Ford, Mellon, Rockefeller Made Their Fortunes Thanks to Capitalism. Now, Their Foundations Seek to Undermine It.

Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Mellon flourished because of America’s free enterprise system. Yet, the foundations that bear their names are today pursuing a much different agenda, warns Rick Graber, president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation and chairman of the Philanthropy Roundtable.

“These foundations exist with their massive endowments because of these gentlemen that believed in free markets, took risks, and created just some incredible, incredible companies,” Graber says. “It’s hard to make the case that any of these foundations—Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon—are honoring donor intent. The founders would not be pleased.”

Graber recently wrote about the topic for The Daily Signal, “Woke Foundations Use Dollars Acquired Through Capitalism to Undermine Free Market Principles,” warning about the implications for America’s future. He joins me today on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” 

Listen to the episode below or read a lightly edited transcript. Original here. Reproduced with permission.

Rob Bluey: We are joined on “The Daily Signal Podcast” today by Rick Graber. He’s the president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation and chairman of the Philanthropy Roundtable. Rick, thanks so much for joining us.

Rick Graber: Great to be with you, Rob. Great pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Bluey: You are a return visitor to “The Daily Signal Podcast,” so we certainly appreciate that. You bring experience, having worked for Honeywell International. You’re a former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. And you’ve recently written a piece, which we published at The Daily Signal, about philanthropic wokeism. Tell our listeners what you mean by that.

Graber: There’s just been an incredible amount of dollars invested by certain foundations in this country—the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Mellon all come to mind—in social justice causes, whether it be funding in and around the Black Lives Matter movement, the 1619 Project, and so-called ESG—environmental, social, governance—which really is an effort to have our business community, have our corporations behave in a way that’s different than it has been pretty much forever.

I know, as a young corporate lawyer, and then certainly with my time with Honeywell, that we were always under the impression and the way things truly did operate is that corporations were reporting to their shareholders, and their fiduciary duty was to their shareholders to generate a profit because then good things happen. Jobs get created. Opportunity gets created. 

A strong economy means good things for more and more people, but that seems to be changing. And these foundations are really at the leading edge of this effort to change the way corporations behave and to adhere to a worldview that isn’t necessarily consistent with the best interests of their shareholders, so I think it’s a big concern.

Bluey: When you talk about the contributions, I want to give people an understanding of the scale here. The Ford Foundation announced plans to provide $1 billion in funding. This is already, as I understand it, on top of a previous announcement where they were spending $1 billion. The Rockefeller Foundation was also committing $1 billion over the course of three years. We are talking about a significant sum of money that is going toward these causes. What do you see as driving or motivating their decisions?

Graber: I think it’s really trying to undermine, in many ways, our free market system, our capitalistic system. There is a fundamental philosophical perspective that these foundations are bringing and obviously have staggering amounts of money to spend on it. 

And really, there’s been very little scrutiny of it. Is it working? Are we talking about dramatic changes that have happened such that it makes sense to change our free market system?

Our free market system has taken billions of people, 2 billion people since the 1970s, out of poverty. And to reverse that and to look at the world in a different sort of way just doesn’t seem to make sense to me and it’s something that we need to push back a little harder on from those of us that believe that free markets and opportunity, really the core principles that have made this country the greatest country on Earth, the most prosperous country on Earth. An effort to undo that, I think, is really tearing up the fabric of the country and as I said, a massive concern.

Bluey: In the piece, you call it a miracle, frankly, the fact that so many people have been lifted out of poverty and starvation as a result of the free market. You even quote former President Barack Obama in the piece, who said, “We don’t dispute that the free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history. It has lifted billions of people out of poverty.”

Here you have a situation where it seems that, and you go through several statistics in the piece where you outline the benefits, and yet it seems the prevailing narrative in the media, from the left-wing politicians, and others is to really tarnish the reputation of the free market. 

I’m just wondering, in your role, what are some of the things that we can do to push back on this really, I think, troubling trend that we see across our society?

Graber: I think those of us that have a different perspective have to speak up, and I would include foundations such as ours at the Bradley Foundation, where for 35 years, we have supported free markets and we have supported our constitutional order and we have focused on a strong civil society. 

These are the things that have made this country great. There is no evidence whatsoever that any government program or any social justice program has made a difference in this country.

And why is the conversation in this country not about education? Why is it not about stronger families, for instance? The pandemic has really brought this home. Why are the kids in this country sitting at home? Why are the large city public school systems in this country failing to provide an adequate education? And we talk about equality of opportunity. 

It’s issues like that—like strong families, like great educations—that are going to make a difference. It’s not some government program. It’s not defunding police. It’s not undoing the capitalist system that has worked so well in this country since its founding.

Bluey: One of the things that you discussed in the piece and you reference is Sen. Tim Scott’s response to President Joe Biden’s recent congressional—

Graber: Great response.

Bluey: We were big fans of it. And one of the things that I think he touched on, which you also get into, is that so many of these foundations seem to be driven by this notion that the free market system is doing a disservice to minorities or to women. 

What can you tell us about the free market and the success that African Americans, women, other minority groups may have had over the last particularly four years of President [Donald] Trump’s presidency with regard to free market successes?

Graber: Right. I mean, the statistics are pretty clear. Pre-pandemic, I don’t think anyone can argue that we had a pretty strong economy in this country, that unemployment was down, and particularly down for the African American community, for the Hispanic community, for women. And we’re seeing tremendous growth. 

And again, this is fact. … You see increasing numbers of women-owned businesses, you see Hispanics generating income and wealth at a level really unprecedented around the world, and you see many more African American entrepreneurs. 

The percentage rate of black-owned businesses, small businesses that are thriving continues to increase. And why is that? Because of the opportunity of free market. In theory, limited government, less regulation, getting out of the way, and rewarding initiative and innovation as opposed to one’s skin color or gender.

We have so much in this country that we have in common. The bind that holds this country together, the glue that holds this country together is so very important. 

And what you see these organizations on the left doing—both the foundations, the funders, and the grant recipients—is trying to divide us, trying to divide us by race, trying to divide us by gender, and in the course are doing tremendous damage to this country. 

Yes, there have been stains in the past and no one is going to deny that, but we have also made incredible progress as a country.

And President Barack Obama was right, freedom and free enterprise have made a difference. They have created progress. They have created opportunity. It created a scenario where he was a two-term president and we can’t lose sight of these things. We’ve got to focus on what binds us as a nation, not what divides us. 

What is going on in this country right now is concerning and we have to push back. We have to talk to our legislators. We have to talk to our businesses. We have to talk to people at the community level, local governments, school boards, all of this. 

People who have a different view have to speak up and make our feelings known because I believe a majority of the Americans agree that this is the greatest country on Earth and it’s something that is certainly worth fighting for.

Bluey: Rick, I appreciate you giving us that perspective and some of the places where we need to focus our attention. 

I think one thing that stood out in my mind recently was to see so many corporations or, in some cases, professional athletes or celebrities speaking out on political issues where in the past, that’s probably not an area they would have focused, but particularly when it comes to businesses, which seem to be setting aside the great Milton Friedman and his thinking and philosophy about shareholders and profits, and now focusing on those other areas of social responsibility and other things. 

What does that tell you? And have you seen success stories where Americans have been able to get those corporations to focus less on the political debates of the day and more on the core function that they exist to serve?

Graber: Right. I mean, I totally agree that Major League Baseball moving the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver, Delta Air Lines’ CEO speaking out, Coca-Cola, horrible. That is not your role, and it is not the CEO’s role to tell me or anyone else how we should think. And particularly with respect to this Georgia election law. 

If anyone takes a hard look at the law and really reads the law, and I doubt if any of these CEOs or the commissioner of baseball ever took a hard look at it, you would see that it is a very commonsense, fair approach to conducting elections, a cornerstone, and a fundamental part of who we are as Americans that are having free and fair elections, and that’s exactly what that was intended to do. I think it was just terribly unfortunate and terribly misguided that those comments were made.

And there are other organizations like the Business Roundtable and the United States Chamber of Commerce that have to some extent tried to embrace these principles, or at least appease certain elements of this ESG concept that I think are unfortunate. We have to organize new groups to serve as counters to this. We have to attend our own shareholder meetings. We have to resist. We have to talk about it.

Frankly, we’re way behind. We’ve had very few organizations on the right that have fought back against this. The person by the name of Justin Danhof, an author by the name of Steven Soukup, the organization ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council], a few others have started to weigh in on this, but we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. 

And again, while it’s more comfortable to keep your head down and not talk about it, I think to coin an old phrase, the silent majority has got to speak up and start making our feelings known.

Bluey: That’s certainly true. In the piece, you focus on three of the foundations: the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller, Mellon—all of which are namesakes for Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Mellon, who I think it’s safe to say all embraced free market principles in their own work. 

What does it mean that these foundations have taken such a radically different approach than the namesakes probably would have really wanted them to go in this direction?

Graber: I’m certain that they are all spinning, that this is not what they would have wanted, and in fact, the grandson of Henry Ford resigned from the Ford Foundation board of directors because he just did not believe in what we were doing. 

These foundations exist with their massive endowments because of these gentlemen that believed in free markets, took risks, and created just some incredible, incredible companies.

It’s something at the Bradley Foundation that we take very seriously. And we have a similar story of two brothers in the city of Milwaukee, Lynde and Harry Bradley, who grew up in the early 1900s, built their business in the early 1900s, and believed very strongly in limited government, in as little regulation as possible, and free markets and a strong civil society. And at the Bradley Foundation, we’ve tried very hard over the years of the foundation’s existence to honor donor intent.

It’s hard to make the case that any of these foundations—Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon—are honoring donor intent. The founders would not be pleased. Probably would have sunset the foundations had they known what would happen. 

And it’s something that foundations have to work very hard on to maintain that donor intent, to constantly focus on what would the founders have done were they sitting at the table today, not what the people who are actually sitting at the table want to do. I think we’ve done a good job of that at Bradley. I think Ford, Rockefeller, and Mellon, and others have done a very poor job.

Bluey: Well, Rick, let’s talk a little bit about Bradley. I want to give our listeners some perspective on the work that you do. The Bradley Foundation, as I understand it, has awarded over a billion dollars in grants to over 2,000 nonprofit organizations. What is your mission statement? What are the priorities that you are focused on at your foundation?

Graber: Our mission statement is really pretty simple. Our mission is to protect, restore, and strengthen the principles and institutions that have made this country exceptional. And we have defined that in a way that we will support organizations that promote our constitutional order, federalism, separation of power, the freedoms in our Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion.

We focus a lot on free markets—we’ve talked about that a lot today—on limited government, on promoting an environment where entrepreneurs have an opportunity to fail and succeed. 

Lynde and Harry Bradley had a lot of stops and starts along the way until the Allen-Bradley came into its heyday. And then ultimately when the Allen-Bradley company was sold in the mid-1980s to Rockwell, that is the cash that generated the money that is today the Bradley Foundation.

Lynde and Harry Bradley cared a lot about people being able to self-govern themselves and they believed in education deeply, which is why the Bradley Foundation has been so engaged in the school choice movement. 

Wisconsin was at the forefront of the school choice movement in the mid-1980s and has been ever since, and we continue to support some fantastic schools in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, around the country.

And then a strong civil society. We’ve also talked about that today. It’s not government programs that make us who we are as Americans. It’s neighborhoods. It’s churches. It’s schools. It’s the local stuff that is the glue of America that we worry about, and it’s those organizations that are making a difference.

And if it’s true in Milwaukee, it’s true in organizations, small, unsung organizations all over the country that are making a difference in people’s lives and restoring, in those cases, where it’s necessary, the dignity of each and every person and the dignity that comes from work.

Those are the core areas. We look for strong leaders in organizations. We like to say we fund chefs and not restaurants, and it really is true. And I think Lynde and Harry Bradley, were they still around, would look back and say, “Wow, this is pretty neat. What a great legacy.”

Bluey: Well, Rick, thank you for giving us that explanation and also for the tremendous work that the Bradley Foundation does. 

You wear another hat as chairman of the Philanthropy Roundtable, and I wanted to ask a COVID-related question because so many foundations, I think, have struggled to adapt in this unusual period we found ourselves in for the past 14 months. 

What are you hearing out there among philanthropic organizations as they hopefully recover from COVID and look to this next phase? What are some of the things that are on your radar and some of the areas where you think there’ll be renewed focus, whether it be on civil society or education or other issues in the future?

Graber: At the Bradley Foundation, we’ve been back in the office since last June, so we didn’t take too much of a pause. Philanthropy Roundtable is doing some fantastic things. New leadership there. Elise Westhoff is a great young leader of the roundtable.

And if my calendar is any indication of what’s going on, especially come fall, I think there’s just going to be an incredible remeeting, if you will. I mean, the number of events going on, the number of opportunities to get together and to network is just incredible. I’m going to be on the road most of the fall from what it looks like. And I think that’s important. I think people want to do that.

I think we’re going to be conducting our business in different ways. I think people will continue to meet in sessions such as this, and we’ve all become quite adept at Zoom calls, but I think people meeting people and networking with each other is very, very important. I think that will continue to happen, and I think it will just ramp up our activity and the opportunity for the groups that we’re able to fund to enhance. 

People like being with people. We’ve come through a tough time here with this pandemic. I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, at least in this country. And I think it’s something to look forward to.

Bluey: Rick, any closing words you want to leave our audience with? Particularly at a time when I think we can be so pessimistic or depressed about the state of the world or politics here in America, do you have a word of encouragement that you can give our listeners as they look to the future?

Graber: I always like to look at the glass as half full. We are all fortunate to be citizens of this great country and this great country has accomplished incredible things. And we’ve all had opportunities because we are citizens of this country. 

It doesn’t guarantee success, doesn’t guarantee a certain standard of living, but it does offer opportunity. It’s not perfect. Never will be perfect. But if we think more about what binds us as a nation, if we think more about what it means to be an American and celebrate that as opposed to try to divide us, this country is going to be just fine.

Elections come and go. The politicians come and go. So that pendulum will once again swing in a different direction. In the meantime, those of us that are not on the forefront of the political world got to just keep doing what we’re doing, but speak up, talk about what’s important, and I think we’ll have a very bright future.

Bluey: Rick Graber, thank you for the work that you are doing at the Bradley Foundation. It is a great honor to have you back on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” We appreciate your joining us today.

Graber: Thanks so much. Great to be with you.