John Von Kannon, a leading figure in the conservative movement, died at his home in Washington on Saturday following a year-long battle with cancer. He was 66. At the time of his death, he was serving as vice president and senior counselor of The Heritage Foundation, the nation’s leading conservative think tank.
A fundraiser par excellence, Von Kannon’s career spanned four decades. During that time, he raised more than a billion dollars. His prowess helped transform a fledgling intellectual effort to reconnect America to the principles of its Founding Fathers into an extensive network of non-profit organizations—state and national think tanks, public interest legal groups, education centers and publications—working to expand freedom in the U.S. and around the world.
Von Kannon got his start in the late 1960s while attending Indiana University, where he became an active member of Young Americans for Freedom. (He would later serve on the organization’s national Board of Directors.) Von Kannon and a handful of undergraduates joined R. Emmett (Bob) Tyrrell, Jr., who founded a campus magazine to challenge and satirize the radically progressive views then dominating the university. In 1972, they decided to turn the magazine, now incorporated as a 501 (c)(3) organization, into a national publication—The American Spectator.
Tyrrell informed Von Kannon that he was no longer a managing editor. Rather, he was now the publisher—and responsible for raising money. And so a fund-raiser was reluctantly born.
“Though he had no formal training, John was a natural fundraiser,” said Ed Feulner, a founder of the Heritage Foundation who hired Von Kannon in 1980 to assist with the think tank’s development operations. Von Kannon was named treasurer a year later, then promoted to vice president for development and treasurer several years after that.
“John never viewed himself as a ‘rainmaker,’ but always as a ‘matchmaker,’” Feulner recalled. “When John met potential donors, he’d spend most of his time listening. He wanted to learn their core values, what they cared about most and what their goals were—and then he’d introduce them to the people and organizations that held similar values and could advance those goals for them.”
“John Von Kannon had ‘personality to burn,’” said Heritage President Jim DeMint, “a keen intellect and an absolutely outrageous sense of humor.” But, DeMint added, “most important of all, he had tremendous empathy and a passion for making America a nation that truly offers freedom and opportunity for all. His sense of mission led him to understand that fundraising is not about extracting money from someone, but about marshalling resources to advance a shared goal.”
Von Kannon’s approach has worked well for Heritage. When he joined to the think tank in 1980, it had a budget of $3.7 million budget, fueled primarily by a few major donors and 120,000 “small-dollar” direct mail donors. Under his leadership, the donor base grew to more than a half-million, making Heritage the most broadly supported think tank in the world. Their contributions totaled more than $91 million last year.
Von Kannon spent all but three of the last 35 years at Heritage. In 1988, he left to become vice president of Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law foundation in Sacramento, Calif. The following year he led Russell & Von Kannon as president of that marketing and consulting firm in suburban Chicago. He rejoined Heritage in 1991.
Earlier this year, Heritage presented Von Kannon with its highest honor: the Clare Boothe Luce Award. This award recognizes outstanding leadership and dedication to the conservative cause. Past recipients of the award include conservative icons Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and William F. Buckley Jr.
In announcing the award, Heritage Chairman Thomas Saunders III noted that, while Von Kannon had been “instrumental in building Heritage into America’s leading conservative institution,” he had also “helped grow countless other organizations dedicated to preserving and advancing the ideals and principles of the Founding Fathers.”
In 2012, Ashland University’s Ashbrook Center presented Von Kannon with its John Ashbrook Award in recognition of his 40-year commitment to upholding the ideals of limited constitutional government and advancing the conservative movement. He was also an elected “distinguished member” of The Philadelphia Society, America’s leading organization of conservative thinkers.
In addition to his duties at Heritage, Von Kannon served as a trustee of FREE, the Foundation for Research on the Economics of the Environment in Bozeman, Mont. He was also a trustee of four grant-making institutions and worked regularly with a wide range of state and national conservative organizations.
Von Kannon is survived by his wife, Cindy, and their two teenage children, Rachel and Jack.