If an Asteroid Were Hurtling Toward Earth, How Would Philanthropy Respond?

Imagine this scenario: Astronomers discover an asteroid in space that’s heading our way and predict that it will impact somewhere in the ocean later in this century. It’s not big enough to extinguish all life on Earth, as some asteroids might, but it’s sizeable enough that when it hits, it will generate tsunamis worldwide, inundating most coastal cities.

Despite this news that civilization as we know it faces a dire threat, politicians in Washington dither, with many claiming the astronomers have the science wrong. Years pass without much action toward efforts to knock the asteroid off course, even as the astronomers furnish more details about just how destructive its impact will be. An array of activist groups spring up around the world, urgently calling for stronger steps to counter the asteroid. World leaders pledge some action, but it’s not nearly enough—and the U.S. Congress won’t even back those modest steps.

How would philanthropy respond in this situation?

Well, you might think that many foundations would immediately drop everything else they’re doing and focus on stopping that asteroid. Right? After all, they’d see that there’s little point in caring about poverty or the arts or education if a catastrophic disruption of society would one day make all these concerns moot.

Given those stakes, you might think that foundations would give whatever it takes to ensure that every advocate sounding the alarm about the asteroid has enough resources, along with every scientist seeking a solution. You might think that the big legacy foundations would ignore the conservative payout limits on using endowment funds, busting open their great trusts in an urgent bid to save civilization.

Alas, if you thought all these things, you’d be wrong—at least judging by philanthropy's response to climate change, a threat that could mean sea level rises of six feet by 2100, along with other consequences so devastating that one expert panel compared the likely effects to World War II, which claimed 60 million lives.

Based on the climate record so far, philanthropy’s response to the asteroid threat would probably look more like this.

First, most funders would shrug their shoulders, saying extra-terrestrial issues fall outside of current program guidelines and don’t align with their missions or donor intent. The attitude would be: “let someone else worry about the damn asteroid.”

Second, even those top funders who did step forward to stop the asteroid would do so as part of a “balanced portfolio” of grantmaking. They’d say all the right things about the urgency of stopping the asteroid, and maybe make historic multi-year grant commitments to this end, but otherwise wouldn’t drastically upend their priorities. Such goals as ensuring "children realize their full potential" would occupy an equal place with ensuring that, as adults, those kids don't face a global catastrophe. 

Third, not a single major anti-asteroid funder would seriously consider dipping into their endowments in a big way to save civilization. One excuse would be that they weren’t confident such extra spending would make a difference in stopping the asteroid. Where are the metrics, they ask. Another would be that they needed to save their money for later, to help civilization “adapt” to a post-impact world. Some might point to organizational bylaws that barred any excessive spending of endowment principal and cite their “fiduciary responsibilities.” Here, too, the dead hand of donor intent would triumph over the imperative of future survival. 

Would the new billionaire philanthropists step forward to fill the vacuum left by cautious and small-minded legacy foundations? After all, these donors often talk about bold and urgent approaches to philanthropy. A great many have signed the Giving Pledge. Surely they’d open their checkbooks in a dramatic way to help figure out how to knock the asteroid into a orbital path away from Earth. Since they signed the pledge, why not give away their piles sooner rather than later, especially when civilization hangs in the balance?

And to be sure, a few billionaires would step forward, becoming some of the top anti-asteroid funders. But most would take the attitude that the asteroid was someone else’s problem, and even those stepping forward would deploy only a tiny fraction of their net worth to finance anti-asteroid work.

As the asteroid moved closer, with Washington still deadlocked and alarm bells sounding more loudly, there would be richly ironic moments as philanthropy fumbled the clutch moment. We might see, for example, two CEOs of top legacy foundations who “get” the asteroid threat issue a public call for their fellow funders to do more—and yet take no drastic action at their own institutions to think outside the box about what they themselves define as an “existential threat.” No matter how grave the asteroid menace might be, it wouldn’t trump the imperative of preserving endowment principal.  

We might see another such plea for greater philanthropic action from a foundation CEO known for her boldness and a billionaire known for his leadership on the asteroid issue—after which both would promptly resume business as usual. The CEO wouldn’t persuade her board to break open the endowment piggy bank or suspend all other grantmaking. The billionaire wouldn’t touch the vast bulk of his fortune, even as a Giving Pledge signatory in his 80s.

We might see the richest man in the world step forward to convene a group of billionaires to finance long-term anti-asteroid research—even as they curiously ignored the fact that Washington wasn’t taking a host of obvious near-term steps to deal with the threat and advocates in the trenches were begging for more resources to win the political fight.

And so it would go. For all the talk of philanthropy as “society’s risk capital,” this sector likely wouldn’t be able to mobilize for the necessary risks to head off the ultimate threat. But you can bet that there’d be some swell conferences and retreats.

Meanwhile, the asteroid would keep getting closer.

And closer.