About 15 years ago, Sean Fieler, a young hedge-fund employee, showed up at the annual conference of the Institute for American Values, a think tank focused on family values and civil society. There were only about 80 people there — mostly academics. Fieler listened quietly. He met David Blankenhorn, the institute’s director, and the two had lunch a couple of times.
Talking to nonprofit leaders as a young donor without a lot of money, Fieler got an unvarnished view of organizations, how they work and what their challenges were. His goal was to learn. Within two years, he was a donor and on the board of the institute.
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Talking to nonprofit leaders as a young donor without a lot of money, Fieler got an unvarnished view of organizations, how they worked, and what their challenges were. His goal was to learn. Within two years, he was a donor and on the board of the institute.
Fieler knew that when his investing career took off, he’d be able to give larger sums of money. “If I give away small amounts of money and got involved, I’d get a better sense of how to be more effective in charity.”
He’s learned a lot.
Now the head of the hedge fund Equinox Partners, Fieler is one of the most powerful yet little-known philanthropists driving the cultural conservative movement that is so prominent today and scoring major victories on efforts to restrict abortion and the rights of trans people.
Like other donors across the ideological spectrum, Fieler pumps money into both philanthropy and politics. To advance his traditionalist vision of marriage, family, and abortion, he’s given at least $40 million to nonprofits and $6.3 million to candidates and political groups. He’s also served on the boards of powerhouse organizations like Heritage Action for America and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
By all accounts, he’s a deeply engaged board member at many organizations he cares about, having served as a trustee for at least 12 charities and four 501(c)(4) political groups. He talks regularly to the leaders he mentors, guiding strategy and sometimes giving counterintuitive advice — and he’s a stickler for details on the audit committee.
As a philanthropist, Fieler makes a lot of small bets. In 2015, for example, he spread $5.5 million across 63 groups. He’s not interested in giving to something big like cancer research, as important as that is, says John Henry Crosby, a philanthropic adviser who has long worked with Fieler. Instead, he’s on the lookout for small groups where a gift of $50,000 or $150,000 can make a big difference. “We’re always looking for ways to see if we can have a more substantial or catalyzing effect,” Crosby says.
Fieler’s broad-based giving strategy is a good fit with the anti-abortion movement that he has long supported. It includes dozens of relatively small groups that approach the issue from multiple angles — legal, political, advocacy, research, and media — as well as centers that try to dissuade women from getting abortions, says Erin Matson, co-founder of Reproaction, an organization that works to uphold abortion rights.
“They’re very smart,” Matson says of anti-abortion advocates. “There’s a reason they’re winning. They’re playing the long game, and they cover all the bases.”
Motivated by Catholic Faith
When Blankenhorn met Fieler all those years ago, the budding philanthropist’s motivations were immediately clear — his Catholicism was central to his giving. “His religious faith is his guide. He wants to live out his religious faith as best he can,” Blankenhorn says. “I think that’s really what makes the guy tick.”
Even the name of his foundation was reminiscent of his religious mission. It was called the Chiaroscuro Foundation, which is an artistic technique that uses contrasts between light and dark. Fieler says it describes the foundation’s mission to bring God’s light into a dark world. He ran it from 2006 until 2019, when he moved his money to the Knights of Columbus Charitable Fund, a donor-advised fund. He declined to say how much he has given out through the fund and who the recipients were.
Fieler’s conservative Catholic perspective means that he sees the cultural causes he supports, like the fight against abortion and efforts to strengthen traditional marriage and families, as interdependent, says Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, a political group focused on parental rights and rolling back rights for trans children. Fieler is the group’s chairman.
“Sean funds groups that, taken all together, when you combine their work, they’re holistic, and they form something that really makes a lot of sense,” says Schilling. “You have to have a pro-family political movement that’s passing pro-family laws, that’s encouraging marriage, encouraging child rearing, and empowering parents to direct the upbringing of their children. But you don’t get that with 1.2 million abortions every year.”
Fieler is 50 and feels that he’s at the midpoint of his time as a philanthropist. A serious donor for almost 20 years, he wants what he’s learned so far to shape his future giving — while still continuing to grow.
“It’s maybe like my investing career,” he says. “You learn something after you do something for a long period of time.” But, he says, he still has more to learn. “It’s just a challenge.”
Sharpening His Arguments
Fieler’s experiences as a young man helped shape both his worldview and his philanthropy. As a student at Williams College in Massachusetts, he was one of a small group of right-leaning students, says Mark Gerson, one of Fieler’s college friends. Gerson, who went on to co-found the Gerson Lehrman Group and become a philanthropist, was a fellow college conservative. With just a few dozen like-minded students at an otherwise liberal college, Gerson says, they had to do their research and hone their arguments.
But Williams was more than just a place for Fieler to figure out what he believed and how to advocate for it. The connections he made led to one of the early philanthropic efforts he supported — and it had little to do with the hot-button cultural issues that occupy so much of his giving.
In 2002, a college friend who became a doctor began working in Africa, helping to get evangelical and Catholic churches to work together to provide medical services. Gerson and Fieler donated to their friend’s work and were founding board members of African Mission Healthcare.
Gerson says his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson, who is on the group’s audit committee with Fieler, is amazed at his diligence. “She told me that the guy’s amazing,” he says. “The level of detail, the level of knowledge, the experience that he brought to it, just being on the audit committee — it was great.”
Fieler continues to be impressed with the group’s work, particularly the way Africans and Americans as well as Catholics, evangelicals, and Gerson, who is Jewish, all come together around the same issue. “It’s been one of the most successful philanthropic endeavors I’ve seen.”
Fieler’s dedication to his faith began to blossom when he was a young adult. He was raised Catholic in Northern California, but when he was living in New York City after college, his mother urged him to be more involved with the church. “I was practicing but not vigorous,” Fieler says. “My mom was insistent about getting me back [to the church].”
Today Fieler has a family of his own. He and his wife, Ana, have six children who range in age from 3 to 15. They’re part of a tightknit Catholic community in Stamford, Conn. That’s important to Fieler.
“It’s really the practicing of your faith that changes who you are and how you behave,” he says. “It’s been just really interesting to see all these families organized around church and schools and families that are open to life. You have this community of Catholics here that I think of as kind of a year-round Catholic family land.”
An Engaged Board Member
- Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty
- African Mission Health Foundation
- Becket Fund
- Casillas Foundation
- Committee for Monetary Research and Education
- Communio Foundation
- Femm Foundation
- Institute for American Values
- Institute of World Politics
- Knights of Columbus Charitable Fund
- Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
- Witherspoon Institute
- American Conservative Union
- American Principles Project
- Heritage Action for America
- Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America
Source: Informational tax returns
Fieler is a very hands-on board member. Every Friday, he has a standing call with J.P. DeGance. The two men talk about pressing concerns at Communio, the nonprofit DeGance started to connect couples having marital problems with churches. Fieler chairs the board. “I can go through the big challenges on a week-to-week basis,” DeGance says. “He will lean in with me and be a real collaborator, helping to think through solutions.”
Communio ran a pilot program in Duval County, Fla., where it used predictive data modeling to find young couples at risk of divorce. Factors included things like moving recently and being in relatively new marriages with very young children. Communio used Facebook ads and direct mail to invite couples to church functions. DeGance says divorce rates dropped 24 percent while the group worked there, which he attributes to the program.
“The church writ large hasn’t understood how important the family is to the church and how codependent those two institutions are,” Fieler says. “Explaining that relationship and then giving churches the ability to grow by building a marriage ministry is, programmatically, the best thing I found in terms of bringing more strength to the church and strengthening the family.”
Since Communio’s founding in 2017, it has grown from what DeGance calls a start-up to an established nonprofit with a $5 million budget. DeGance’s inclination is to keep growing through both fundraising and contracts with churches. Like many nonprofit leaders, he’s terrified of losing ground.
In 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, Fieler gave DeGance advice that was hard to hear. Fieler told DeGance to ignore his instinct to grow and instead focus on creating the best internal processes and programs he could for Communio. The group had just received several multiyear grants and Covid made meeting in person difficult for churches, so the advice made sense — but it ran counter to everything DeGance thought he should be doing.
The strategy paid off. DeGance says that since improving its programs, the group has found new donors and has signed up new churches, including one of the largest evangelical churches in Texas.
“Had I not had a board chairman who told me to make that shift, I would have felt a moral imperative to keep growing,” DeGance says.
The group’s programs are only available to heterosexual couples. When asked about this, DeGance says that same-sex couples are not an issue since his organization works only with churches. Still, many churches now marry and minister to same-sex couples.
Marriage and Abortion
Fieler’s work with Communio is tied to his core beliefs about abortion. Unmarried women make up the largest share of people who have abortions, so Fieler believes increasing the marriage rate is key to decreasing the number of abortions.
Yet the marriage rate has been steadily falling along with the abortion rate — the opposite of what one would expect if more marriages led to fewer abortions.
Abortion rates are half of what they were in 1981 — and have been in an almost consistent decline over the last four decades. There’s no simple reason that explains the decrease, says Diana Greene Foster, a professor in the University of California at San Francisco’s Obstetrics Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences Department. She says it’s likely a combination of women using more effective birth control and having less sex, among other complex factors.
There’s nothing magical about a marriage certificate, Greene Foster says. What makes a difference is finding the right person and having a stable job and decent housing. “All those conditions make it better to choose to have a kid or to accommodate a surprise pregnancy.”
To back up his assertion, Fieler cited in an email to the Chronicle a 1996 paper by Janet Yellen, now the secretary of the Treasury, that attributed the increase in out-of-wedlock births to the availability of abortion and birth control. Yet the paper doesn’t argue that increasing the marriage rate would decrease the abortion rate, and it concludes that denying women access to abortion would be undesirable and counterproductive.
And he’s unwavering in his opposition to abortion. “To have Roe overturned is just fantastic,” Fieler says of last summer’s Supreme Court decision that reversed the constitutional right to an abortion. He’s been a significant donor to anti-abortion groups for nearly two decades. He points out that he ran a media campaign highlighting New York City’s high abortion rate and offering services to pregnant women and has long served on the board of the political group Susan B. Anthony-Pro Life America.
Fieler has supported a long list of organizations that are fighting to eliminate abortion, some that are very much in the news. He has given to the Federalist Society, which is credited with funneling anti-abortion judges to the bench. He has also supported the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The organization is far from a household name, but it is one of the groups now suing to overturn the approval of the abortion drug mifepristone.
Abortion is one of the areas in which Fieler sees politics as key to achieving success. He was an adviser to President Trump’s 2016 campaign and credits the former president for his appointees to the Supreme Court for delivering victory in the Dobbs decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Politics, he says, are a key reason that abortion has remained such a potent issue.
“We have elections where the life issue is an integral part of those elections,” he says. “Preserving that opportunity for Americans to protect life through politics and in the public square is probably one of the most important facets of the American pro-life movement.”
Learning more about Fieler’s anti-abortion work isn’t easy. The spokeswoman for Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, did not respond to interview requests. Through Fieler, Dannefelser declined to comment. The Chronicle also reached out to the Life Issues Institute, where Fieler is listed as a board member on the group’s informational tax returns. The group’s president, Bradley Mattes, declined to comment for this article. A spokesman at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty did not respond to emails requesting an interview. After one interview, a brief phone conversation, and a few emailed responses to questions, Fieler declined to speak further with the Chronicle without explaining his concern except to say that he had already spoken twice.
‘He’s All About Filling Gaps’
About one-third of Fieler’s political spending has gone to one group: the American Principles Project and its related entities. Fieler has been instrumental in helping that group shift its focus and become more effective, according to Schilling, its executive director.
He calls Fieler, who has been a mentor to him for many years, courageous for being willing to fight against LGBTQ groups and speak out about medical treatment for trans youths at a time when people who express those opinions face public backlash.
“He wants to make the world a better place and thinks that the Catholic Church and her teachings have the right answers for what we should be aiming toward,” Schilling says. “He’s very smart, he’s very quick-witted. And all of those things combined, along with his willingness to invest in smart products and projects, really makes him an MVP for changing the world.”
Schilling says Fieler has helped connect his group with larger organizations, including Heritage Action for America. The two groups conducted polls together on women’s sports and transgender athletes, which Schilling says helped raise his group’s profile.
Fieler helped the group the most in the wake of North Carolina’s controversial bathroom bill, which required people to use the bathroom that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificates in government buildings. He says conservatives abandoned Gov. Pat McCrory, who lost his 2016 election bid after signing the law. It was repealed in 2017.
He wants to live out his religious faith as best he can. I think that’s really what makes the guy tick.
Up until that point, American Principles Project was an orphanage for stray conservative causes but lacked a real focus. Schilling wanted to shift the group to fill what he saw as a glaring political gap — an organization that supported a traditional vision of family. He says that after McCrory’s defeat, Republicans were retreating from similar bills. It was a risk. But it also fit with Fieler’s philanthropic strategy.
“He’s all about filling gaps. He doesn’t want to duplicate. He gets really annoyed if we pitch something that another group is already doing, especially if they’re already doing it better than you,” Schilling says. “He’s always looking for leverage and maximizing opportunities.”
Fieler put significant resources into the group and helped to bring in other big donors, something he’s really good at.
“When [prospective donors] see how much he’s invested over the years and how he’s been here for well over 10 years and has helped build the organization, they have a lot more faith that we’re going to execute our plans and our programs effectively,” Schilling says. “They know that a guy in finance is going to make sure that the finances of a group that he’s largely funding are all lock-tight.”
Since focusing more on anti-trans issues, the group has had big successes. Schilling points to Arizona, which passed a law that prohibits gender-affirming surgery for minors. He says U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York voted in favor of the Equality Act in 2019, which would have amended the civil-rights act to include LGBTQ people. Now she advocates for protecting children from gender-affirming care. He says the group’s ads focusing on what he calls the threat of trans children to girls’ and women’s sports have been effective. “We’re having these major conversions,” Schilling says.
Much of the credit, he says, goes to Fieler.
Groups like American Principles Project exploit a lack of knowledge and understanding about trans people in the public, says Fran Hutchins, executive director of the Equality Federation, which supports state-based LGBTQ advocacy organizations. She says the American Principles Project, Heritage Action, and others are stoking fear of a small and poorly understood segment of the population — trans children — for political advantage to push an extreme version of conservatism.
“I struggle to believe, based on what I’ve seen in testimony in states, that there is a contingent of people who deeply care about trans young people and who are trying to pass these laws to ban them receiving gender-affirming care,” she says. “They’re trying to take away the ability for parents and doctors and patients to make decisions together, which is a playbook that they’re pretty familiar with from abortion fights.”
Asked to respond to criticism of his work, Fieler pointed to an article published by the Heritage Foundation that said research showed poor outcomes for those who had gender-reassignment surgery.
Fieler has spent his philanthropic career pushing strict interpretations of Catholic teaching.
In 2018 he received the Catholic Information Center’s John Paul II Award for the New Evangelization. In his speech, he expounded on his opposition to birth control and, indeed, any fertility intervention. He told the group, “When a college friend of mine informed me that she was going to conceive a child via commercial conception, I made the best case I could, and I lost a friend. And when a high-school buddy of mine stopped by New York with his wife on their way to interview a surrogate in Texas, I tried my best to change their mind. And I lost a friend and really upset his wife.”
He also said that Catholics who don’t adhere to strict interpretations of their religious practices are responsible for the demise of church and family.
The ideas that Fieler espouses are often unpopular among the public at large and sometimes among fellow Catholics. About 60 percent of Americans have long held that women should have the right to an abortion — as do most Catholics. More than 70 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. Surrogacy and fertility treatments are largely accepted.
“He tries to make himself seem reasonable and almost middle of the road,” says Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice. “Meanwhile, he takes these hard-right extremist positions that are clearly directed at restoring white Christian men to the head of everything. That’s the end game.”
When you meet him, Fieler is no fire-breathing zealot. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful. His voice is even-toned and low, even when he disagrees. His only response to Mason’s charge is to share his admiration of two high-profile Black men: Fieler says that his favorite Supreme Court Justice is Clarence Thomas, and his favorite cardinal is Robert Sarah, who resigned in 2021 after clashing with Pope Francis.
As Fieler eyes the second half of his career as a philanthropist, he’s looking for more fellow travelers who share his vision. Crosby, his philanthropy adviser, says Fieler is interested in absorbing a variety of perspectives. Fieler already has a network of Catholic philanthropists he’s close to. But he’d like to find a broader network to share his lessons with and to learn from.
“I would like to form a community and work with other people that are working in that same way,” he says. “We’re just scratching the surface in terms of what that community looks like.”
Sean Fieler’s Support of Think Tanks
“He’s always been very morally serious and a real intellectual,” says Mark Gerson, a college friend of Fieler’s and a co-founder of the Gerson Lehrman Group. “He’s been very consistent in the fact that he reads a lot, studies a lot, and does that because he believes that ideas have consequences.”
But some of the work from these think tanks that bolster Fieler’s positions on marriage have been sharply critiqued for their methodology and messages.
Fieler helped to fund a 2012 Witherspoon Institute study on life outcomes of children from different family environments called the New Family Structures Study. It found that children in homes of parents who had same-sex relationships were more likely to be on public assistance, have less education, and be unemployed. Critics of the study pointed out that the number of families in the study in which the parents had same-sex relationships was very small. A subsequent analysis of the data by different researchers found the author miscategorized some children as living with gay parents. After correcting for that, they found no difference in outcomes for children raised by same-sex parents. Still, the study is often used to argue against same-sex marriage.
Witherspoon’s founder, Luis Tellez, says the study was peer reviewed and stands by the findings. He says he does not advocate on policy — this was simply research. It’s worth noting, however, that Tellez was a founding board member of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that opposes same-sex marriage as well as the American Principles Project, which advocates for bans on gender-affirming care for trans children.
Fieler also funded the Austin Institute, where Tellez is also on the board and which he describes as Witherspoon’s sister organization. The president is Mark Regnerus, the author of the New Family Structures study. The Austin Institute may be best known for a widely criticized video it produced about the economics of sex. It argued that since the invention of hormonal birth control, women are no longer demanding marriage — which the video says is what they want — in exchange for sex — which it posits is what men want. The video’s conclusion: The world would be better off if women colluded with each other to “set a high market value for sex” withholding it before marriage, thereby enticing more men to marry.