New Koch

A foundation veers left.

After the founder of a large foundation dies, his heirs often transform it. Compare industrial tycoon Henry Ford to the Ford Foundation, which rejects “the model of capitalism we have today.” But it is uniquely odd that Charles Koch’s enterprises have moved so far left while the donor remains alive. Billions of dollars are at stake.

Many current and former donor partners, grantees, and staff agree: “Old Koch” was about economic freedom and the core values that sustain a free society, but “New Koch” downplays or hides those values in order to appeal to the contemporary Left. Old Koch focused on getting government out of the way so that civil society could flourish. New Koch has largely skipped that step and moved on to “social entrepreneurship.”

Those outside the ideological network in which Koch is a major player (known as the “liberty movement”) should understand a few things. First, “Koch” means not just the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) but the large family of organizations and projects that are run by or strongly influenced by Stand Together, the umbrella Koch organization. These include core programs such as the Koch Associate Program (KAP), organizations launched by Koch with varying degrees of independence like Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and well-funded Koch-adjacent organizations like the Institute for Humane Studies. Koch Industries’ annual revenue easily tops $100 billion.

In what follows, I show Koch’s leftward shift in rhetoric, ideology, politics, and philanthropy. The changes are dramatic and arresting.

Second, it gives me no pleasure to relate this situation. I am writing for the many who wish they could add their names. I am speaking up now, because if I don’t, we risk seeing billions of dollars work against what used to be Mr. Koch’s own noble principles.

Much of my evidence comes from public documents. Some key information comes from current or former insiders, reaching from board members to senior and mid-level staff. Some comes from current or former grantees or donor partners.

Not one of these current or former employees could be taken as disgruntled in the traditional sense—eager to avenge an adverse action or a slight taken personally. Neither am I, having worked at Koch before the shift. It was a great place to work. Most of my colleagues were rockstars across the whole five years I was there. It was Koch’s golden age. I left only to become a U.S. Department of Education appointee under Secretary Betsy DeVos.

My sources have dedicated significant time and effort, with success, to the classic Koch mission of human flourishing via economic freedom. When Koch lost that focus, it was no longer a home for them. The respectful thing was to challenge the inconsistencies and then, when that failed, to take the hint and leave (not all have left yet).

My nonpublic sources, of whom there are many, self-censor for a variety of reasons: they still work at Koch or elsewhere in the movement, their organizations or publications get Koch grants, they are still connected with Koch-adjacent partners, they fear the public eye, they prefer to stay positive, or they are too senior in their existing jobs.

I publish these findings out of concern. I want the best for Charles and his longtime mission. There is still time for New Koch to become American Freedom Koch once again.

The New Rhetoric

Koch’s rhetorical shift is easy to document. These changes evidently are designed to go down better with the values of Koch’s new partners on the ideological Left. They likely represent a true change in values and priorities, not merely a new outreach strategy.

One recent change sums it up. “Market-Based Management” (MBM) has been redesignated “Principle Based Management.” Koch Industries made this change to its business philosophy publicly between June and July of 2022, although some sources say it had been planned for a few years. KAP, an education program for early-career professionals, similarly changed its website sometime since last November.

MBM, Koch’s core management philosophy, was always based on principle, especially the principle that a firm should be run something like a free market, where value creation is rewarded and individual initiative is respected.

“Principle Based Management,” though it may signal a new emphasis on principle, really reflects the implementation of new principles to replace the old. And it appears that the “market” concept is now almost entirely absent from Koch’s self-understanding.

A key inflection point was in 2019 at internal staff and all-staff meetings. At that point, Koch had announced a rebrand called “Stand Together”—a name that evokes leftist “solidarity” over individualism. At the meeting, as one mid-level manager recalls, a senior leader announced that terms such as “liberty,” “freedom,” and “constitution” would be downplayed in public communications because those terms “alienate key audiences.”

Mr. Koch had called “capitalism” an incorrect term for his interests at least as early as 2016, but Stand Together and CKF have gone farther. “Economic freedom”—once the primary motivator of hundreds of millions of dollars of investment—is nowhere on the Stand Together Foundation’s website. The term is nowhere to be found in Stand Together’s Twitter history except in the context of women finding “true economic freedom,” and it is virtually absent from Stand Together’s website.

CKF last tweeted about “economic freedom” in August of 2021. “Economic freedom” and “free enterprise” are absent from CKF’s 2022 partner impact statement. Don’t say freedom when you can say “bottom-up solutions.”

Mr. Koch’s 2020 book, Believe in People, had been largely completed in Old Koch style when it went through a complete rewrite. The earlier version was like his previous books, which had merged practical and intellectual wisdom to focus on what Old Koch called MBM and principled entrepreneurship. The new version became pablum: “What would it mean to truly believe in people?”

True enough, “Principled Entrepreneurship” remains a philanthropic focus area. But giving to formerly key partners in this area has diminished substantially or been cut off entirely. Meanwhile, Wichita-based Youth Entrepreneurs now does business under the name Empowered.

KAP now explains that it “equips associates with the tools, mindsets, and community to succeed as social entrepreneurs—individuals excited to find new and better ways to break barriers and eliminate injustice.” All parties involved can understand that “breaking barriers” and “eliminating injustice” are leftist buzzwords that signal openness to Critical Race Theory while flying under the radar of well-meaning but inattentive “compassionate conservatives.” As a result of KAP’s rhetorical changes, liberty-movement organizations can no longer presume that KAP alumni are ideologically aligned.

The mission of the Koch-adjacent Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), in 2011, was to develop intellectuals to be able to “change the climate of opinion to one more congenial to the principles and practice of freedom.” Today, IHS works on “connecting and supporting” intellectuals who are “driving progress in critical conversations shaping the 21st century.”

Koch’s close partner, The Libre Initiative, used to promote itself as advancing “the principles and values of a free and open society…informing the U.S. Hispanic community about the benefits of a constitutionally limited government, property rights, rule of law, sound money supply and free enterprise.” By July of 2021, however, Libre had pivoted to explore “the solutions that create the freedom and opportunity people need to discover and develop their potential…quality education for our children, affordable health care for our families, a strong economy with good jobs, safer communities, and more.”

The main exception is close Koch partner Concerned Veterans for America, which has not changed its well-wrought mission. Libre does maintain a reasonably Old Koch statement on free markets. And some values, such as respect for individual autonomy, have not changed.

But group identity plays a much larger role today than ever. If Koch groups really still promote economic freedom, most of them are not clearly saying so.

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