Pope Foundation backs free-market causes

Art Pope
Art Pope

Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — When he walks into a room full of North Carolina foundation officials, says David Riggs, vice president of operations and programs for the John William Pope Foundation, he feels out of place.

While many foundations in the state with comparable or greater assets often invest in liberal social agendas, the $140 million-asset Pope Foundation aggressively promotes conservative causes.

“We believe that market processes and the free-enterprise system allow people to help themselves, to grow and prosper how they best think and feel they can,” says Riggs, an economist.

Chaired by Art Pope, a businessman and political powerbroker whose father founded Variety Wholesalers, the discount retailer that is the source of its philanthropic assets, the foundation granted $10.8 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2009, mainly for operating support.

Of that total, 65 percent supported public-policy work promoting a free marketplace and limited government.

“Philanthropy cannot directly meet all the needs of the people and families of North Carolina and America,” says Pope. “It can provide some immediate relief, which is necessary, and we do that as part of our giving.”

But meeting the needs of families and society over the long term requires a “prosperous society,” he says. “And most of our policymaking is making sure there is a prosperous society for this generation and future generations.”

In North Carolina, the Pope Foundation in its most recent fiscal year gave $6.5 million for policy work, including $2.5 million for the John Locke Foundation, a free-market think-tank and advocacy group in Raleigh that Pope helped found.

Another $1.5 million supported higher education, often to promote greater “intellectual diversity” in a “system of education that is increasingly closed in its intellectual thought process, where large swaths of intellectual thought have been essentially cut out of the debate,” Riggs says.

In the most recent fiscal year, for example, the foundation gave $125,000 to create a Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University in Durham.

The foundation also supports national policy work, spending $1.5 million in the most recent fiscal year.

It gave $260,000, for example, to Americans for Prosperity, a group based in Arlington, Va., that promotes limited government and free markets and whose board of directors includes Pope.

And in 2007, worried that colleges and universities were not honoring the intent of donors, the foundation teamed with the John Templeton Foundation near Philadelphia and the Marcus Foundation in Atlanta to create a nonprofit known as the Center for Excellence in Higher Education.

The nonprofit, which since has converted to a for-profit consulting firm known as Donor Advising, Research & Education Services, advised donors on how to create gifts so universities honored their intent in making the gifts.

The Pope Foundation also gave roughly $1 million to nonprofits throughout North Carolina, mainly in Wake County and some in Vance County, where Variety Wholesalers is based.

To help them cope with the impact of the recession, Riggs says, the foundation increased its support for some groups, giving $10,000 to the Shepherd’s Table and $50,000 to Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, for example, compared to $5,000 it gave the previous year to each group.

And in keeping with its philosophy of free enterprise and limited government, the foundation tries to “minimize our donations to nonprofits that are largely dependent on taxpayer dollars, especially when they come in the form of pork-barrel grants,” says Pope, a former member of the state House of Representatives.

“We do donate to nonprofits that partner with government, especially in the area of child services,” he says.

The biggest operating challenge facing nonprofits, he says, is finding “good experienced people with good ethics.”

So the foundation supports programs that provide leadership development and training, again with a free-market perspective.

The biggest challenge for foundations over the past two years, Pope says, has been to find sound investment strategies in the face of poor performance in the capital markets.

The Pope Foundation took less of a hit than many foundations, he says, because it has invested most of its portfolio in conservative cash and cash-equivalent strategies.

Pope says he has “always been open to working with people of different agendas,” and that he and the Locke Foundation have been “involved in broad-based coalitions,” including an effort to reform state lobbying laws.

He says he has talked privately “with some of the leaders of other foundations considered to have opposite social agendas,” and hopes to continue those talks.

And while the foundation participates in some national and regional philanthropy organizations, including the Philanthropy Roundtable, Association of Small Foundations, and Southeastern Council of Foundations, he says, it has not participated in broader foundation networks in North Carolina because it has not been invited to, and because in the past their fees were too high.

Riggs says that while the Pope Foundation likely shares with other foundations in the state the goal of improving the lives of citizens, “we probably have different means to achieving that end.”

The foundation aims to “learn more from other foundations within North Carolina about what they are doing” to engage in effective grantmaking, Riggs says. “Our door is open to those conversations.”

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