A Billionaire Donor Moves to Oppose Trump. But What's the Game Plan?

In a way, Tom Steyer is like a lot of people these days. Okay, minus the $1.6 billion and the political aspirations. 

On Sunday, January 29, the hedge fund manager turned climate crusader found himself standing in the San Francisco airport with a cardboard sign reading, “not on my watch.” A few days later, he went online and basically asked his supporters, what should I do now? 

On Facebook, Steyer posted a video on behalf of his organization, NextGen Climate, in which he told viewers, “We’ve never faced a situation like this,” and “I promise to do everything in my power to stand up to Trump.” The video linked to a survey asking the public to pick priorities from a whopping 12 issue areas and 8 potential forms of action. 

This is a new tune for Steyer. There was a time, not that long ago, really, when the hybrid philanthropist/political donor was all climate change, all the time. This was the issue to rule them all (a case we’ve made ourselves), and Steyer was all in. And then President Donald Trump came along, and things suddenly became trickier. Hard to imagine, but a reality TV show host has emerged as a bigger threat than climate change (in part, because of his stances on climate, of course). Steyer has since told the media that NextGen is broadening focus, and there’s “no limit” to what he’s willing to spend in response.  

Because Steyer is so public in his giving, we’re seeing his reaction to Trump unfold pretty much in real time. He’s wading through something that we suspect a ton of foundations and donors are (or should be): an existential dilemma over how to pursue their programmatic priorities while the Trump agenda is hurling Molotov cocktails in so many directions. For Steyer’s part, I’d say he’s doing at least one thing right—freaking out a bit. 

That’s because, just as climate change is an issue that threatens to scuttle all other areas of progress, so has Trumpism become. The president’s agenda in just a few weeks has confirmed progressives’ worst fears. To paraphrase Lawfare blog editor Benjamin Wittes’ description of the disastrous executive order on refugees and immigration, we’re dealing with a malevolence mitigated only by astonishing incompetence. 

With assaults pouring out of the administration on immigration, clean water, climate, labor, healthcare, public education, and reproductive rights, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to remain neutral on Trump. 


We’ve made the case here that foundations, especially the largest foundations, have been too slow and too silent on Trump’s actions so far. That's steadily shifting. We've seen some rapid response funds emerging, and on February 3, more than 50 philanthropic leaders released a statement criticizing the immigration executive order and other elements of Trump’s agenda. That number has since swelled to 140, and now includes some of America's biggest and best-known foundations, including Ford, Kellogg, and Carnegie.

But some of the deepest pockets in civil society are still silent.

This is not at all to say that foundations should start acting like Tom Steyer. For one, he’s stridently political. His sizable philanthropy involves a lot of disaster response and energy and agriculture research, but he’s probably best known for his political donations filling the airwaves with ads opposing candidates who are not addressing climate change. His NextGen Climate organization has also shifted to field outreach in offices across the country.


As a political donor, he plays by a different set of giving rules than charitable foundations. There’s also reason to question the effectiveness of some of Steyer’s moves, including spending so much on TV ads, for example.

But Tom Steyer is one of a handful of big names in this landscape evincing a horrified public response to how the Trump administration is unfolding. 

And he’s exploring what could be a fundamental shift in how he’s using his wealth, such as deploying more of his money, faster. Too often, we see billionaire donors giving only tiny fractions of their wealth in urgent areas they clearly care about. Many seem to be saving their money for a rainy day—even on issues where it's already pouring. Steyer is noted for moving fast and aggressively, and he now seems poised to speed things up even more, as well as moving beyond his green silo. Hopefully, other mega-donors will follow suit—with greater giving across a wider range of priorities. 

That’s also not to say philanthropy should abandon its existing programs. Steyer, for example, will certainly never ditch his climate focus. But it’s become very difficult to isolate individual threats in Trump’s America, and just carry on with business as usual. Based on recent interviews, Steyer seems to be embracing the intersectionality of all these issues, and consulting those on the ground to figure out his next moves.  

Again, I suspect a lot of foundations are working through some version of this crisis behind closed doors. We hope the most powerful funders in the country will ask some of these tough questions about how they need to change, and come together to fight a new kind of threat.