RAND Corporation offices in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. woodsnorthphoto/shutterstock
RAND Corporation offices in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. woodsnorthphoto/shutterstock

Alex Abella’s book “Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire” is a deep dive into the “shadowy” Santa Monica-based think tank that brought us the internet, advanced satellite technology, and the modern computer.

The corporation rightfully earned its reputation as a neoconservative appendage to the Cold War-era military-industrial complex. The idea for the Doomsday Machine in the classic film “Dr. Strangelove” was inspired by RAND fellow Herman Kahn, who in 1960 made the case for limited nuclear war. Analysts’ “hubris” got America entangled in Vietnam, “where the Vietcong refused to behave according to the tidy models of warfare and nation-building that RAND scholars had constructed,” wrote Jacob Heilbrunn, author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.” An unamused Pravda called RAND “the academy of science and death.”

The Cold War is over, but the think tank, having successfully pivoted to non-military research in the 1960s and 1970s, is bigger than ever, churning out influential work in areas like international relations, public health, and the economy. Governments, colleges and for-private enterprises seek out their experts. Its Pardee RAND Graduate School remains the largest public policy Ph.D. program in the nation. And when major foundations need nonpartisan research to guide their grantmaking, many of them call RAND.

The think tank has been making some big moves lately, and turning increasingly to private donors to pull them off. Earlier this year, RAND launched an ambitious $400 million fundraising campaign called “Tomorrow Demands Today” to develop “objective, fact-based policy recommendations and initiatives that communities and societies worldwide can put to use in solving their most urgent problems.” It’s a huge bet for the nonprofit, which hasn’t previously relied on philanthropy as a major component of its revenue model.

Then, in mid-August, the think tank launched the RAND Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy. The center, seeded with $1 million from donors and “RAND’s own resources,” will support a “growing portfolio of innovative, high-impact racial equity research and analysis.” RAND called funding for the center a “top priority” for its campaign.

I’ll take a look at Rand’s new campaign and the Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy in a moment. But first, let’s explore how a nonprofit responsible for popularizing the term “mutually assured destruction” reinvented itself and gained the trust of some of philanthropy’s most influential foundations.

Moving Beyond its Cold War Roots

Five-star Air Force general Henry “Hap” Arnold created RAND—which stands for “Research and Development—in 1946 to ensure that the U.S. maintained its technological edge. Two years later, RAND became an independent, nonprofit corporation with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation.

“The military fell in love with RAND,” Abella wrote, with the Air Force becoming the think tank’s main contractor. Over the next half-century, RAND rapidly grew and became a pioneer in fields like packet switching, game theory and the “fail-safe” concept, which, Abella writes, “saved the world from nuclear conflagration several times.” RAND researchers also played a huge role in shaping America’s military strategy in Vietnam; disillusioned analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers and resigned soon thereafter.

By the late 1960s and 1970s, RAND had branched out into education, welfare reform, criminal justice, health financing systems, insurance and urban governance. As the Cold War wound down, RAND began to reinvent itself. “We certainly had to make radical adjustments,” spokesperson Jess Cook told the Los Angeles Times’ Anne-Marie O’Connor in 1998.

O’Connor noted at the time that directors were “courting foundations and corporations” and that some of RAND’s Pentagon studies on issues like military child care and education “moved from detente to modern social engineering.” Roger Benjamin, a leader of a RAND education project, accurately predicted the outfit’s future, telling O’Connor, “My guess is, in the next 10 to 20 years, we’ll be putting a lot of effort into these social policy issues.” It was also around this time that globalization helped RAND expand its international footprint. The think tank currently has locations in Brussels, Cambridge and Canberra.

Extensive Foundation Work

RAND currently employs 1,950 researchers whose work ranges from A (Academic Achievement) to Y (Yemen). Approximately 83% of RAND’s $357 million in revenues comes from federal sources. Roughly 9% of revenues come from foundations ($21 million). RAND has 390 clients and 655 donors.

Over the years, the corporation has had important interactions with some of the country’s most influential funders, whether as a grantee, a partner or an analyst. Between 1989 and 2014, the MacArthur Foundation awarded RAND $6,735,000, including grants focused on issues like international peace and security, housing and policy research. Between 2014 and 2019, the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave RAND $4.9 million; most of that money came from its international peace and security program. And in 2018, RAND published a 500-plus page study showing that the Gates-backed Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative failed to improve student graduation rates, the effectiveness of teachers, or retention of the most effective teachers.

Here are three examples of how RAND has been partnering with foundations over the past year:

  • RAND is administering Arnold Ventures’ five-year National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research. RAND has been operating its own gun violence research initiative, Gun Policy in America, since 2016. A grant from John Arnold has sustained the program since June of 2018.
  • John A. Hartford Foundation gave RAND a $175,000 grant to identify and develop measures that inform an assessment of the foundation’s top priority areas—age-friendly health systems, family caregiving, and serious illness/end of life.
  • RAND, partnering with research firm RTI International, released the results of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathways From Prison to Postsecondary Education program in North Carolina. The Ford and Gates Foundations provided funding for the program.

Additional clients and grantors include the Sloan, Hewlett and Wallace foundations, as well as the Walton Family Foundation.

RAND Goes Big

I previously described RAND’s new fundraising campaign as “ambitious.” A closer look at its revenue model shows why. Only $9.9 million of RAND’s total revenues come from philanthropic contributions. This figure represents 2.5% of what the corporation hopes to raise in its $400 million Tomorrow Demands Today campaign.

The campaign will build support for research priorities, including “rethinking and retooling institutions that have influenced everything from banking and defense to law enforcement and human rights,” “strengthening and safeguarding communities,” and “improving health care and education.”

“To uphold our commitment to the public good, we must continue to invest in finding the facts and using research and analysis to address society’s most pressing challenges,” said President and CEO Michael Rich, in the campaign’s announcement. “With the generosity and vision of our donors and grantmakers, I am confident that we will reach our ambitious campaign goal and help safeguard security, stability and prosperity for people throughout the world.”

Rich also used the term “ambitious.” But he has reason to be confident. It’s hard to imagine another organization whose Rolodex includes Harvard University, the Chevron Corporation, dozens of Nobel Prize recipients, the Rockefeller Foundation, NATO, Roche, the American Medical Association, and, for good measure, Mark Cuban.

At the time of this writing, RAND has raised $143 million, or 36% of its goal. Leadership gifts include $10 million from the family of former Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci to support the Pardee RAND Graduate School, and $2.9 million from the Charles Koch Institute for RAND’s Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy.

Overlap with Major Funder Priorities

RAND isn’t a grantmaker, but many of its initiatives are firmly in the territory of civic-minded foundations. Tomorrow Demands Today received $1 million from three donors to support research on Truth Decay, which RAND describes as “the diminishing role of facts and analysis in public life.” RAND’s research explores Americans’ news consumption habits, media literacy, and social-media-driven misinformation. The idea may sound familiar. Foundations and donors have been tackling misinformation since the 2016 election, and this support is showing no sign of letting up.

All of which brings us to RAND’s Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy. “The evidence is clear regarding persistent racial inequities in the settings that define our daily lives—the neighborhood, the hospital, the classroom, and the U.S. criminal justice system,” Rich said in the announcement. “RAND has an obligation to address these problems, but it will not be enough to conduct more research. We will need to convert that research into action.”

Viewed through this lens, RAND’s action-oriented approach resembles that of the Knight Foundation, which recently wrapped up a $50 million initiative to develop policy solutions to address the scope of power held by tech giants.

RAND’s $1 million in seed money for the center isn’t a particularly staggering amount compared to recent racial justice investments from funders like Open Society Foundations ($220 million over five years), Apple ($100 million), or Amazon ($10 million). But RAND does have the expertise in place to get actionable research out the door quickly. Officials note that RAND has previously conducted research to help principals and teachers better support students of color, and proposed ways to estimate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on communities of color.

The think tank also has the fundraising infrastructure in place to raise piles of cash, and I suspect that many equity-minded foundations working on issues like healthcare access and criminal justice reform will be eager to tap insights that, to quote Anita Chandra, vice president for RAND’s Social and Economic Well-Being research division, “support conversations about the policy options to dismantle systemic racism.”

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