Heroes of American public policy philanthropy

Who are the greatest philanthropists in American history? The latest issue of Philanthropy (the quarterly publication of Philanthropy Roundtable) takes a look at that question.

One of the more enlightening sections focuses on public policy philanthropy. The magazine highlights three individuals: Madam C.J. Walker, John M. Olin, and William Volker.

The middle of these, Mr. Olin, should be of particular interest to readers of this website:

In philanthropy as in business, Olin’s particular genius was his brilliant strategic vision—a genius that paid spectacular dividends in his efforts to shape 20th-century public policy. Olin’s philanthropy was dedicated to the long-term (but not perpetual) challenge of building the intellectual capacity of modern conservatism. Recognizing that achieving his goals was a generational project, he clearly defined a mission, strategically established a time-frame, and carefully selected dedicated partners who shared his vision.

By the time he stepped down as the foundation’s president in 1977, Olin had assembled a committed group of like-minded associates, willing and eager to take on the tasks he assigned them. Over the next three decades, his colleagues dispensed hundreds of millions of dollars to scholars, think tanks, and publications, underwriting the development of the conservative movement and intelligentsia. Among their signal achievements were early funding of the Law and Economics programs at colleges and universities, supporting scores of right-of-center public intellectuals, and backing right-of-center campus newspapers.

Perhaps most memorably, in 1982, the foundation sponsored an academic conference for law students and professors, giving rise to the Federalist Society, a membership organization of conservative and libertarian lawyers, judges, and professors who went on to transform legal education and shape the federal judiciary. Many of the foundation’s achievements occurred after Olin’s death; few would have occurred without his strategic vision.