Revisiting the “Vision and Philanthropy” symposium after 15 years: David Keene

Feb 26, 2020

The war for the minds of every generation must be fought anew lest the gains of the past be lost.

Many have long thought that “the key to success for conservative philanthropy is its willingness to give imaginatively and consistently, and according to a larger, coherent vision …. But what is the conservative vision for American today? And how can philanthropy best promote it?”

Those were the general questions posed by the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy & Civic Renewal at the first Bradley Symposium in Washington, D.C., 15 years ago this month, “Vision and Philanthropy.” They’re certainly still being asked today—maybe even more pointedly, given all of that which has occurred in the interim.

The Symposia used to be held on the mornings of the Bradley Prizes evening gala. That first one in 2005, moderated by Amy Kass, occurred amidst what might now be considered quite-heady times for conservatism. President George W. Bush had just been inaugurated to his second term, and reading the event’s edited transcript, one can certainly sense an overriding confidence—but, maybe in between the lines, a little bit of an underlying disquiet about the future, as well.

The Giving Review has gathered comments from some panelists who participated in the discussion, merely seeking any brief updates, reconsiderations, reiterations, and/or revisions they might be willing to share.

As conservatives, what did we get and do right since then? What did we miss and/or do wrong? How can we do better? Where could and should we be after the next 15 years, in 2035? How can philanthropy help get us there? How can it do better? 

Juxtaposed with excerpts of his original comments in 2005, below are David Keene’s comments. In ’05, Keene was chairman of the American Conservative Union. He is now editor-at-large of The Washington Times.

Keene (Wikimedia Commons)

Edited excerpts from David Keene at “Vision and Philanthropy” symposium, February 2005:

I think as we go through it, it does constantly have the tension between the ideological and the practical and the experiential. Conservatives have sort of a soft-edge ideological drive. We know what that vision is that Ronald Reagan metaphorically described as the “building of the city on the hill.” That’s ideological.

We also know that we exist both philosophically and politically in a world in which the ideal is not always as simple to achieve as you might imagine in drawing the picture or as easily achieved in the practical world of politics. And I do think as I read through much of what was written beforehand, that we have to realize that most of us at this table and most of the people in this room exist in different worlds, with one foot in the philosophical, idea-based world of the conservative movement, if you will, and the other foot in the practical, political world. And the ways in which you approach political and philosophical questions in those two worlds, while not necessarily incompatible, are very different ….


[T]he one thing that has defined the development of American conservatism—and it comes in different phrases: the rule of law, limited government—has been a very healthy skepticism about the role of government and an opposition from the very beginning to the idea that the good can be achieved through the state. The American Revolution was, in large measure, about the relationship of the individual to the state. And if you read back through the writings about economics and culture and all, there is a healthy understanding among conservatives on all sides of the conservative spectrum that the enemy of what they want to do is often the state.

The basic difference between the conservative vision and the, quote, “modern liberal” vision might be taken from something that Stuart [Butler] said, where he said, as we look at all these things, we find how we can work to better society. The vision of the good society, or people that are healthy and economic might be the same, but the liberal would immediately say, yes, the way we do that is through state power, and the conservative would say, that isn’t going to work, not simply because of a recognition of human nature and our ideological beliefs that people ought to make decisions but because the state is always to be distrusted from the conservative standpoint.


Barbara [Elliott] gave you an example of—and I have not read an empirical study of this, but from what reading I have done, a typical liberal foundation would spend a lot of time trying to devise the model of a government program to solve a problem. The conservative foundations ought to be funding exactly the kinds of things that Barbara is talking about, which not only solve problems, but in solving them demonstrate something about the way we look at people and the way we think people operate and the role of the culture in our society.

And I think to the credit of [the] Bradley [Foundation] and others that a lot of that is done, but when you ask what can we do, we should not be spending huge amounts of money sitting down 17 economists and academics to devise a way to change the world; we should go about helping those people who on their own and as individuals, and with others who are likeminded are actually doing that.


[O]ne of the things that philanthropy can do, it seems to me, is institutionalize philanthropy—teach people how to give away money. And the Philanthropy Roundtable is obviously intended to do something like that, but there is enormous amount of money out there which children are inheriting or that people are earning, and recruiting new philanthropy, for our side especially, is essential. I mean, what I have seen is when the children take over foundations, things lurch to the left for the most part—and this isn’t always the case, but for the most part it is.

And there is a lot of money out there, new money that people don’t know how to give away. And we need to get to those people, and it seems to me one of the things that philanthropy needs to do is to try to institutionalize itself—not so much that the pool of money is institutionalized and the staff begins to think it’s theirs and you end up with the Ford Foundation—but rather institutionalizing the recruitment of new money and new philanthropists so as to create permanent self-regenerating sources of funding for the kinds of things that we’re talking about.

David Keene today:

The importance of the role the Bradley Foundation has played over the years in fostering free-market and cultural-conservative intellectual development and policy simply cannot be overestimated. Without Bradley, we would be living in a far different world today … and it would not be a better world.

But there is much yet to be done. Good policy ultimately depends on public support in a democratic republic, and those who reject the very tenants of a free society are always with us. They are as dedicated today, as ever, to undermining the values so important to a functioning and free civil society. As those in the public or political sphere have worked to turn principle into policy, they haven’t always given the thought necessary to their “customers”—the individuals and families who will benefit from good policy—and have too often found themselves rejected by the very people for whom they do battle.

We accomplished much over the last 15 years, but the worldview nurtured by conservative philanthropy, including Bradley, has yet to prevail. The battle today is being waged by, among others, the dozens of those often referred to as “public intellectuals” who would not have been able to take the intellectual battle, so important to policy and politics, to those with whom we disagree but for philanthropic support. Grantmakers have given them, and in turn policymakers who share our values, the intellectual ammunition so vital to winning the war of ideas in which we are engaged.

If the conservative movement has failed, it is not in developing and nurturing ideas and policies that, if or when adopted, would solve many of the challenges we face today—but rather in persuading the public of the value of those policies. We have too often been outflanked on campuses and in our schools by those who reject our values and the values of the founders. Millions of young people today ignore or, more pointedly, are ignorant of history because our adversaries have been entrusted with their “education.”

It is at the nexus of politics, public policy, and sound thinking that today’s battles must be fought and while we are stronger in many ways than we were two decades ago, so are our adversaries. We have won many battles over the years, but the war for the minds of every generation must be fought anew lest the gains of the past be lost.

My confidence in our ability to prevail is strengthened both because so many of us have witnessed what conservative philanthropy has been able to accomplish thus far and because we know that it will continue to provide the intellectual and policy support so necessary to success in the future.