Searle Freedom Trust

The Searle Freedom Trust is a 501(c)(3) private foundation run by Kimberly Dennis, a longtime operative in the right-wing philanthropy network.

About Searle Freedom Trust

The trust has given hundreds of millions of dollars to “ultra-free-market” groups, including leading climate denial and anti-affirmative action organizations.

The Searle Freedom Trust is a 501(c)(3) private foundation run by Kimberly Dennis, a longtime operative in the right-wing philanthropy network. The trust has given hundreds of millions of dollars to “ultra-free-market” groups, including leading climate denial and anti-affirmative action organizations.

  • The trust has a dissolution date of December 31, 2025, at which point it will have spent its remaining funds. The foundation plans to award most of its final grants in 2024 and sharply reduce its grantmaking in 2025. The foundation reported having over $114 million in assets in 2020.

Kimberly Dennis, President & CEO

Kimberly Dennis has served as president and CEO of the Searle Freedom Trust since 1999. Dennis is also the co-founder and chair of Donors Trust, the dark-money ATM of the right” that backs the most influential groups in the conservative movement. The State Policy Network said in 2019 that Dennis “changed the way donors and nonprofits think about donors’ resources” and “built countless bridges between donors’ intentions and organizations who can help these donors bring their philanthropic goals to life.”

Dennis started her career in conservative grantmaking in 1980 with the John Olin Foundation, one of the first nonprofits to engage in mass giving to conservative organizations. The John Olin Foundation was an early funder of the Federalist Society. She currently sits on the boards of several conservative think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute. Dennis previously directed the American Enterprise Institute’s National Research Initiative, a program that the Searle Freedom Trust funded. Dennis is also a director emeritus at the anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum.

Dennis has served on the boards of conservative foundations and think tanks including:

  • George Mason University, Virginia’s largest public university. GMU came under fire in 2018 for “[granting] the conservative Charles Koch Foundation a say in the hiring and firing of professors in exchange for millions of dollars in donations.”
  • The Earhart Foundation, which “helped promoters of neo-Confederacy.” The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the neo-Confederacy movement ostensibly works to preserve “Southern culture” but “share[s] cross-membership with racist organizations such as the white supremacist League of the South.” The Earhart Foundation has given at least $118,000 to individuals affiliated with the League of the South.
  • The W. H. Brady Foundation, which gave millions to conservative organizations, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Independent Women’s Forum, the Acton Institute, and the Federalist Society.
  • Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of wealthy conservative donors and foundations. Dennis served as the organization’s first executive director.

In 2019, Dennis was awarded the State Policy Network’s Thomas A. Roe Award, a “tribute to those in the state public policy movement whose achievements have greatly advanced free-market philosophy and policy solutions.”

D. Gideon Searle, Trustee

Gideon Searle is the son of Daniel Searle and a trustee at the Searle Freedom Trust. He is a managing partner of the Serafin Group LLC and an emeritus trustee at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Kinship Trust Company, LLC, Trustee

The Searle Freedom Trust’s tax filings list Kinship Trust Company LLC as a trustee. Kinship reportedly “manages the multibillion-dollar investment portfolio of descendants of Gideon D. Searle.” Searle’s tax documents also state that the Searle Freedom Trust is under the care of Kinship LLC. 

Michael D. Searle, Family Advisor

Michael D. Searle is the son of Daniel Searle and a family advisor to the trust. 

Ethan O. Meers, Family Advisor 

Ethan Meers is a family advisor to the trust and a principal at the private real estate investment firm Kinship Capital

Stephen Moore, Grant Advisor

Stephen Moore, the co-founder of Club for Growth and a former Trump advisor, is a grant advisor to the Searle Freedom Trust. Moore was reportedly a longtime friend of Daniel Searle. Moore is also a consultant at the Thomas W. Smith Foundation.

Former President Donald Trump nominated Moore for a position on the Federal Reserve Board in 2019, but Moore ultimately withdrew his name from consideration after his history of disparaging comments about women surfaced. 

James Piereson, Grant Advisor

Right-wing philanthropy operative James Piereson is a grant advisor to Searle. Piereson is a notable figure in conservative philanthropic circles and holds leadership positions at multiple right-leaning grantmaking groups and think tanks. In addition to his role at the Searle Freedom Trust, Piereson serves as: 

  • Vice-chair of Donors Trust, the dark-money ATM of the right” that backs the most influential groups in the conservative movement.
  • Trustee and director at the Thomas W. Smith Foundation.
  • Chair of the Foundation for Cultural Review, an organization that received over $5.1 million from the Bradley Foundation specifically to support The New Criterion, a monthly publication that touts itself as “on the front lines of the battle for culture.” The publication has been described as the “cultural wing of the neoconservative movement.”
  • Chair of the American Spectator Foundation, a right-wing publication known for its role in promoting the “Clinton body count” conspiracy theory, which alleged that the Clintons murdered numerous political enemies.
  • President of the William E. Simon Foundation, a private foundation that has doled out millions of dollars to conservative groups, including the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, and Donors Trust. The William E. Simon Foundation also gives to charitable causes such as community groups and medical research centers.
  • In addition to his current leadership roles, Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that runs the right-wing outlet City Journal. He is also a fellow at the Jack Miller Center, a conservative academic center based outside of Philadelphia that sponsors university civic centers and summer programs using funds from the Koch network.
  • Piereson has written numerous columns rejecting any notion that charitable organizations have a part to play in racial or economic equality, which he calls “radical causes.”
  • In an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Piereson lambasted liberals for funding causes including “abortion rights, climate change, income inequality, immigrant rights, regulation of the internet, the elimination of ‘hate,’ and other social and identity-based projects.” Piereson said right-leaning donors must provide a “counterbalance” to liberals’ charitable giving, or else “private money [will] flow even more asymmetrically toward ever more radical causes.”
  • Piereson opposes efforts to increase diversity among professors and students on college campuses, saying, “diversity-promotion efforts on campus actually increase resentment on the part of both white and minority students.” According to Piereson, claims of “racial bigotry and violence against women” on college campuses are absurd and based on “irrational fears.”
  • Piereson is the author of the 2014 book The Inequality Hoax, which he wrote as a counter-argument to Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In his book, Piereson defends lower tax rates for the rich and criticizes Piketty’s proposal for redistributing wealth.

William H. Mellor, Grant Advisor

In addition to serving as a grant advisor to Searle, William H. Mellor is the president of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm seeking to limit the powers of the government. The Institute for Justice was founded with seed money from the Koch network.

Steven Hayward, Grant Advisor

Steven Hayward is a grant advisor at Searle Freedom Trust. He is also a board member of the Institute for Energy Research and the Property and Environment Research Center, two think tanks that oppose climate policies and downplay the threats posed by climate change. Additionally, Hayward is the Thomas W. Smith Foundation Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. 

The Searle Freedom Trust, formerly known as the D&D Foundation, was founded by the late businessman Daniel Searle (dec. 2007) to finance research and education on “public policy issues that affect individual freedom and economic liberty.” The foundation was established in 1998 out of the pharmaceutical corporation G. D. Searle & Company, now a Pfizer subsidiary. Searle created the trust to fight against the “laws and regulations” that he said were constraining “economic freedom and individual freedom.” Searle’s idea for the foundation was inspired by the American Enterprise Institute, which has maintained close ties to the trust. Searle’s family is still represented among the foundation’s trustees. 

Planned Dissolution In 2025

Upon founding the trust, Daniel Searle set a dissolution date to “ensure that the foundation will always remain in the hands of people who understand [his] intentions and are committed to carrying out the foundation’s mission.” The trust will officially close on December 31, 2025, at which point it will have spent its remaining funds. It plans to award most of its final grants in 2024 and sharply reduce its grantmaking in 2025. The foundation reported having over $114 million in assets in 2020.

American Enterprise Institute

The Searle Freedom Trust is most closely tied to the American Enterprise Institute, one of the oldest conservative think tanks in the U.S., with “a long track record of distorting the science and solutions of climate change.” The organization advocates for limited government policies that would weaken public assistance programs, lower taxes on the wealthy, and prevent the federal government from increasing the minimum wage. AEI was the recipient of the Searle Freedom Trust’s large grant in 2020, accepting $1.25 million earmarked for “research” purposes. Several of Searle’s leaders also hold leadership positions at or are otherwise affiliated with AEI.

  • Searle’s president and CEO, Kimberly Dennis, sits on the board of the American Enterprise Institute and directed AEI’s National Research Initiative, a program that was funded by Searle Freedom Trust.
  • Searle grant advisor Steven Hayward is a fellow at AEI.
  • Stephen Moore, another grant advisor to the trust, has had his op-eds and book featured on AEI’s website.

After Daniel Searle died in 2007, his family asked that people send donations to his foundation or the American Enterprise Institute instead of flowers. 

  • Environmental advocacy group Greenpeace reported that AEI’s arguments against climate policy “tend to de-emphasize the environmental and economic risks of climate change, exaggerate the costs of addressing the problem and question the value of putting a policy in place at all.”
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists said AEI has “routinely tried to undermine the credibility of climate science, despite at times affirming that the ‘weight of the evidence’ justifies ‘prudent action’ on climate change.” UOCS pointed out that several AEI fellows have brazenly denied the existence of climate change and disparaged climate scientists who shed light on the threat. According to The Guardian, AEI has a history of aligning itself with the tobacco industry. AEI has argued against cigarette taxes, encouraged researchers to fund their studies with money from big tobacco, and wrote a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017 urging the agency to approve Philip Morris’ new tobacco product.

Donors Trust

The Searle Freedom Trust is connected to Donors Trust — one of the most powerful funding groups in the conservative movement that launched one year after Searle was founded — through Kimberly Dennis. In addition to serving as Searle’s president and CEO, Dennis is the co-founder and chair of the board of Donors Trust, which spends millions of dollars funding the most influential right-wing groups. 

The Searle Freedom Trust is also linked to Donors Trust through its shared grant recipients. The two organizations are the primary backers of two anti-affirmative action groups run by Edward Blum, Students for Fair Admissions and the Project on Fair Representation.

Additionally, the Searle Freedom Trust funded Donors Trust’s Dan Searle Fellowships in Economics for postdoctoral students.

State Policy Network

The Searle Freedom Trust has coordinated with the State Policy Network, a network of over one hundred right-wing advocacy organizations, think tanks, and funding groups seeking to influence policy at the state level.  

In 2013, The Guardian reported that the Searle Freedom Trust was financing the State Policy Network’s “coordinated assault against public sector rights and services in the key areas of education, healthcare, income tax, workers’ compensation and the environment.” The Guardian obtained documents gathered by SPN, including 40 funding proposals from libertarian and conservative think tanks across 34 states, which were then submitted for consideration to the Searle Freedom Trust. 

  • Acting as an intermediary between SPN and Searle, Stephen Moore was asked to review proposals requesting tens of thousands of dollars to support free-market causes, including “cuts in public sector pensions, campaigns to reduce the wages of government workers and eliminate income taxes, school voucher schemes to counter public education, opposition to Medicaid, and a campaign against regional efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.” Moore said grant decisions were made in line with Daniel Searle’s “commitment to the advancement of free enterprise and individual rights.”

The Searle Freedom Trust is also connected to the State Policy Network through Kimberly Dennis, who was awarded SPN’s Thomas A. Roe Award, a “tribute to those in the state public policy movement whose achievements have greatly advanced free-market philosophy and policy solutions.”

Thomas W. Smith Foundation

The Searle Freedom Trust shares several principal employees with the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, a grantmaking organization that gives millions to right-wing groups, particularly organizations pushing the panic over “critical race theory.” Three of Searle Freedom Trust’s grant advisors are affiliated with the Thomas W. Smith Foundation: 

  • James Piereson is a trustee and director at the Thomas W. Smith Foundation
  • Stephen Moore is a consultant at the Smith Foundation
  • Steven Hayward is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

In 2019, Searle gave $150,000 to American Transparency, where Thomas Smith serves as a board member.

The Searle Freedom Trust provides grants to prominent think tanks, field operations, and state-level policy organizations pushing “ultra-free-market ideas.” The trust doles out hefty grants to major climate-denial organizations and groups attacking affirmative action policies.

Climate Denial Groups

The Searle Freedom Trust has been one of the “largest and most consistent funders of organizations orchestrating climate change denial,” according to a 2017 study conducted by researchers at Drexel University. That analysis found that the foundation had contributed $21.7 million to climate change countermovement groups between 2003 and 2010. Since then, Searle Freedom Trust has continued to give millions of dollars annually to groups working to undermine policies intended to fight climate change. 

In 2022, the Center for Media and Democracy identified Searle as one of the “biggest nonprofit funders of climate denial.” According to CMD, the Searle Freedom Trust donated over $6 million to climate-denying organizations between 2014 and 2020. During that period, Searle gave: 

  • Over $3.4 million to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which opposes environmental policies like the Kyoto Protocol and federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Searle has been a consistent funder of the conservative think the Heritage Foundation, which environmental and climate policy groups such as Greenpeace and The Carbon Tax Center have characterized as a leading purveyor of climate change denial. Heritage staunchly opposes environmental regulations that would affect big businesses, going so far as to say that life-saving policies such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act “infringe on private property rights, and confound the dynamics of a free market.” Searle donated $400,000 to the Heritage Foundation between 2019 and 2020.

Anti-Affirmative Action Groups

The Searle Freedom Trust funds the most prominent organizations attacking affirmative action policies, which were created “to alleviate some of the negative impacts of past and present societal discrimination against people of color” by helping address inequalities in higher education and the workplace. In reaction to these efforts, conservatives have used their opposition to affirmative action policies as “an extremely efficient rhetorical tool for mobilizing white resistance to racial equity, appropriating civil rights language to serve the goals of white supremacy.” 

Students for Fair Admissions, one of Searle’s grantees, is an anti-affirmative action group run by Edward Blum, the “former stockbroker who never went to law school” leading the legal battle against race-conscious admissions programs at universities. SFFA has been at the center of several high-profile lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of affirmative action. 

  • Blum is also a board member of Parents Defending Education, one of the groups contributing to the manufactured panic over critical race theory being taught in schools. 

Students for Fair Admissions is a pillar of Blum’s plans to roll back civil rights, with the explicit goal of ending affirmative action in college admissions by suing institutions of higher learning. Blum was the “driving force” behind Abigail Fisher’s high-profile lawsuit against the University of Texas, which was filed after Fisher, a white student, had been denied admission to UT Austin. 

  • The Searle Freedom Trust helped fund the lawsuit, in which Fisher argued the university’s consideration of race during the admissions process was discriminatory toward white students. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Fisher, upholding the constitutionality of the school’s affirmative action programs. Fisher currently serves as the secretary of Students for Fair Admissions, and Fisher’s father is SFFA’s treasurer. 

In 2018, Students for Fair Admissions launched a high-profile lawsuit targeting affirmative action programs at Harvard. Federal courts dismissed the case in 2019, but SFFA successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to review the Harvard case during its October 2022 term. 

  • Searle Freedom Trust President Kimberly Dennis stated in 2019 that Searle chose not to fund SFFA’s lawsuit against Harvard and the foundation. However, Searle remains one of the top contributors to Donors Trust, which is financing the Harvard case. Searle continued to fund SFFA, donating $500,000 to the group in 2019.

Students for Fair Admissions’ ongoing litigation efforts include a high-profile Supreme Court case being argued during the court’s October 2022 term. In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina, SFFA is challenging UNC’s race-conscious admissions programs.

  • The Harvard Crimson reported in October 2022 that the Searle Freedom Trust’s grants accounted for nearly one-third of SFFA’s total donations in 2019. Kimberly Dennis previously stated that Searle was directly supporting SFFA’s legal efforts against UNC.

In addition to their support for Students for Fair Admissions, the Searle Freedom Trust and Donors Trust provide most of the funding for the Project on Fair Representation, another advocacy group run by Blum that “challenges racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal courts.”

2020 Grantees: 

Grantee Name  Amount 
American Enterprise Institute  $1,250,000.00  
Reason Foundation  $911,600.00  
State Policy Network  $783,000.00  
Federalist Society  $640,850.00  
Foundation for Government Accountability  $600,000.00  
Tax Foundation  $600,000.00  
Mercatus Center  $550,000.00  
Mackinac Center for Public Policy  $500,000.00  
Manhattan Institute  $500,000.00  
Institute for Justice  $500,000.00  
Pacific Legal Foundation  $500,000.00  
CATO Institute  $482,500.00  
Institute for Humane Studies  $455,000.00  
Competitive Enterprise Institute  $450,000.00  
FreedomWorks Foundation  $400,000.00  
Property and Environment Research Center  $355,000.00  
Texas Public Policy Foundation  $350,000.00  
American Legislative Exchange Council  $325,000.00  
Employment Policies Institute Foundation  $300,000.00  
Philanthropy Roundtable  $300,000.00  
Freedom Foundation  $300,000.00  
Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute  $300,000.00  
New Civil Liberties Alliance  $300,000.00  
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education  $250,000.00  
Pacific Research Institute  $250,000.00  
National Affairs  $250,000.00  
Goldwater Institute  $250,000.00  
Liberty Justice Center  $250,000.00  
National Taxpayers Union Foundation  $250,000.00  
Galen Institute  $200,000.00  
Sagamore Institute  $200,000.00  
Franklin News Foundation  $200,000.00  
Real Clear Foundation  $200,000.00  
Illinois Policy Institute  $200,000.00  
Daily Caller News Foundation  $180,000.00  
Empire Center for Public Policy  $175,000.00  
Lincoln Network  $150,000.00  
Hudson Institute  $150,000.00  
American Transparency  $150,000.00  
Committee to Unleash Prosperity  $150,000.00  
Claremont Institute  $130,000.00  
Government Accountability Institute  $130,000.00  
Americans for Fair Treatment  $125,000.00  
Center for Independent Thought  $125,000.00  
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools  $125,000.00  
Free to Choose Network  $125,000.00  
Speech First  $125,000.00  
Fraser Institute  $125,000.00  
Student Free Press Association  $120,000.00  
American Private Radio  $100,000.00  
Capital Research Center  $100,000.00  
Institute for Free Speech  $100,000.00  
Buckeye Institute  $100,000.00  
CO2 Coalition  $100,000.00  
Heritage Foundation  $100,000.00  
Hoover Institution  $80,000.00  
Institute for Energy Research  $80,000.00  
Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity  $75,000.00  
Kinship Foundation  $60,000.00  
Job Creators Network  $50,000.00  
Encounter Books  $25,000.00  
Copenhagen Consensus Center  $24,000.00  


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