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.