($1.1 billion). Diana Davis Spencer’s brother, retired investor Shelby M.C. Davis, is the leading figure at both grantmakers, which support causes like environmental conservation and international education, but do not appear to share DDSF’s conservative policy focus. Then again, sizable funds also flow from that side of the family’s philanthropy into DAFs, so you never know.
Conservative philanthropy faces its Frankenstein’s monster
In a news release announcing the recent DDSF gift, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts took the opportunity to highlight the think tank’s current combative outlook: “This commitment is a significant vote of confidence in the great work Heritage staff is doing day in and day out to restore self-governance to the American people and counter the left’s attempts to capture our nation’s institutions,” Roberts said. That followed an expression of gratitude to DDSF for supporting “our mission to take back America.”
Roberts’ leadership at Heritage reflects a move toward the Trumpist hard right by an organization that had previously prioritized what a Washington Post writeup last year called “traditional but stodgy fiscal and foreign policy issues.” A COVID-era culture warrior and veteran of the climate-science-denying Texas Public Policy Foundation, Roberts replaced Kay Coles James, the foundation’s previous president, a Black woman, who earned the ire of far-right firebrands for not toeing the Trumpist line on issues like COVID lockdowns and the protests following George Floyd’s murder.
That tension — between die-hard MAGA believers and an older crop of conservatives interested in things like fiscal austerity and muscular foreign policy — emerged as a real conundrum for conservative philanthropy following Trump’s victory in 2016. In the time since, according to numerous people I’ve spoken with in that space, uncertainty has reigned.
Many conservative philanthropies, which often take pains to frame their work with a kind of righteous earnestness, were taken aback by Trump’s monumental irreverence and preference for waging a populist culture war over advancing a patrician, Reaganite program of economic deregulation. In a recent piece for Philanthropy Daily titled “What Do Conservative Donors Want?,” American Affairs Editor Julius Krein offered a good diagnosis of what he sees as conservative philanthropy’s unmoored state.
Faced with the problem of Trumpism — which is in good part a Frankenstein’s monster of right-wing donors’ own making — Krein predicts that the conservative philanthropy establishment will double down on melding culture war gesticulation with the quieter pursuit of its “underlying” goal: preserving donors’ own wealth. Krein sees that approach as unsustainable over the long term, and I’m inclined to agree. Its public messaging is purely reactive to what it sees as the outrages of the left, and offers little in the way of a coherent vision for the 21st century, much less any solutions to Trump voters’ legitimate economic gripes.
And yet, with this recent $25 million gift, DDSF appears ready to plot that exact course. The Heritage Foundation’s latest set of policy priorities, which the DDSF money will explicitly advance, reads a lot like the kind of thing Krein calls out in his piece — a weird mixture of Bush-era neoliberalism and Trump-era culture warring, entirely reactive to supposed threats. Roberts’ comments about “taking back America” and “countering the Left” serve to ice the cake.
But this shouldn’t be laid solely at the door of Heritage, or of DDSF. As the Philanthropy Roundtable’s rightward lurch in recent years has shown, conservative philanthropy at large has been all too ready to ape the Trumpist line while secretly waiting, perhaps, for Trump to go away and take the populist threat with him.
In a sense, it's kind of like movement capture in reverse. Having helped give rise to Trumpism by platforming voices that thoroughly toxified the GOP, conservative elites must now debate how much they'll cater to these forces that have spun out of their control. That's a scary state of affairs. But for those of us accustomed to narratives painting conservative donors as savvy and strategically far-sighted, it’s also kind of a solace to note that, in fact, many of them struggle with the same problem as liberal philanthropies — asking how far to fund the activist vanguard, and how far is far enough.