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.
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:
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.”
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 is the son of Daniel Searle and a family advisor to the trust.
Ethan Meers is a family advisor to the trust and a principal at the private real estate investment firm Kinship Capital.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
After Daniel Searle died in 2007, his family asked that people send donations to his foundation or the American Enterprise Institute instead of flowers.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
|American Enterprise Institute
|State Policy Network
|Foundation for Government Accountability
|Mackinac Center for Public Policy
|Institute for Justice
|Pacific Legal Foundation
|Institute for Humane Studies
|Competitive Enterprise Institute
|Property and Environment Research Center
|Texas Public Policy Foundation
|American Legislative Exchange Council
|Employment Policies Institute Foundation
|Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute
|New Civil Liberties Alliance
|Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
|Pacific Research Institute
|Liberty Justice Center
|National Taxpayers Union Foundation
|Franklin News Foundation
|Real Clear Foundation
|Illinois Policy Institute
|Daily Caller News Foundation
|Empire Center for Public Policy
|Committee to Unleash Prosperity
|Government Accountability Institute
|Americans for Fair Treatment
|Center for Independent Thought
|National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
|Free to Choose Network
|Student Free Press Association
|American Private Radio
|Capital Research Center
|Institute for Free Speech
|Institute for Energy Research
|Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity
|Job Creators Network
|Copenhagen Consensus Center