Nuclear Security: Funders Are Still on the Case, But Reinforcements Are Needed

Most D.C. cocktail parties mean pigs-in-a-blanket, martinis, and rubbing elbows with politicians and K Street lobbyists. Not next week’s cocktail party, hosted by the Carnegie Corporation and MacArthur Foundation, at the Australian Embassy. To mark the kickoff of the upcoming—and final—Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), these two major foundation players are bringing together nuclear experts, diplomats, and NSS “Sherpas."

The NSS will bring hundreds of global leaders, nuclear experts, and industry representatives to our nation’s capital to discuss how to keep the world safe from nuclear terrorism. A number of funders are in the mix, too, reflecting the philanthropic sector’s longstanding concern about nukes.

It’s a challenging area of work. One point of frustration is the scarcity of government resources toward locking down “loose” nuclear materials worldwide. President Obama is only asking for $1.5 billion for the Department of Energy’s nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism programs. This is a decrease of 8 percent, from the fiscal year 2016 appropriation. Meanwhile, the United States annually spends tens of billions of dollars to sustain and modernize its nuclear arsenal.

What are funders doing to move this critical issue higher on the government’s agenda? Well, it’s no secret that nuclear weapons don’t command the same attention that they did during the Cold War. But a number of foundations have remained doggedly on the case, arguing that we can't let up in a world rife with terrorism and a black market for nukes. Carnegie and MacArthur are notable in this regard, and among other things, are supporting nuclear experts like those in the Fissile Materials Working Group to hold our world leaders accountable and provide them with innovative solutions to remaining nuclear challenges.

But other funders, including some small foundations, also pay attention to nukes. In a forthcoming and first-of-its-kind analysis, the Peace and Security Funders Group found that nonprofit organizations working to control and decrease nuclear arms and nuclear materials received support to the tune of $29.8 million in 2013, the latest year for which grants data is available.

Frankly, nuclear security funders punch well above their weight. The most recent example is the landmark agreement to keep Iran from going nuclear. Without the support of private funders for the technical and policy solutions, as well as public education and policymaker engagement, this historic national security deal wouldn’t have been possible. The immediate results—removing Iran’s nuclear material, closing down a critical reactor and dismantling centrifuges—were major gains for U.S. and global security. In the long term, the agreement heads off another major Middle East war. Yet, funding for addressing nuclear threats in 2013 was a fraction of the $1.8 billion spent by human rights funders the same year.

Funders aren’t just working harder on nukes lately, they’re working smarter. For example, in 2014, five of the largest nuclear funders launched N Square, a two-year, $2.4 million pilot designed “to foster collaboration, ignite the public imagination and spark new ideas about how to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons.” Collaboration gives nuclear funders outsized impact. The small but effective nuclear funding field needs more national security-minded philanthropists to join its ranks. The departure of large funders like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Ford Foundation has left major gaps, but there is ample opportunity for real, lasting impact in the nuclear security space for funders at all levels.

You can be sure that reporters on the sidelines of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit will ask lots of juicy questions about the state of global nuclear security. Let’s hope they remember to ask the most important question of all: “Where’s the money?”

Alexandra Toma is executive director of the Peace and Security Funders Group, a growing network of foundations and philanthropists committed to promoting international peace and security.