Charles Koch is known for his activism on conservative and libertarian causes, but a new report reveals that he’s also given more than $1 billion to civic and philanthropic groups.
Forbes magazine got that number after tallying lifetime donations for the first time as part of its annual list of the world’s richest individuals, published Wednesday. With a $53.5 billion fortune, Koch was at No. 7 on that list, tied with his brother, David.
“I do not believe ‘sum total’ is the most effective measure for evaluating my philanthropy,” Charles Koch told TIME in a statement. “Those results — which are real and measurable — are the true indicator of my philanthropy.”
Koch advisers say the overwhelming bulk of the donations has gone to civic and philanthropic groups, not the political ones he’s better known for. Last year, 95% of his personal giving went to educational programs and community groups that deal with persistent poverty. In the statement, Koch specifically highlighted an addiction recovery program that blends counseling with Crossfit-styled exercise programs and a separate program in New York’s Sing Sing Prison that works with inmates to reduce recidivism.
Long criticized from the left for their work building and funding organizations like Americans for Prosperity that promote small-government ideas, Charles and David Koch have started inching away from politics.
Charles Koch announced David Koch’s retirement earlier this year in a letter to employees of Koch Industries, the Kansas-based conglomerate that produces everything from Stainmaster carpet to Dixie cups, Lycra cloth to industrial goods. And, in a move that angered some donors, his aides said they would no longer automatically have the backs of politicians simply because they have an “R” after their name.
Those around Charles Koch say his greater interest has long been changing the culture of the country.
“We’ve become deeply concerned with the degree to which society has become polarized,” said Sarah Ruger, the director of free expression at the Charles Koch Institute.
That’s one reason why they say Charles Koch is also funding almost 1,000 scholars at more than 300 colleges and universities. For instance, Charles Koch is intensely interested in the research of Carrie Pettus-Davis, a professor at Florida State University who last year received a $1 million grant to identify the best ways to reduce recidivism, looking at experiences in Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Texas. Much of Pettus-Davis’ research has been used within the Koch political network to convince skeptics that there can be meaningful changes to the criminal justice system.
Elsewhere, the Koch-controlled philanthropies are funding free speech programs at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, a reboot of debate societies at Historical Black Colleges and Universities that were the basis of the film “The Great Debaters,” and a new project from StoryCorps to collect oral histories between neighbors who have different political views.
Officials insist they do not fund projects based on politics but do look for proposals that can help their communities.
“There’s not a screen for ideology. There’s a screen for vision,” Ruger said, adding they’ll sign the contract in short order if “that’s a vision that we support and that person has a realistic path to achieving that impact.”
Off-campuses, Koch checks are being used right now to fund a year-long study and series of conferences about combating extremism, using last year’s deadly protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Va., as a starting point for discussion. Also funding the work? The liberal Center for American Progress.
“It’s an illustration of the power of diverse ideas coming together around shared vision,” Ruger said.
Disclosure: Time Inc., TIME’s parent company, was acquired by Meredith Corp. in a deal partially financed by Koch Equity Development, a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc.