Philanthropy tends to be a sleepy province. Foundations famously take their time charting new directions and aren’t known for risk-taking. But Donald Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016 set alarm bells ringing in this staid world like no other event in recent memory.
Within weeks of Election Day, foundations had begun rolling out rapid-response funds on abortion access, civil liberties, climate change, immigrant rights, investigative journalism, LGBTQ rights, and more. Last August, the Chronicle of Philanthropy estimated that foundations had committed over $700 million to counter what they have judged to be the top threats posed by Trump’s presidency.
Somehow, though, philanthropy has overlooked what may be the single greatest danger posed by Trump: that he will start a war. There have been no big funding initiatives on peace and security, despite the obvious perils of having an inexperienced, hot-headed commander in chief at a time of international tension, as Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement recently highlighted.
“It’s lonely out here,” said Stephen Del Rosso, a director at the Carnegie Corporation, one of the handful of top foundations that still funds work on war and peace. Del Rosso added that he’s observed a “retraction of funding” over the past 20 years in this area. John Tierney, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, said, “People have a sense of complacency.”
That complacency isn’t shared by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which in January moved its “doomsday clock” to two minutes before midnight, the closest it’s been since 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first hydrogen bombs. The Bulletin cited rising tensions with Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. Two months later, after Trump tapped John Bolton as national-security adviser, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted: “This is the most perilous moment in modern American history.”
Anyone working in the nonprofit sector knows that charitable dollars are its lifeblood. The priorities set by big foundations and wealthy donors shape what civil-society groups do, especially in Washington, DC, where staffing advocacy shops can be expensive. The same is true of national campaigns to sway public opinion. If funders aren’t interested, it can be hard to make things happen.
Even as war clouds darken, most foundations and major donors continue to ignore issues of war and peace. Many groups working on peace and security barely make ends meet; a few have closed altogether. Leaders in this space complain bitterly about a lack of funding.
“Most peace groups have really been devastated in terms of funding,” said Kevin Martin, president of Peace Action. “Most everybody in the long-standing peace movement has been hurting these days.” For example, the Arms Control Association and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation each pulled in less than $1 million in support in 2016.
Philanthropy’s lack of engagement partly reflects broader social currents, including apparently tepid interest by the general public as well as rank-and-file progressives, especially millennials. Foundations and major donors often go where the action is perceived to be; lately, that’s been around economic inequality, race, and criminal justice, and Trump’s fire hose of threats to vulnerable communities and health and environmental regulations.
But philanthropy has a critical role to play in pushing back against the hawks in Trump’s Washington. At its best, philanthropy doesn’t put its finger to the wind but looks around corners to spot dangers and exploit opportunities. And while the philanthropic community in recent years has devoted less than 1 percent of its giving to international-security work, that 1 percent amounted to $351 million in 2015, which is hardly nothing. So why isn’t more being accomplished? And why aren’t more foundations and wealthy individuals stepping up amid growing threats of war? Above all, what will it take to change their minds?
When John Cavanagh first started working at the Institute for Policy Studies, the Washington, DC–based think tank he now leads, over half of its funding was for work on foreign and military policy. That was in the early 1980s. The Cold War was in full swing and IPS was one of a number of progressive inside-the-Beltway groups that pulled in steady support for work on the military budget, nuclear weapons, and US interventionism. “Foundations got it,” Cavanagh recalled. “They gave general support for our work on peace and security, not project support.” These days, Cavanagh said, less than 10 percent of the money IPS raises every year comes from funders interested in peace and security.
Most accounts attribute philanthropy’s diminished interest in war-and-peace issues to the ending of the Cold War. As the existential threat of nuclear war seemed to recede, funders moved on to other issues—even as many experts warned that, in key ways, the world was actually getting more dangerous due to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the rise of regional powers, and threats emanating from failed states.
Cavanagh tells a more nuanced story. Although some funders did exit the peace-and-security field, others simply ceased to exist. Stalwart supporters of peace work such as the Alton Jones Foundation closed their doors, with no one replacing them. Meanwhile, the major funders that did remain, such as the MacArthur Foundation, became more professionalized and narrowly focused, reflecting a larger shift in philanthropy. Foundations began placing more emphasis on “measurable results” and “showing impact,” Cavanagh said.
But challenging US national-security strategy and policy year in and year out is work that doesn’t lend itself to neat metrics. The fights often boil down to competing values and contrasting visions of the United States’ global role. It used to be that heads of major foundations, such as Adele Simmons, who led MacArthur in the 1990s, cut big checks to support an alternative vision of US foreign and military policy. Not anymore. Other leading grant makers who you might expect to back nonprofits that promote peace and security, like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, haven’t been major funders in this space for years—or decades.
Some foundations steer clear of war-and-peace issues because they simply don’t know how to evaluate the efficacy of such funding, observed Del Rosso, who said, “results are often intangible.” Funding in this area “requires a tolerance for complexity and ambiguity, and a lot of patience.” It doesn’t help, he added, that some new donors from Silicon Valley make a point of criticizing the “slow, incremental approaches” often taken by legacy foundations like Carnegie. They don’t seem to grasp that when you’re dealing with big international challenges—say, like avoiding a new military rivalry between the United States and China—there are “no quick fixes.”
Bill Gates was among the first tech billionaires to turn to large-scale philanthropy. The foundation the Microsoft cofounder runs with his wife, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has driven a dramatic increase over the past 15 years of US charitable donations flowing to international concerns. But the Gates Foundation is known for its fixation on measurable results and has focused most of its giving on such things as vaccinating children in the Global South. It does not support peace-and-security work.
Nor do most of the other new foundations started by Silicon Valley wealth. There are exceptions, such as the Skoll Foundation, bankrolled by the founder of eBay, billionaire Jeff Skoll, which has supported work to reduce the threat from nuclear weapons and to bring peace in the Middle East. But Skoll is an outlier among tech donors who prefer to tackle what Napster co-founder Sean Parker has called “hackable problems”—narrow challenges where they believe they can move the needle in the near term.
Generational factors also play a role. Many of today’s new philanthropists came of age after the end of the Cold War. “If you weren’t born with ‘duck-and-cover’…you’re often focused on other issues,” said Tierney, who said it was challenging to raise money for arms control work from younger donors.
“Even 9/11 was 16 years ago,” said Alexandra Toma, who leads the Peace and Security Funders Group, an affinity organization of grant makers. The threats of war are as urgent as ever, but they can feel abstract compared, say, to police shootings of black men. “People are super-busy these days,” said Toma, “and these issues [of war and peace] don’t necessarily impact you on a day-to-day basis.”
Yet the world is getting scarier all the time, with Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran agreement and increased military hostilities in the Middle East only the latest flashpoints. “This is an incredibly dangerous period we’re in,” said Joan Rohlfing, who heads the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which was created in 2001 with a $250 million pledge from CNN founder Ted Turner and continues to receive funding from investor Warren Buffett. “There are more players and more points of conflict…. It’s easy to see ways we could back into a hot war that turns nuclear.”
One of the most recent withdrawals of philanthropic support came when the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation stopped funding nuclear-security work in year 2014. Beginning in 2008, the foundation had given as much as $5 million a year to address the dangers of nuclear war. Now it gives nothing.
Larry Kramer, the foundation’s president, told The Nation that its nuclear work was always meant to be a time-limited initiative. Instead of renewing this funding effort, said Kramer, Hewlett chose to focus on a different problem that “posed a huge threat to peace and security where our money could make a much greater impact—namely cyber security.” The foundation is now giving $10 million a year for work in this area. That Hewlett is one of the few major funders addressing rising cyber dangers is another indication of how the philanthropic community as a whole is not paying enough attention to an ever-scarier security environment.
That said, a rising tempo of international crises does seem to be having some effect. “The events in North Korea have really raised awareness of the nuclear threat,” Rohlfing said, saying that more small donors have been giving to her group. The political tug-of-war over the Iran nuclear deal also elevated nuclear security, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative isn’t the only group that has received additional support. Ploughshares, a peace group founded in 1981, has raised funding for its work on both Iran and North Korea. The Ford Foundation has begun dipping a toe into peace-and-security issues under the leadership of its president, Darren Walker. “I expect we’ll ramp up more grant making in this area given the changing global order,” Walker told The Nation.
According to the Peace and Security Funding Index, the $351 million in philanthropic support in this area in 2015 was a marked increase from funding levels a few years earlier. While that sounds like a lot of money, just 15 percent of this total flowed for work in North America. What’s more, such domestic funding mainly goes to elite-oriented policy work; little support is available to help grassroots groups engage the broader public on national-security issues.
Is that lack of funding responsible for the apparent lack of popular concern and protest around matters of war and peace? Or is it the other way around, with funders deterred by a lack of grassroots energy and momentum? There have been few street protests in the past year, even after Trump threatened and insulted North Korea. Kevin Martin of Peace Action, said of the Trump administration’s bellicosity: “They are threatening war, and perhaps nuclear war. And yet you’re not seeing a surge of concern.”
Martin has been with Peace Action for over three decades. And he said that, save for an outburst of activism aimed at stopping the Iraq War in 2002, the peace movement has been in steady decline, a trend the Obama years accelerated, he added, since many progressives naively trusted that the president would steer a different course on national security.
But a chronic shortage of money has also been a factor, said Martin. “Most peace groups have really been devastated in terms of funding. Most everybody in the longstanding peace movement has been hurting these days.”
And the few major foundations that do support international-security work, notably Carnegie and MacArthur, focus most of their grants on research and policy. Thus grassroots-action groups such as Peace Action and Win Without War end up raising money mainly from individual donors and small family foundations and operating on shoestring budgets.
The lack of public mobilization on peace issues means that there is little counterweight in Washington to hawkish voices and defense-industry clout. “You don’t get the balance you need in the debate,” said Tierney, who was a member of Congress before running the Council for a Livable World. Tierney said Democrats are often cowed because they don’t want to seem weak on defense and aren’t facing public pressure to take stronger stances on issues like military spending or troop deployments. “Somebody has to push back against all that money and all that effort that comes from industry,” Tierney said. “You need strong civil society.”
Few people know more about funding grassroots peace activism than Meg Gage. During the 1980s, she cofounded the Peace Development Fund to support such work. Today, Gage isn’t sure that more grants for activist groups would make much difference.
In the Reagan years, Gage recalled, it was easy to fund the nuclear-freeze movement and critics of US intervention in Central America because there was a robust array of local groups to support. That was also true in 2002, when some funders got behind opposition to invading Iraq. Nowadays, Gage doesn’t see a lot of organic grassroots activity funders can easily pump up. “Philanthropy can’t get something started that doesn’t exist,” she said. On the other hand, Gage acknowledges that’s it hard to catalyze more activism without new funding: “It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem.”
Historically, philanthropy has been a follower, not a leader, when it comes to social causes and movements. Grants often don’t start flowing until dissent is already rising. In that sense, it’s hard to place too much blame on foundations and wealthy donors for the lack of more pushback to dangerous national-security policies.
Still, there’s much that funders can do to level the playing field in the corridors of power. Debates over foreign and military policy are often dominated by elites and interest groups and, right now, the advocates who favor alternatives to the status quo are hopelessly outgunned. The military-industrial complex—which is not a term one hears much these days—is as powerful as ever. Since 2007, the military industry has spent more than $1.5 billion on lobbying and funneled another $150 million into elections.
Greater philanthropic funding to counter all this self-interested money can make a difference. With more scary moments surely lying ahead with Trump in power, the money needs to start flowing now.