The Sarah Scaife Foundation was created by Sarah Mellon Scaife, the niece of industrialist, philanthropist, and former Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon. Under her son and successor, Richard Mellon Scaife, the foundation supports center-right public policy organizations.
Sarah Mellon Scaife
Sarah Mellon Scaife, according to a 2016 essay by Carnegie Museum of Art scholar Costas Karaktsanis, began philanthropy in the 1940s. Her husband, Alan Scaife, was a trustee of the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), and from 1941 onwards she “[dispensed] tens of millions of dollars” to these schools and other organizations in the Pittsburgh area. “Her causes were educational civic, medical and healthcare related,” Karakatsanis wrote. For the Carnegie Museum, the Scaife Foundation donated money to set up a “decorative arts decision” and separate grants enabled the museum to purchase works by George Romney, Frans Hals, Claude Monet, and Pierre Auguste Renoir. 1
The Washington Post noted in 1999 that one of Sarah Mellon Scaife’s grants to the University of Pittsburgh was $35,000 for a virology lab from which Jonas Salk developed his polio vaccine. 2
Richard Mellon Scaife
Philosophy of Grantmaking
After his mother’s death, Richard Mellon Scaife continued to make grants through the Sarah Scaife Foundation to add to the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art. He established a “Fund for American Painting” that purchased works by Albert Bierstadt, Chide Hassam, and Andy Warhol for the Carnegie Museum. 3
Richard Mellon Scaife’s primary interest as a donor was public policy. “Our funding is based on our support of ideas like limited government, individual rights, and a strong defense,” Scaife told the Washington Post in 1999. Scaife added that “I am a private individual who has concerns about his country and who has resources that give me the privilege—and responsibility—to do something to help my country if I can.” 4
In a 2014 appreciation of Scaife, Sarah Scaife Foundation president Michael W. Gleba says that Scaife was guided by reports that he commissioned that warned against “funding endowments for entire universities or hospitals” because such grants would always be smaller than money provided by government. His contractors told him that “smaller gifts given annually over long periods were more effective than large, high-profile gifts given once.” 5
Public Policy Giving
The Washington Post in 1999 calculated that between 1962 and 1998 Scaife and the foundations he and his family controlled donated $340 million (or $620 million in 1999 dollars) to “conservative causes and institutions.” The newspaper noted that Scaife’s foundations donated 19 percent of their support to the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the American Enterprise Institute, and that Scaife’s support was particularly important in Heritage’s early years. In 1976, Scaife Foundation support constituted 42 percent of Heritage’s budget of $1 million. From 1973 through 1998, Scaife donated $23 million to Heritage (or $34 million in 1998 dollars). 6 Scaife became a member of the Heritage board in 1985 and vice-chairman in 1992 and Heritage president Edwin Feulner became a Sarah Scaife Foundation trustee. 7
The Sarah Scaife Foundation was an early supporter of the Federalist Society. As Johns Hopkins University political scientist Steven Teles noted in The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, Michael Horowitz wrote a memorandum for the Sarah Scaife Foundation in 1980 in which he argued that conservatives needed to counter liberal dominance of the law by supporting conservative public-interest law groups and networks to reach law school students. 8
In 2000, Washington Monthly identified the Scaife Foundation, along with the Olin and Bradley Foundations and the Lilly Endowment, as “core conservative underwriters” whose “sustained patronage” amounted to a third of the Federalist Society’s budget. 9
The Washington Post in 1999 reported that Scaife’s foundations had donated $3.3 million to the American Spectator through the mid-1990s, making Richard Mellon Scaife the magazine’s leading contributor. In addition, the Sarah Scaife Foundation donated $1.6 million to the American Spectator Foundation from 1995 through 98 for “the Arkansas Project,” which funded investigative journalism about the activities of Bill and Hillary Clinton in Arkansas. In 1997 and 1998, the Sarah Scaife Foundation donated $1.1 million to Judicial Watch, which filed many lawsuits against the Clinton administration. The New York Times reported in 2016 that the Scaife Foundation remained one of the “biggest funders” of Judicial Watch, whose lawsuits made many emails between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her associates public. 10
Pursuant to directives in Richard Mellon Scaife’s will, after his death in 2014, the Sarah Scaife Foundation’s assets grew by $369.4 million. In addition, the foundation merged with the Carthage Foundation, a smaller foundation created by Scaife. Scaife’s gifts led the Chronicle of Philanthropy to declare Scaife the most generous philanthropist for 2015. 11
Connections to Trump Administration
In 2017 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that “at least 25 high-ranking members” of President Donald trump’s transition team were connected to organizations funded by the Scaife Foundation. These included two Cabinet members: Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao had been a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Two Scaife Foundation trustees, Heritage Foundation chair Edwin J. Feulner and Republican National Committeewoman Christine Jack Toretti, had also been members of Trump’s transition team. 12
In 2020, the Sarah Scaife Foundation gave five organizations grants of $1 million or more: the George Mason University Foundation ($1.4 million), American Enterprise Institute ($1.3 million), Heritage Foundation ($1.3 million), Center for Strategic and International Studies, Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education, and Hoover Institution. 13 The Foundation has also funded a number of conservative groups including Capital Research Center, America’s Future, The Council for National Policy (CNP), and DonorsTrust.14
- Costas G. Karakatsanis, “How Sarah Mellon Scaife And Family Helped Transform The Museum of Art,” Carnegie Museum of Art, February 19, 2016, https://storyboard.cmoa.org/2016/02/how-sarah-mellon-scaife-and-family-helped-transform-the-museum-of-art/ (accessed September 19, 2022)
- Robert G. Kaiser and Ira Chinoy, “How Scaife’s Money Powered a Movement,” Washington Post, May 2, 1999,
- Costas G. Karakatsanis, “How Sarah Mellon Scaife and Family Helped Transform The Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Art, February 19, 2016, https://storyboard.cmoa.org/2016/02/how-sarah-mellon-scaife-and-family-helped-transform-the-museum-of-art/ (accessed September 19, 2022)
- Robert G. Kaiser and Ira Chinoy, “How Scaife’s Money Powered a Movement,” Washington Post, May 2, 1999.
- Michael W. Gleba, “A Giving Spirit,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 5, 2014.
- Robert G. Kaiser and Ira Chenoy, “How Scaife’ Money Powered a Movement,” Washington Post, May 2, 1999.
- Robert G. Kaiser, “An Enigmatic Heir’s Paradoxical World Series,” Washington Post, May 3, 1999.
- David Brooks, “The Village That Raised Kavanaugh,” New York Times, July 10, 2018.
- Jerry Landay, “The Conservative Cabal That’s Transforming American Law,” Washington Monthly, March 2000,
- Jonathan Mahler, “Group’s Path on Clinton: Sue Early and Often,” New York Times, October 13, 2016.
- Maria Di Mento, “Philanthropy 50,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, February 2016.
- Rich Lord and Julian Routh, “Downtown Foundation Has Trump Ties,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 15, 2017.
- Sarah Scaife Foundation, “2020 Annual Report,” 2020, http://www.scaife.com/sarah2020.pdf
- Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990). Sarah Scaife Foundation. 2019. Part XV (Grants and Contributions Paid During the Year).