Philanthropy Delivers an Outcome — and Its Name Is Brett Kavanaugh

Philanthropy Delivers an Outcome — and Its Name Is Brett Kavanaugh

When the U.S. Senate voted 50-48 on Saturday to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, it was a significant victory for the Federalist Society, and for the foundations that support the organization. It also represented something — an outcome and real impact — that philanthropists of all persuasions crave, and it was achieved through, that’s right, general support grants.

Widely credited for writing the playbook that has guided the Trump administration's judicial nominations strategy, the Federalist Society, by any measure, has been wildly successful. Since Donald Trump's inauguration in January 2017, the U.S. Senate has approved two of his picks for the Supreme Court and some fifty lower court judges. With an additional hundred and fifty appellate and district court seats to be filled, the administration, with the help of the Federalist Society, is on track to have put in place nearly a quarter of all active judges by the end of 2019.

The organization describes itself as a

group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. [The Society] is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be….This entails reordering priorities within the legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law. In working to achieve these goals, the Society has created a conservative and libertarian intellectual network that extends to all levels of the legal community....

As a 501(c)(3) organization, the society receives tax-deductible donations from individuals, but foundations contribute roughly one-quarter of its annual funding. Since 2006, 127 foundations have made $39 million in grants to the organization, 53 percent of which has come from five foundations: the Lynde and Harry BradleyTempletonMercer Family, and Sarah Scaife foundations, in addition to the Searle Freedom Trust. Nearly half of those grants have provided general operating support to the organization, giving it the freedom to use those resources to further its goals without donor-imposed restrictions.

As social investing and effective altruism — with their focus on outcomes, impact, and results — increasingly challenge so-called traditional philanthropy, general operating support has become somewhat passé among those who see themselves leading the charge. Unlike the Federalist Society, most nonprofit organizations receive little, if any, general support. Overall, 80 percent of the resources granted by U.S.-based foundations are restricted, requiring grantee organizations to spend valuable time on creating theories of change, strategic plans, and elaborate output and outcomes measurement systems in order to prove their impact to funders.

But who would disagree that shaping the philosophical orientation of the highest court in the land, not to mention the rest of the federal judiciary, is anything but hugely impactful. Scale? Check. Significance? Check. Sustainability? Check. From where I sit, the foundation supporters of the Federalist Society seem to have achieved something monumental by going back to basics: find an effective organization that shares your goals and provide it with steady, unrestricted, long-term support so it can do its work.

How I feel about the Kavanaugh confirmation, the polarization it represents, and what it means for the country is beside the point, and not something Foundation Center has a position on. For our information to be trusted, we believe we need to avoid taking positions on matters of public policy. But we are fascinated by the what data, research, and analysis can tell us about what works, and does not, in philanthropy. Today, it’s telling me that traditional philanthropy is alive and well and changing the world.

(Photo credit: AP)

Bradford K. Smith is president of Foundation Center. In his previous post, he looked at philanthropy in the war zone.