A Calling for Moonshot Philanthropy

Got a spare billion to help solve big problems? There are pros that can help you with that.

Ivan Amato
Dec 9, 2019 · 18 min read

By Ivan Amato

Moon over Languard Mountain in Switzerland. (Photo courtesy of Marcell Kessler/Pixabay)

et’s start with some billionaire math.

Some 2000 ultra-wealthy households in the United States each hold more than $500 million in assets. This deepest-pocketed demographic controls about $3.7 trillion dollars. In 2017, these wealthiest of Americans donated about $45 billion to charity, translating into an annual charitable giving rate of about 1.2% of their assets. Meanwhile, the vast assets of those same individuals likely grew at a rate that matched or exceeded the S&P 500’s 9% average rate of return over the past 20 years. Even if the country’s wealthiest households donated seven times what they do now, their assets would still continue to grow rather than shrink. As of May, more than 200 billionaires had signed the Buffett-Gates Giving Pledge and committed to donate half of their wealth to charitable causes, but they would have to dial up their annual rate of donation to 11% — more than nine times their average current giving rate — to comply within their lifetimes.

“Wealth is piling up and people are not giving as fast as they might,” says Sue Merrilees , a senior advisor with the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a Palo Alto, California-based nonprofit philanthropy advisory group. The Alliance was established in 2013 to help those of considerable means — often known in this sphere as high net worth individuals (HNWI) — give in ways that further scientific causes they care about.

(Source: Four Pathways to Greater Giving/The Bridgespan Group in November 2018)

The statistical narrative above is sobering in the untapped opportunities for furthering the social good that it portrays and uplifting in the potential opportunities it reveals. It was developed by another leading philanthropy advisor, the Boston-based Bridgespan Group, and published late last year in a report about ways to get HNWIs to devote more of their wealth to the greater good. “What will it take to unlock dramatically more philanthropy from America’s wealthiest families,” wonder Susan Wolf Ditkoff and the co-authors of the Bridgespan report, whose production was financed by the Gates Foundation, today’s most prolific philanthropy with more than $50 billion in donations since its inception in 1994.

Among the pathways to greater giving that the report outlines are: 1) a greater embrace of “aggregated funds” that enable funders, in the report’s words, “to marshal funds and invest collectively” in ways and scales that can be more effective than solo approaches; 2) “a global platform of resilient, sustainable organizations that can effectively absorb and use big bet investments”; 3) “a single-stop hub, where ultra-wealthy families and their advisors go for personalized, premier insights, resources, and opportunities”; and 4) “a new institution that marries the benefits of a donor-advised fund (DAF) with high-quality investment choices that promote American economic mobility.”

The message from current billionaire-giving statistics was one of the catalysts that led to the creation of The Moonshot Catalog. The motivation was that such a publication could serve as a repository of big-bet causes that a general readership would find to be inspirational and that philanthropists just might find compelling enough to embrace. By now, readers of the Catalog know it is all about global-scale problems and challenges whose solutions and realizations would do a lot of good for a lot of people: Ending the threat of pandemic disease; feeding 10 billion of us in 2050 without wrecking the planet in the process; pulling every string we can muster to counter the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the global warming that already accompanies it. The hope is that one or more of these “moonshot articles” would come to the attention of an HNWI and that he or she would embrace one of the moonshots with a philanthropic mission to make it so.

Indeed, as Ditkoff and her colleagues ask: Given that so many donors have expressed an eagerness to give more, what are the barriers to doing so?” After all, as Merrilees told The Moonshot Catalog, philanthropy can have many advantages over government or industry funding. It can be more flexible about where its money goes. It can invest in high-risk, high-return approaches to solving a problem. And, importantly, it can be patient about results. “Philanthropists understand this is a long game,” Merrilees said, referring to causes such as basic scientific research, technology-centric goals such as curing diseases and managing climate change, and ambitious social-change projects such as reducing poverty and improving public health on national and global scales.

“Philanthropists understand this is a long game.” — Sue Merrilees, Science Philanthropy Alliance

One arrestingly simple conjecture to the question of why philanthropists don’t give more is that many of those in the HNW club do not have in mind — or don’t even know about — specific causes to which they could associate their name and wealth with the goal of opening pathways to a future most of us would like for our grandkids’ grandkids to live in. Hence The Moonshot Catalog, as well as the many other sources that describe projects and goals worthy of all-hands-on-deck solutions.

So, imagine that you are a billionaire thumbing through the Catalog when you stumble upon a story and say to yourself: “That’s the cause that I want to champion.” That would be a great reader response, but what you would not have gotten in your reading — until now, that is — is specific, actionable guidance about how to actualize that philanthropic glimmer in your eye.

Ok then, now what do you do?

The first thing that many in the philanthropy world will say is this: Seek advice and guidance. It turns out that giving sums of charitable money in the tens and hundreds of millions range, let alone in the billions that some of the Catalog’s moonshot projects would require, is hard. Doing philanthropy meaningfully, responsibly, and well add complex dimensions to the challenge, Merrilees says.

For one thing, many billionaires have not yet identified specific philanthropic causes to embrace. Nor is it easy for most of them to choose which of the many potential causes to make their own. Moreover, these days philanthropy is under a lot of scrutiny, some of it seething as in books like Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All, which argues that philanthropy is a way to sustain the status quo and avoid the meaningful social change that is required to short-circuit the societal phenomena that lead to philanthropic causes in the first place. Those with wealth and a desire to do good things with it “are reading stories in the paper about philanthropy gone wrong and they don’t want to become another negative case study,” Ditkoff says. Pivotal to avoiding that result, she says, is that donors now need to establish dialogue with those they hope to help. “A lot of times, philanthropists…will create something that sounds good to them, but they won’t actually work with the people they are hoping to benefit.”

(Source: Four Pathways to Greater Giving/The Bridgespan Group in November 2018)

This is where the Science Philanthropy Alliance, the Bridgespan Group, and a range of other organizations including the Milken Institute, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, GiveWell, Co-Impact, Lever for Change, ClimateWorks, and Blue Meridian Partners come in. In various ways and combinations, these organizations offer advisory and organizational assistance, experience and connections, and eclectic and bespoke learning programs that can help usher would-be philanthropists through their own uncertainties and the difficulties of getting started.

The Science Philanthropy Alliance, for one, was established in 2013 by six original members — the Kavli Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, Simons Foundation, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute — to turn the tide of what these partners describe in their foundational document as “a steady diminution of funding for basic scientific research in America.” As such, the Alliance caters to those HNWIs who especially value science and want to devote part of their fortune to its furtherance. The Alliance now has 30 members who provide expertise, peer networking opportunities, and other forms of support to wealthy donors or their staffs looking to become effective patrons of the scientific enterprise. (Eric and Wendy Schmidt, underwriters of The Moonshot Catalog project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS] and founders of the philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures, are among the Alliance’s members).

Philanthropy University

Imagine that you are a philanthropist and have taken the step of reaching out to the Science Philanthropy Alliance. Your initial experience will be akin to talk therapy. The discussion with Merrilees or another advisor would begin with consultations designed to identify what you value in science and society, the philanthropists you recognize as role models, and past giving that you had done that has proven to be most satisfying. “I want to find out what really motivates you, what speaks to you, what sort of personality you have,” Merrilees says.

As the relationship with their HNW clients build, she and colleagues develop what effectively is a personalized learning program that exposes motivated individuals to categories of science they might want to support. These are top-tier affairs. For example, in her work with one client, Merrilees recruited Dr. Marcia McNutt, former Editor-In-Chief of the Science family of journals and current president of the National Academy of Sciences, to chair a pair of tailored workshops featuring leading scientists working in areas of potential interest to the client. (Science and its sibling journals are published by AAAS).

“What will it take to unlock dramatically more philanthropy from America’s wealthiest families?” — The Bridgespan Group

On the Alliance’s website in an October 2 blog posting titled “Journey of a Philanthropist,” Merrilees chronicles her work with Ross Brown, a successful 83-year old businessman who “rang the offices of the Science Philanthropy Alliance in need of assistance.” Brown, who made his fortune by supplying the industrial gases and liquified natural gas industries with cryogenic (ultralow-temperature) processing equipment and small-scale processing plants, had just sold his company and retired. He now had $500 million that he wanted to donate to science. The trouble was, Brown told Merrilees and Alliance President Marc Kastner (who will step down January 1 when his successor, Valerie Conn, takes over the helm), “I don’t know what the hell I am doing!”

Over a series of deep-dive meetings with Brown, the Alliance was able to prepare what Merrilees calls a “philanthropic road map” tailored for him. Brown came to embrace an interest in fellowship programs that could help promising mid-career, tenured scientists in a vulnerable part of their careers when, as stated in the blog post, their start-up packages have run out and they need “money and freedom to support blue-sky ideas.” As Brown came to specify scientific areas that intrigued him especially, the roadmap became more defined. With this personal intel on Brown, the Alliance team drew on the experience of board members who, Merrilees writes in her post, “have hundreds of years of successful grantmaking experience in every situation imaginable, and they are happy to share that expertise with new philanthropists.” Along the way, Ross also was able to benefit from “member practice documents” the Alliance had developed from surveys of its members as well as information and documents personally curated and prepared by Merrilees. In her preparation of this bespoke literature package, she could draw from Alliance members including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Packard Foundation, both of which had extensive experience in establishing and managing science fellowship programs.

Within 10 months of initial contact with the Alliance, Brown took his first step in science philanthropy by funding two additional Fellows in the Packard Foundation’s Fellowship for Science and Engineering Program. It was just a beginning, Merrilees told The Moonshot Catalog, noting in a sequel to her blog post that Brown subsequently decided to commit a half-billion dollars in his own multi-year “restless minds” program that will build up to annually funding eight mid-career scientists with a demonstrated penchant for the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that can yield high rewards.

Brown took the first step by seeking help in his philanthropic urge, but many HNWIs have yet to go even that far. “We are quite cognizant that sometimes people don’t have the time to invest in really high-quality philanthropy themselves,” Bridgespan senior advisor Susan Wolf Ditkoff says. “They have small children. Or they are in retirement and this is really not how they want to spend hundreds of hours of their time. Or they are working full-time jobs with their companies.”

“We are seeing a lot of philanthropists who have aspirations to be generous, who are looking for ways to be generous, and who are looking for help to do that.” — Susan Wolf Ditkoff, the Bridgespan Group

When they do reach out to Bridgespan, however, Ditkoff says, it’s usually because they had a conversation with a peer or acquaintance who has worked with the organization. An initial conversation with the HNWI usually occurs in person, though that meeting often is preceded by preparatory calls with the potential client’s staff. The meeting itself usually includes one or two Bridgespan advisors along with the potential new philanthropy client and perhaps a spouse, another relative, or some other confidant. “These are free flowing conversations about where they are in their philanthropic journey and what they have done so far,” Ditkoff told The Moonshot Catalog. “We ask what excites them. What motivates them. How do they think about their wealth? What role their wealth plays in their family. At first, we are just a sounding board.”

But she and her Bridgespan colleagues move these conversations in ways that deliver two key pieces of intelligence: What the would-be philanthropists really care about — whether its reducing waste in school cafeterias, erasing poverty in a city or region, or ending the threat of pandemic disease — and what they need to learn about the issues and causes relevant to these interests. Bridgespan’s head of philanthropy practice, Betsy Doyle, adds that it is important to discover if a donor “has a set of beliefs or experience that determines how they want to seek change, what kind of risk profile they have, if they want to play a leadership role in their philanthropy, and what kind of scale they are interested in.” For example, donating money for a new social science building at an alma mater is a low-risk donation with tangible walk-in-the-classroom and name-on-the-building results, whereas underwriting community-led efforts to give the next generation a leg up in the workforce has higher risks and is harder to measure confidently. “While community-led efforts may feel higher-risk, they can also be extremely high-reward, even if they are less commonplace,” Ditkoff says.

In a 2018 report, the Bridgespan Group identified four pathways for opening up tens of billions more dollars of philanthropic giving. In the infograph, the fourth pathway — a comprehensive advisory hub that can couple with the other pathways shown in dark blue — is at the bottom. (Illustration courtesy of the Bridgespan Group)

For philanthropists who want to diversify their giving portfolio, there is a lot to negotiate and learn, including how to view and manage the comforts and discomforts associated with different kinds of giving. “[Some donors] think nothing about giving $40 million for hospital wing and then never ask another question, but if they give $200 thousand to a teenager-focused organization or an environmental organization, they ask zillions of questions and they are quite suspicious and want all kinds of metrics.”

In addition, Doyle and Ditkoff say, making sure donors understand the complexities and “systems issues” that associate with their philanthropic ambitions is pivotal for making sound and ultimately effective choices about donation. In this context, Ditkoff pointed to case in which a donor was interested in bringing composting to all public schools to reduce the waste stream. It is a great idea, she says, while stressing that systems issues are important to weigh when assessing the likely success of such a venture. For one thing, there would be thousands of school districts to contact. Understanding the routing of waste management trucks in jurisdictions would have to be part of the due diligence. There also would be behavioral issues and learning curves for students, teachers, and custodial staffs in each school to identify and understand. “How do you get the kids to actually throw the stuff in the right bin?” Ditkoff asks.

As at the Science Philanthropy Alliance, the Bridgespan team follows a getting-to-know-you phase with what Ditkoff calls a “learning phase,” especially if the client already had experience in one area, say, funding research, but now wants to diversify into a new area, say, reducing poverty. This phase includes “landscape research” in which the Bridgespan team identifies who and what organizations already are working in the new space and who is doing good work there. Included here, adds Doyle, are leaders of nonprofit organizations who will be challenged with putting new financial resources to work. She and her colleagues stress to donors how critical it is to not fly solo with the donor’s vision alone and to engage those in the organizations and on the ground who will be driving the work that donor money makes possible. The goals of these learning exercises is the identification of specific regional foundations and non-governmental organizations to partner with or recommendations to work with so-called aggregated funds, such as the Co-Impact or Blue Meridian Group, which pool resources from multiple donors into an infrastructure and system of connections that they already have established.

Philanthropy’s Many Pathways

When it comes to the many ways in which philanthropic capital can help solve important problems, there is an abundance of models, precedents, innovations, successes, failures, and other lessons that philanthropists and their advisors can draw from. Tom Kalil, chief innovation officer of Schmidt Futures, has been a student, inventor, and beneficiary of these lessons for nearly 20 years, beginning when he worked in the White House National Economic Council during the Clinton administration.

Philanthropists have “the flexibility to use a number of different tactics to achieve a given moonshot,” Kalil recently told Devex, which describes itself as the “media platform for the global development community.” In several email exchanges with The Moonshot Catalog, Kalil ticked off a selection of the many giving vehicles, frameworks, and existing organizations that today’s philanthropists can tap into with an eye on leveraging their money and interests into scientific, technological, and societal improvements. Here are just some of the options:

Scholarships, young-investigator awards, and research fellowships (like the one run by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation that Ross Brown embraced) open educational and professional pathways for students and young and mid-career researchers. Schmidt Futures, for example, provides a fellowship for PhDs who want to pursue a postdoc in a discipline outside their own expertise, given the growing importance of interdisciplinary approaches to solving important problems. There also are programs for established scientists that, in Kalil’s words, “bet on people, not projects.” A high-profile example is the HHMI’s Investigator Program, which now supports, according to its web site, “nearly 300 investigators, located at more than 60 research institutions across the United States.” Many foundations’ giving portfolios have programs like these that invest in people and that can expand with additional donations.

HHMI’s Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program supports early-career life scientists — particularly in under-represented groups — in academic labs across the U.S. Shown here are Fellows at HHMI’s Bethesda, Maryland, site during this year’s Hanna H. Gray Fellows Retreat. (Photo courtesy of HHMI)

● The establishment of thematic research centers, such as the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute which supports researchers in five centers where they investigate computational challenges in astrophysics, biology, mathematics, quantum physics and in fundamental techniques of computation itself. Similarly, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has established Allen Institutes for, respectively, Brain Science, Cell Science, Immunology, and Artificial Intelligence, along with the Frontiers Group, which focuses on extending the reach of bioscience.

Incentive prizes backed by governments and wealthy entrepreneurs for centuries have been part of the innovation ecosystem. The Moonshot Catalog article titled “Keeping Our Cool” was partly inspired by the million-dollar Global Cooling Prize designed to accelerate innovations that could enable next-generation air-conditioning technology that can deliver cooling without exacerbating global warming. Since its founding in 1994, the XPrize Foundation has spurred innovation in private spaceflight, oil spill cleanup, adult learning, medical diagnostics, and a dozen other technologies with more than $140 million in prize purses. In the government sector, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is well known for its Grand Challenges that offer multi-million-dollar awards for technology achievements in areas ranging from autonomous vehicles to cybersecurity to quick and agile access to space. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also is known for its own Grand Challenges focused on public health and economic opportunity.

On November 19, the Global Cooling Prize announced eight finalists in an incentive competition designed to accelerate innovation toward next-generation cooling technologies that will not worsen the climate change crisis. (Image via William Sisson/Twitter, November 16, 2019)

Advisory organizations that include the Science Philanthropy Alliance, GiveWell, and the Open Philanthropy Project fall into the category of donor-funded organizations that help philanthropists give in ways that will be effective. The Open Philanthropy Project, for example, develops shallow- and deep-dive analyses into many causes — ranging from criminal justice reform and geomagnetic storms to the mechanisms of aging and infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa — with an eye on providing philanthropists with evidence-based assessments of areas that are ripe for big philanthropic bets or are not yet ready for that kind of financial propulsion

● Impact driven technology-development organizations, such as Activate, assist entrepreneurial scientists with expertise and money that increase the chances that these innovators will make it across the notorious “valley of death.” That’s the oft-used metaphor for the perilous journey entrepreneurs must undertake between their great idea and a successful commercial result. Most of these journeys prove lethal to most budding technology ideas, even if they show promise of delivering great benefits to society. Since its founding in 2015, Activate has partnered with world-class research organizations like Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to support over 50 entrepreneurial scientists who, according to Kalil, have “gone on to generate more than $100 million in funding to support their projects.” The funding comes from more than 20 “supporting partners,” including DARPA, the Department of Energy, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and a number of major corporations.

Another option for donors, Kalil says, is to learn from the DARPA model for funding transformational innovation. He is particularly excited by a new non-profit organization known as Actuate. Recently launched by Arati Prabhakar, Director of DARPA from 2012 to 2017, Actuate embraces a DARPA mindset to spur innovation that can address critical societal needs. Initial projects include innovating scalable approaches to the prevention of diabetes and other chronic diseases and developing tools that accommodate analysis of data while protecting privacy. To define and execute a program, an Actuate program manager will develop a systems context for the problem he or she is attempting to solve; pursue a bold objective that (if achieved) will change people’s views about what is possible; fund multidisciplinary teams across industry, academia, and non-profit organizations with the relevant expertise; and actively manage this community of performers to demonstrate a powerful new capability.

● In some cases, philanthropists can also engage in advocacy for changes in public policy. For example, Bill Gates has been successful in convincing 24 governments and the European Commission to significantly increase public sector investment in clean energy innovation. A similar campaign is needed to solve the problem of antimicrobial resistance — given the growing number of so-called “superbugs” that are resistant to existing antibiotics. Failure to solve this problem could cost the global economy $100 trillion by 2050, and result in 10 million deaths per year. A campaign is needed to get governments to change the way that pharmaceutical makers are reimbursed for developing nfew antibiotics, given that even companies that have successfully developed antibiotics are going bankrupt.

● A platform for collective and pooled giving is represented by the organization ClimateWorks, which since 2008 has pooled more than $1.5 billion of donor money into more than 1500 grants to more than 550 grantees with a collective goal of confronting the climate crisis. Climate Works represents so-called “aggregated funds,” which enable philanthropists to pool their funds, in the same way that multiple investors will back a single venture capital fund. Another organization in this category is Blue Meridian Partners, which describes its current portfolio of ten $100 million investments from pooled donations as each “solving a significant social problem that traps young people and families in poverty and limits economic mobility.”

“Many of the important challenges we face today are systems challenges,” observes Kalil. “There’s not a single quick fix for these problems. They may require some combination of investments in breakthrough research, attracting more talented individuals to work on a problem, the creation of social movements, institutional innovations, coalition-building, patient capital for startups, and changes in public policy. Philanthropists have the flexibility to invest in these different strategies, but not all of them are taking full advantage of this flexibility.”

A given for the foreseeable future is that there will be myriad small, medium-sized, and moonshot-scale problems for which philanthropic money could make a difference. It’s also a sure thing that matchmaking philanthropically inclined HNWIs with causes they care about will continue to be a combination of art and science. On the one hand, experts can use reviews of the scientific literature to identify interventions that shoould have the biggest “bang for the buck” — like global health interventions that save a life in developing countries for as little as $900. On the other hand, there may be other opportunities for philanthropy (like supporting basic research) that by definition will not have this level of evidence, and will continue to rely on judgment. Driven by the goal of catalyzing more connections between philanthropists and an important cause, organizations like the Science Philanthropy Alliance and the Bridgespan Group have been honing the art and science of philanthropy.

“We are seeing a lot of philanthropists who have aspirations to be generous, who are looking for ways to be generous, and who are looking for help to do that,” Ditkoff says. In the HNWI world, the means for that generosity is abundantly in hand at sums that reach into the trillions of dollars. If the nation’s billionaires boosted their donations to an annual rate that merely equals the annual growth rate of their assets — about 9% — their additional annual giving of $300 billion dollars could help humanity tackle some of the most important challenges of the 21st century.


Ivan Amato is a writer, editor, podcaster, and science cafe host based in Hyattsville, Maryland. He is the editor of The Moonshot Catalog.

The Moonshot Catalog

A to-do list of big doable projects for a forward-looking future

Ivan Amato

Written by

The Moonshot Catalog

A to-do list of big doable projects for a forward-looking future

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