The Koch brothers empire…a web of influence across every sector of American society.

  • In 1958, Fred Koch, the founder of the Midwestern oil and cattle ranching empire that would become Koch Industries, became a charter member of the John Birch Society, the fiercely anti-communist organization whose members believed Soviet influence was infecting all aspects of American society. The Birchers attempted to place their weight on “the political scales…as fast and as far” as they could, but their movement was quickly sidelined to the ideological fringe. Two of Fred’s four sons, Charles and David, have carried forward the conservative torch, and they have succeeded where their father and his allies failed. Their father’s company, meanwhile, has grown into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that is the second-largest private corporation in the country.

    Though the Koch surname has become synonymous with political spending, the family’s philanthropy has flowed to a wide range of causes. A significant portion has gone to think tanks and policy institutes that advance the brothers’ free-market beliefs. And Charles Koch has lavished millions on universities to bolster their study and teaching of this school of economics. But Koch contributions have also established cancer research centers, funded ballets and preserved cultural institutions, and provided grants and scholarships to students.

    This project, an effort to track the breadth of the Kochs’ philanthropic influence, builds on several years of reporting (which culminated in Dan Schulman’s book, Sons of Wichita, and our cover story “Koch vs. Koch“), news stories, as well as data from tax filings and the organizations’ websites. (See more about our methodology below.) What follows is by no means exhaustive. It’s the first round of a project that we’ll continue to expand and update

Family Foundations

The Kochs have a handful of family foundations, whose giving ranges from public policy and political advocacy to cancer research and wildlife conservation. The Charles Koch Foundation has donated millions to universities, think tanks, and public policy shops to advance his libertarian philosophy. David Koch’s foundation and personal philanthropy, while supporting similar causes as his brother, has centered on medical research and the arts. The Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation (run by Elizabeth Koch, Charles’ wife) donates to Kansas-based arts and education initiatives, and the Claude R. Lambe Foundation (run by Charles) contributes largely to free-market-minded think tanks and institutes. The Knowledge and Progress Fund, a private foundation run by Charles, has given almost exclusively to Donors Trust, an organization that spreads donations around to a host of right-leaning groups and preserves the anonymity of its donors.

Dollar figures show the amount each group has received from key Koch organizations.
Click a group for more details.

Libertarian Roots

Fred Koch, the family patriarch, staunchly opposed big government. His worldview colored by his experiences working in Josef Stalin’s USSR, Koch was an avowed conservative who backed the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater and was a leading member of the anti-Communist John Birch Society. Deeply influenced by the political views of their father, Charles and (later) David Koch grew deeply involved with budding libertarian movement (David Koch even ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980). Though the Kochs would later be known as Republican kingmakers, their prolific giving to libertarian causes helped launch libertarianism into a mass movement. Charles Koch was funding so many libertarian operations at some point that an activist dubbed his many-tentacled operation the “Kochtopus.” Here are a few of the organizations the Kochs sponsored to get the libertarian movement off the ground.

Dollar figures show the amount each group has received from key Koch organizations.
Click a group for more details.

Donor Network

The Koch donor network, comprised of a constellation of wealthy conservative donors, was an outgrowth of biannual retreats Charles Koch and Koch Industries began hosting in 2003. Not long after President Obama took office, these confabs, held in locations including Palm Springs and Aspen, became a well-oiled fundraising juggernaut. The Kochs and their allies pooled their resources and channelled money through a maze of trusts and nonprofits, some of which seemed to exist only to obscure their fusing source. The beneficiaries of the Koch network—which in scope and sophistication has come to resemble a political party in its own right—have included dozens of political nonprofits and advocacy groups that have spent millions to elect Republican and advance a free market, anti-regulatory agenda. Among the recipients of Koch donor network funds (and contrary to the Koch brothers’ libertarian beliefs) are social conservative groups that have fought abortion and gay marriage, engaging in the culture war battles that the Kochs have largely steered clear from.

Dollar figures show the amount each group has received from key Koch organizations.
Click a group for more details.

Public Policy

Starting decades before the emergence of their vaunted donor network, the Koch brothers (and particularly Charles) have worked to build and foster an ideological infrastructure to advance their free-market, small-government philosophy. Charles’ conservative activism stretches back to his days as a member of the John Birch Society in the early 1960s, and since then he, later joined by David, has channelled millions to like-minded think tanks, advocacy outfits, and politicians. This list represents some of the top recipients of the Koch brothers’ political and public policy largesse (and organizations, such as the John Birch Society, that were key to their political formative years), but it is far from exhaustive; other Koch-supported think tanks include the Acton Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Dollar figures show the amount each group has received from key Koch organizations.
Click a group for more details.

Education

This category shows the universities, high schools, and educational centers that have received more than $100,000 since 1998 from the Charles Koch Foundation, the David H. Koch Foundation, and the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation. (Many more have received smaller amounts, and we will expand the list in the future.) The Charles Koch Foundation, in particular, has donated millions towards both scholarships and libertarian research centers at a number of universities, including George Mason, Troy, and Clemson. These donations have come under scrutiny in recent years, especially in cases where the gifts came with contracts giving the Kochs sway over faculty selection and other academic decisions.

Dollar figures show the amount each group has received from key Koch organizations.
Click a group for more details.

Culture & Medicine

Though the Kochs are widely known for their political giving, they have also given millions to more traditional philanthropic causes, ranging from public broadcasting to wildlife conservation to ballet. David, a prostate cancer survivor, has poured hundreds of millions into cancer research and the arts, while Charles has doled out academic scholarships and grants to students. The Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation, named for the brothers’ parents, has channeled money towards Kansas-based education and arts initiatives.

Dollar figures show the amount each group has received from key Koch organizations.
Click a group for more details.
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