Developing Liberty’s Next Generation

We regularly invite outside experts to offer you and other donors advice on how to approach certain philanthropic arenas. This month, Roger Ream, the president of The Fund for American Studies and the Foundation for Teaching Economics shares his experiences with the different student oriented liberty groups and raises some questions donors should ask themselves when deciding what organization to support and how they want to engage with this new generation. 

Perhaps the most quoted words of Ronald Reagan after “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Tear down this wall,” is his admonition that, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” He included that statement in speeches he delivered in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

His words are a call to action for donors who care whether the rising generation will keep the American experiment in liberty alive and enduring. With most college faculty solidly on the left, the urgency of donor support for programs that reach into and around the university to work directly with students has never been greater.

In the distant past, I arrived as a young, conservative-minded freshman student at an elite private university. Having been raised by conservative parents in a conservative community, I was an unlikely candidate for indoctrination by left-of-center faculty (not that some didn’t try).

I like to think I could hold my own in debates with classmates and professors about the role of government and the benefits of free markets. But I still credit my engagement in an array of students groups with putting me on a path to a career in the liberty movement.

These organizations not only reinforced my understanding of liberty, but they also ignited my passion for making the advancement of liberty my career goal.

Seeding the Liberty Movement

Life is about relationships. Many of our relationships come through involvement with organizations we join. They influence our thinking and our development, particularly when we are young. That is why support for liberty-minded youth outreach, education, and training is so vital to the health of the liberty movement overall.

Most of the leaders I encounter in my work as president of two liberty-focused educational organizations, The Fund for American Studies and the Foundation for Teaching Economics, got their start on campus as members of one or several of the array of conservatives or libertarian youth organizations.

During my four years as a college undergraduate, I was active in College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) on campus, I attended summer seminars at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and Hillsdale College, and I participated in a summer-long Fund for American Studies (TFAS) institute in Washington, where I took courses in economics and government and interned for a member of Congress.

Together, these programs enhanced my understanding of the ideas of liberty and set me on my career path in the liberty movement teaching liberty and free-market ideas.

How Donors Can Create the ‘Alternative University’

The landscape for a donor wishing to support the education and development of young people who understand and support liberty is a crowded one. But despite the number of organizations, the liberty-minded side is far outspent by the left, particularly when you take into account the higher education establishment, where the vast majority of professors and administrators embrace a collectivist mentality.

That is why philanthropy can make such a difference in insuring we offer an alternative for this generation to the establishment perspective.

Donors interested in investing in education and leadership development should begin by asking if they would prefer a focus on education or training. Both are important and some organizations combine a mix of both.

Donors should think further about whether their interest is on the creation of content or its distribution. While many organizations do a bit of both, some specialize in video production, book publishing, and posting content on Internet platforms. Others specialize in holding seminars, workshops, and even summer and semester-long programs.

Training may come in the form of internships programs, such as those we offer at The Fund for American Studies, providing students with the opportunity to gain experience in journalism, public policy, international affairs and politics, all while learning economics from top professors in the country. The Leadership Institute‘s campaign workshops and media training programs and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute‘s Collegiate Network journalism program are also excellent programs that prepare students for careers.

These and other organizations serve as what Ron Robinson, president of Young America’s Foundation, describes as “the alternative university.” Not every student can attend Hillsdale College or the other truly independent institutions of higher education. So through bringing speakers to campus, sponsoring off-campus seminars, offering online educational videos and materials, students can find ample opportunities to learn the case for freedom and free-markets.

The Foundation for Economic Education (an organization I chair) has built an impressive website that provides fresh articles on a daily basis and has an archive on nearly every imaginable subject a young person could need. Young America’s Foundation organizes seminars at their Reagan Ranch and elsewhere and has an impressive program bringing speakers to campuses throughout the U.S.

For those more libertarian inclined donors, Students for Liberty (SFL) and Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) offer valuable in-person programs and opportunities for networking and activism. SFL’s annual convention in Washington each winter draws more than 1,000 young people from throughout the world.

While its focus is largely at the graduate and post-doc level, the Institute for Humane Studies offers the Learn Liberty website with videos student can access on a wide range of topics that can better prepare them to challenge professors and classmates and defend liberty in the classroom.

Winning Over the Long Term

Donors should approach this area of philanthropy with the expectation that we aren’t going to win a numbers game in the short term. Rather, developing leaders is the real difference maker because it leverages investments to educate and train subsequent generations of thought-leaders.

Organizations working on campus are the farm system for the liberty movement, developing the policy analysts, fundraisers, and managers of the myriad organizations working at the state and federal level to advance conservative and libertarian policies. Most staff in State Policy Network organizations and DC-based policy groups got their start in college, more often than not through one of the organizations mentioned above.

The strongest admonition I would offer a liberty-minded donor is to be careful when considering support directly to a college or university. Rarely can an endowment gift be justified. Give through a donor-advised fund such as DonorsTrust and make only an annual or multiyear commitments, so that a college will adhere to donor intent or risk losing continued support.

Where possible, give to one of the organizations referenced in this article and earmark a gift for programs and students at one’s alma mater. While the university development office may not give you credit for supporting your alma mater, you can still speak with pride about your giving when you see your classmates at your college reunion with the knowledge that your gift is truly making a difference in students’ lives.


Roger R. Ream is president of The Fund for American Studies and its affiliate the Foundation for Teaching Economics. He serves as chairman of the board of the Foundation for Economic Education and on the boards of Donors Capital, America’s Future Foundation and the Air Force Academy Foundation.


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