Right Thinking, Big Grants, and Long-term Strategy

31 October 2010

Sally Covington’s article about Conservative Philanthropies and Think Tanks is quite illustrative of the close links between think tanks and politics -and the funds that fund both. She draws some interesting lessons that are, nonetheless, relevant for all supporters or parties interested in think tanks:

  • Understanding the importance of ideology and overarching political frameworks in which think tanks operate;
  • Building strong institutions by providing ample general operating support and awarding large, multi-year grants;
  • Maintaining a national policy focus or alternatively a relevant and recognisable (and therefore fundable) focus;
  • Recognizing the importance of marketing, media, and persuasive communications;
  • Creating and cultivating public intellectuals and policy leaders;
  • Funding comprehensively for social transformation and policy change by awarding grants across sectors, blending research and advocacy, supporting litigation, and encouraging the public participation of core constituencies; and
  • Taking a long-haul approach.

While each of these lessons alone has funding power and significance, it is the combination that has given conservative philanthropy its vast clout.

In response (not really, but related), Matt Bai’s book, The Argument, describes how Democratic philathropists supported the rise of the progressive think tanks to, having learned from the Conservative strategy, take over the White House with Barak Obama. It is a very good read.