The Pew Charitable Trusts is a public charity formed in 2003 from the merger of seven foundations created by the Pew family, which made its money in the oil business. It operates the Pew Research Center as a subsidiary.
Originally founded as the family foundation of conservative- and Republican-leaning Pew family members, the organization has moved toward the political left throughout its history. The drift from donor intention accelerated after the deaths of the Pew family founders and the appointment of Rebecca W. Rimel as the organization’s executive director and later president in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. In a 1991 interview with Town and Country, Rimel declared “if we could reinfuse the idealism of the Sixties into our work, it could get the country out of this morass of feeling that our problems are insoluble. We have to assume that if we’re committed, innovative, and thoughtful, there’s nothing we as a country can’t solve.” 
Under Rimel’s leadership, Pew began extensive funding of environmentalist causes, including restrictions on oil drilling, directly questioning the source of wealth that made the Pew Charitable Trusts possible.
The Pew Children
The Pew family derived their wealth from Sun Oil (which became Sunoco) and from shipbuilding through Sun Oil’s subsidiary, Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock. Sun’s founder, Joseph N. Pew Sr. (1848-1912) had participated in the Spindletop oil strike of 1901 and was one of the few independent oil refiners not bought out by the Rockefeller family. In World War II, Sun Ship built 285 ships for the military, including 40 percent of the oil tankers used in the war and repaired 1,500 ships damaged in combat. Sun Ship built its last ship in 1979 and the company was sold by Sun Oil in 1982.
All of Joseph N. Pew’s children were Republicans and two of them — J. Howard Pew, Jr. (1882-1971) and Joseph N. Pew, Jr. (1894-1963) —were conservatives. The Pew family specialized in donating to Philadelphia charities and to conservative and libertarian organizations, such as the Foundation for Economic Education. J. Howard Pew was also a devout Presbyterian, who was the primary backer of Christianity Today for its first decade.  Joseph N. Pew, Jr. was a corporate lobbyist who led the successful effort to overturn President Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act. He bought Farm Journal and Pathfinder (a rural newsweekly) and turned them into market-oriented publications critical of the growth of government. Pew Jr. was a major contributor to Republicans, giving $1 million to the Pennsylvania Republican Party and an additional $200,000 to the campaign of Arthur James, the successful Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania in 1938. Pew fundraised heavily for 1944 Republican Presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey, earning Pew the attacks of Democratic National Committee chairman Robert E. Hannegan, who denounced him as “one of the wealthy group of little-known, power-hungry men whose steady stream of money dominates the Republican party.”
Howard Pew was president of Sun Oil during the Great Depression. He eloquently defended the free enterprise system in many speeches. “When I speak of the free enterprise system at its best,” he declared in 1938, “I mean when it is entirely free—free from monopoly, private or governmental; free from government control or intimidation; free from trade agreements which result in price or production control after the matter of the cartel systems of Europe.” 
Creation of the Trusts
In the 1940s, the Pew family created seven trusts to handle the family’s grantmaking. Most had vague charters, but the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, created in 1957, was different. Pew instructed that the trust be used “to acquaint the American people” with “the evils of bureaucracy,” “the values of a free market,” “the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people,” and “to inform our people of the struggle, persecution, hardship, sacrifice, and death by which freedom of the individual was won.”
Howard Pew was as interested in religion as he was in politics and economics. He was a member of the Christianity Today editorial board from 1955 until his death in 1971, and a two-year, $200,000 grant in 1955 ensured the magazine’s successful launch. Pew was instrumental in selecting the magazine’s first editor, Carl F.H. Henry, in 1955 and its second, Harold Lindsell, in 1968. Not only was Pew the largest single donor to the magazine, but also the Pew Freedom Trust was the only major foundation to give money to the magazine until the Lilly Foundation began to donate in the mid-1960s.
The Trusts Begin to Drift
By the early 1970s, the founders of the seven Pew trusts died, and the foundations began to drift away from the founders’ vision. The drift accelerated in 1986 when Thomas W. Langfitt became the trusts’ president. He fired 95 percent of the trusts’ staff and hired Rebecca W. Rimel as executive director in 1986. By 1991, Roger M. Williams reported in Foundation News that the trusts had “eliminated almost all of their right-wing grantmaking and embraced a wide range of projects, including some that manifestly oppose the business interests the old Pews held inviolable.” He added that many grants the Pews made in the early 1990s “would send the late J. Howard Pew and Joseph N. Pew Jr. spinning in the family crypt.”
An analysis of Pew spending done by Robert Lerner and Althea K. Nagai for the Capital Research Center in 1995 found that in 1981 the Pew Trusts gave $2.4 million to conservative organizations. By 1993 all grants to the right had been eliminated, although the trusts did give $150,000 to conservative organizations in 1994. But by 1986 liberal groups were getting three times as much money as conservative ones, and by 1994 liberals were getting 40 times as much money from Pew as conservatives. 
Pew also cut off many grants to Philadelphia organizations. The Philadelphia Inquirer found that grants to nonprofits based in Philadelphia fell from 56 percent of Pew grantmaking in 1980 to 23 percent in 1991. Even organizations founded by the Pew family found the Pew Trusts unreceptive. Mabel Pew Myrin founded Camphill Village at Kimberton Hills as a place for developmentally disabled people to live and work. When her granddaughter, Karen Myrin, tried to get a grant from the Pew Trusts, she found that her phone calls were not returned. “There’s been such a turnover at Pew that a lot of them don’t know my name,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Stephen Salisbury, in a two-part investigation published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996, found that the Pew Charitable Trusts “were no longer an insular conservative family affair designed to dole out money….The foundation is a full-blown bureaucracy working to influence organizations and events, both inside government and out.”
Transition to Public Charity
In 2003, the IRS ruled that the Pew Charitable Trusts could transform itself from seven private foundations into one public charity. The IRS declared this acceptable because public charities must raise money from many sources, and the agency ruled that the seven Pew trusts were seven separate foundations. The move allowed Pew to save $4 million in excise taxes that it would have paid if it had remained a foundation. In addition, the action formally abolished the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, eliminating all the restrictions in that trust directing its grants to organizations that supported the free market.
Pew in 2009 transferred 300 of its employees from Philadelphia to Washington, after spending $155 million renovating the former headquarters of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Pew Research Center was deliberately not relocated to the new building as a way of symbolizing the center’s independence.
In 1990, Pew hired Joshua S. Reichert, a former director of the Veatch Foundation, to head Pew’s environmental programs. Reichert ran these programs until 2015, when he became an executive vice president of Pew running all of the foundation’s programs.
Boston Globe reporter Scott Allen noted in a 1997 article the irony of the Pew Trusts being champions of the environment when they were founded on oil money. “But 35 years after [Joseph N. Pew, Sr.’s] death, a family charity started by Pew is one of the leading founders of the American environmental movement, pumping an expected $22.5 million this year into causes that Pew itself might well have loathed. In particular, the Pew Charitable Trusts played a key role in convincing President Clinton to adopt tough air pollution regulations that the oil industry strenuously opposed. ‘The founders of Pew would be rolling in their graves if they knew,’ said Robert Scheffer, a Boston-based consultant to environmental groups.” 
“With its deep pockets and focus on aggressive political advocacy, Pew is not only the most important new player but the most controversial among opponents in industry,” New York Times reporter Douglas Jehl wrote in 2001. 
Jehl found both conservatives and liberals opposed to Pew plans to dominate the environmental movement. “I don’t think you make social change on the basis of paid staff in Washington and paid ads anywhere,” Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope told Jehl. Jehl also noted that Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho), in a 2000 Congressional hearing, said that Pew’s efforts to close the forests to economic activity showed how communities near these forests “are being crushed by an inaccessible and faceless movement wielding great power and influence.”
In 1998, Pew, collaborating with the Oxford, Packard, Turner, and W. Alton Jones foundations, created the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which spent $28 million between 1998-2004. The Center, Ron Arnold reported in Foundation Watch in 2004, “embraced every congressional bill controlling CO2 to date” but failed to convince the United States to agree to the Kyoto protocol, a treaty restricting global carbon dioxide emissions that the Senate refused to ratify in 1997.
In 2005 the National Environmental Trust, a nonprofit created in 1994, merged with Pew’s environmental section to form the Pew Environmental Group, with a $70 million budget and offices in four continents.  In a 2009 Politico interview, Joshua Reichert said that Pew’s efforts were primarily focused on ocean policy and climate change. With climate change, Reichert said “We’ve been working on this for 20 years and we never expected it would take this long” to alter U.S. climate policy. 
Pew, working with the Moore, Hewlett, and Packard foundations, has also been heavily involved in slowing down oil production in Canada. Brian Seasholes, drawing on the work of Canadian blogger and National Post columnist Vivian Krause, calculates that Pew spend $57.2 million between 1997 and 2011 on anti-oil sands activities, of which the bulk ($48.7 million) went to Ducks Unlimited, which then passed some of its grants back to Pew. Seasholes showed that most of the groups opposed to development of Canada’s boreal forest (where the oil sands are located) were either divisions of Pew or largely controlled by Pew.
Beginning in 1993, Pew gave millions in support of the “civic journalism” movement. In 1993, it created the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, headed by former NBC News producer Ed Fouhy. According to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Stephen Salisbury, Rebecca Rimel’s interest in civic journalism began with a lengthy interview with Knight-Ridder CEO James Batten, whose newspaper chain at the time owned the Inquirer. “What interested Rimel was the notion that Pew could leverage its own broader attempts to strengthen social and political engagement by funding civic journalism projects,” Salisbury reported.
Alicia Shepard noted that Pew had paid for 34 projects in 24 cities, including 22 newspapers, 24 television stations, and 20 radio stations in 1996. To avoid restrictions on foundations giving money to for-profit entities, Pew gave grants to a liberal nonprofit, the Tides Center, which then gave grants to newspapers.
One of the recipients of Pew money for “civic journalism” programs was the Bergen County (New Jersey) Record. In 1996 the newspaper used $140,000 of Pew money and $100,000 of its own funds to create “Campaign Central,” which featured polls, transcripts of speeches by politicians, and fact-checking analyses of campaign commercials. Forums were also held where “ordinary citizens” asked politicians questions.
A post-election analysis of the project by Record public-affairs editor David Blomquist and Rutgers political scientist Cliff Zukin found no evidence that “Campaign Central” changed anyone’s minds. Fewer than 20 percent of the newspaper’s readers remembered reading any article in Campaign Central.
New York University journalism professor Edwin Diamond reported in Columbia Journalism Review that Pew blocked Blomquist and Zakin from presenting their findings at the American Association for Public Opinion Research convention, stating they needed more time to review the paper. Pew published the paper, but inserted a lengthy preface arguing that one grantee’s experience provided no evidence about whether “civic journalism” was worthwhile and blaming the failure of the Campaign Central project on “a heated television-saturated campaign.”
Pew ended funding to the Center for Civic Journalism in 2002 and the civic journalism movement died shortly thereafter. “Civic journalism began to decline around 2003 and not coincidentally with the sunsetting of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism,” noted University of Wisconsin (Madison) journalism professor Lewis A. Friedland in an interview published in 2010. 
Campaign Finance Regulation
According to Political Money Line, Pew spent $40.1 million between 1994 and 2004 on campaign finance regulation efforts. In 2005, New York Post political reporter Ryan Sager discovered a videotape made in 2004 by Sean Treglia, a Pew vice-president for many years, at a conference at the University of Southern California. In the tape, Treglia said that Pew had created fake grassroots (Astroturf) organizations designed to persuade Congress that there was a national call for campaign restrictions.
“The target audience for all this activity was 535 people in Washington,” Treglia said. “The idea was to create an impression that a mass movement was afoot—that everywhere they spoke, to academic institutions, to the business community, in religious groups, everywhere, people were talking about reform.” 
Rebecca Rimel stated in a letter to the New York Post that Treglia had retracted his charge that Pew had tried to hide its role in campaign finance reform. 
Pew led the effort to lobby the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2010 to pass “net neutrality” regulations in 2010. Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund noted that the primary backers of net neutrality were the Pew Charitable Trusts, allied with the Joyce, Ford, and MacArthur Foundations, the Open Society Institute, and the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy. Among the organizations supported by Pew and its allies was Free Press, one of whose founders, Robert McChesney, told the website Socialist Project that his “ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies.”
The FCC’s primary evidence for its net neutrality decision was a report it commissioned from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which was paid for by the Ford and MacArthur foundations. The vast majority of the citations from the FCC’s National Broadband Plan came from Free Press, the Berkman Center—and directly from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“The ‘media reform’ movement paid for research that backed its views, paid activists to promote the research, saw its allies installed in the FCC and other key agencies, and paid for the FCC research that evaluated the research they had already paid for,” Fund wrote. “Now they have their policy. It’s quite a coup.”
In June 2017, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) signed a bill that would preserve existing defined-benefit pensions for state employees while requiring all future hires to join defined-contribution pensions. Government employee unions stayed neutral on the bill, except for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which was opposed. 
The Pew Charitable Trusts provided research supporting pension reform in Pennsylvania. Greg Mennis, director of Pew’s Strengthening Public Sector Retirement Systems division, declared in a letter to Pennsylvania state senators and representatives on June 5 that the proposed restrictions on defined-benefit pensions in Pennsylvania “would be of the most—if not the most—comprehensive and impactful reforms any state has implemented. 
Pew has been involved in pension reform research, and specifically on the issue of restricting defined-benefit pensions, since 2011. It has received several million dollars from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to support its pension reform research.  Jordan Marks of the National Public Pension Coalition told Rolling Stone in 2013 that “the centrist reputation of Pew was a key in selling a lot of these ideas” on pension reform.