Politics & Policy

Daniel C. Searle, R.I.P.

A great conservative philanthropist dies.

Daniel C. Searle didn’t know how he got onto the mailing list of the American Enterprise Institute. “I haven’t the vaguest idea,” he said a little more than a year ago.

However it happened, Searle started reading its books and newsletters and grew closer to the conservative think tank. By the time he died on October 30, at the age of 81, Searle had become one of the largest donors to AEI in its history — and certainly the biggest in the organization’s last 20 years, during its period of preeminence.

Searle died on a bird-shooting trip in Scotland. “He was an old-fashioned tough guy,” says Christopher DeMuth, the president of AEI. “He went out in just the style he had lived. Whatever he did, he did all the way.”

His achievement as a donor to AEI would be enough to secure a meaningful legacy in philanthropy and public policy–but Searle’s bequest is far from complete. He leaves behind not only a record of generosity to AEI and like-minded groups, but also a foundation currently worth more than $100 million. Before long, the benefactor of Searle Freedom Trust will be spoken of in the same breath as the three great brand names of right-leaning philanthropy: Olin, Bradley, and Scaife.

 “His love of a free society will live on for many years to come,” says Gideon Searle, one of his sons and the new chairman of Searle Freedom Trust.

Dan Searle was born in Evanston, Ill., on May 6, 1926. He went to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, and then Yale University and Harvard Business School, finally graduating in 1952. He spent his entire business career at G.D. Searle and Company, a pharmaceutical firm started by his family. He rose to become its president in 1966, CEO in 1970, and finally chairman of the board in 1977–a position he kept until 1985, when the company was sold. Its best-known products included Dramamine, Metamucil, NutraSweet, and Enovid, the first oral contraceptive.

As chairman, Searle’s most important decision probably involved the hiring of a new CEO who had just left the Ford administration. Donald Rumsfeld strengthened the company and developed a reputation for leadership that made him an attractive choice for a future president who needed a defense secretary.

Searle Freedom Trust was once known as the D&D Foundation, though it thankfully had nothing to do with the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. It assumed its modern shape about a decade ago. “For a while, I had done the standard philanthropy stuff–the alma mater, the community fund, the art institute. All of those are nice things, but I wanted to do something different,” said Searle. “If you look at the trend lines, you’ll find both economic freedom and individual freedom are becoming more constrained by laws and regulations. We have a political system that says ‘there ought to be a law’ whenever something appears to need a fix. I began to wonder: What if we could change the slope of the curve that leads to more loss of freedom?”

Searle clipped newspaper articles constantly, organizing them by topic. His main sources were the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Palm Beach Post, and New York Times. “Whenever I read something that outraged me, I would clip it and file it,” he said. “After a while, my file got to be pretty voluminous.”

When it came time to write a mission statement for Searle Freedom Trust, Searle knew he wanted to avoid the problems that beset the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies that veered to the left after their donors had died. He studied how other foundations had avoided this problem and hired Kim Dennis to help him craft a mission statement that grew out of the principles that guided his newspaper clippings. (Dennis still serves as president of Searle Freedom Trust.)

The mission statement is six pages long, but its first three sentences provide a clear sense of purpose:

“I have established the Foundation because I am concerned about certain social, political, and economic trends that I see in our society. I believe that if these trends continue unabated, future generations will end up living in a world dominated by big government, devoid of ethical values, and lacking in individual initiative and responsibility. With the resources I am committing to the Foundation, I want to encourage the restoration of personal responsibility to its central place in American life and to limit government’s responsibilities to those areas the Founding Fathers intended.”

Searle Freedom Trust is required to deplete its funds by 2025, following the model of the John M. Olin Foundation, which formally closed its doors two years ago. “By requiring the Foundation to spend itself out of existence, I seek to ensure that the Foundation will always remain in the hands of people who understand my intentions and are committed to carrying out the Foundation’s mission,” wrote Searle.

At first, Searle Freedom Trust made only a handful of grants each year. In 2006, however, it gave away more than $5 million and it will increase this figure substantially this year. In order to spend its whole endowment by 2025, it will have to begin giving away upwards of $10 or $15 million per year. (The precise figures will hinge on investment returns and contributions yet to be received.)

Recipients of the foundation’s support read like a long roster of conservative and libertarian organizations. They have included not only AEI, but also the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Manhattan Institute, Pacific Research Foundation, Reason Foundation, State Policy Network, Federalist Society, Donors Trust, Philanthropy Roundtable, and many others. Searle had a special interest in developing the talents of young people, giving to the Institute for Humane Studies, Collegiate Network, and other programs focused on colleges and universities. Last summer, the foundation solicited proposals for new-media projects and received more than 60 responses. It will consider these at its next board meeting, scheduled for next month.

“If public-policy research helps people understand that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, then we’ll have made great strides,” said Searle.

A memorial service for Searle will be held in Florida today. At his request, the family has asked that nobody send flowers. Instead, they should send donations to either Searle Freedom Trust or AEI. There’s still a lot of policy research to do.


Full disclosure: Last year, I met Dan Searle to interview him for an article on public policy in Philanthropy magazine. I didn’t use any of the material from our conversation, however, because within a few weeks I had agreed to become a part-time consultant to Searle Freedom Trust, starting in January 2007. I remain one today. All of the above quotes from Searle are taken from the foundation’s mission statement or our interview.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


The Latest