At the beginning of this year, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its famed "doomsday clock" a bit closer to midnight—to two minutes, the closest point it's been since 1953.
We live in dangerous times, with numerous armed conflicts underway around the world and a nuclear standoff unfolding on the Korean peninsula that's been called a "slow-motion Cuban Missile Crisis." Tensions are rising between the United States and both Russia and China, including in the shadow arena of cybersecurity.
In this fast-shifting, volatile landscape, it’s not surprising to find that some foundations are working to promote greater peace and security. This is one of the oldest missions of modern philanthropy, one that preoccupied Andrew Carnegie and many philanthropists who followed in his footsteps.
So what have such funders been doing lately to ensure that conflicts around the world are reduced or avoided?
The new Peace and Security Funding Index offers answers to that question. The analysis, using the latest data, tracks how much money is given by private foundations to peace and security efforts, including grants to prevent and mitigate conflict, to resolve conflict, and to build stable societies after conflicts have occurred. Overall, it paints a picture of a small but dedicated cadre of funders who are punching above their weight with grantmaking that adds up to less than 1 percent of total foundation giving.
Several takeaways emerge from the index, which is put together by the Foundation Center and the Peace and Security Funders Group, an affinity organization for grantmakers in the field.
For starters, peace and security funders have a global footprint that looms larger than the size of their giving. Totaling only $351 million in 2015, this grantmaking is enabling an enormous amount of activity. It sustains an infrastructure of nonprofits working in Washington, D.C., to sway U.S. national security policy, bankrolls academic research on issues like cybersecurity and nuclear nonproliferation, and supports civil society work around the world on everything from the rights of women and girls in Syrian refugee camps to conflict resolution in Africa. Beyond the diversity of approaches and issues tackled, funders in this field vary in type, regional focus, and average grant size.
That said, the leading strategies of peace and security funders remain policy and advocacy, as well as research and evaluation. Although funders support a full range of strategies, the majority of the money in the space backs policy work and research and evaluation as a strategic approach. Peace and security funders are almost two times more likely than other grantmakers to fund policy and advocacy strategies. Meanwhile, 16 percent of grant dollars awarded in 2015 funded research and evaluation, often to span the gap between academic and policy worlds on topics including cybersecurity and applying local knowledge in peacebuilding.
Peace and security giving funders provided 19 percent of their grant dollars through general support, which is consistent with the proportion of general support made by U.S. foundations overall. Just over 35 percent of funders in the field made at least one general support grant.
At Inside Philanthropy, we've reported on a number of cases in which foundations had impact on peace and security issues—most notably, by supporting the informal, so-called Track II diplomacy that led to the Iran nuclear deal. Funders now support similar critical work in Korea.
- It’s the Most Dangerous Crisis in the World. Who's Paying Attention?
- Philanthropy and the Iran Nukes Deal: An "Acupuncture Moment"
Given what's at stake, why isn’t peace and security attracting more funding? We put that question to the folks at the Peace and Security Funders Group, who answered with their own personal opinions, rather than on behalf of the group’s membership.
“Although peace and security issues are on the front pages of newspapers across the world, the field requires strategic patience and long-term investments in building peace,” said Alexandra I. Toma, the group’s executive director. “So it’s difficult to showcase ‘success stories’ in a year or two, which is a turn-off for funders who want a quick, tangible ‘return on investment.’”
Toma also noted the difficulty of demonstrating the benefits of work that has prevented conflicts thanks to the efforts of peace and security funders.
“It’s hard to impossible to prove prevention, but that’s what’s most effective—both in terms of saving lives, staving off conflict, and cost,” said Toma. “It’s way better to prevent [things like] atrocities and nuclear terrorism—but it’s hard to make the case for funders that prevention is working because you can’t prove a negative.”
Regarding the future of funding for peace and security work, Toma characterized the field as stable.
“Generally, peace and security work is long-term, strategic, and evolutionary, so you don’t frequently see major shifts in funder commitments in response to a political change or emerging crises,” she said. “While there may be the occasional ‘tipping points’ that cause funders to pivot or reassess their funding commitments, for the most part, foundations aren’t continually changing their strategies or focus in response to the latest crisis.”
However, Toma added that foundations “can be and are responsive to ever-changing contexts and do pivot to seize political opportunities. But all of this takes place within the context of their overall strategies and goals.”
She pointed to the work on the Iran nuclear deal and the Rohingya refugee crisis as examples of funders re-strategizing in response to emerging issues, yet staying within their long-term strategies.
With regard to Iran, Toma said, “there were grants in 2014-2015 on issues related to the U.S.-Iran relationship and nuclear agreement, but these grants were not made in isolation or as responses to a ‘motivating situation.’ Rather, nuclear funders had been supporting work on nonproliferation and on Iran for years, laying the groundwork for an eventual nuclear agreement. Grantmaking around the major peace opportunity fit into their existing strategies and work.”
In terms of the Rohingya crisis, Toma said, there had recently been a flurry of media attention to the refugees. But foundations “were paying attention long before the mainstream media cared. The Nexus Fund, for one, has been doing scoping, research, and funding in Burma on this issue since 2013. Another PSFG member, American Jewish World Service, has also been working with the Rohingya in Burma since 2013. These foundations were already there when the crises became mainstream news items. In other words, the flurry of funding you’re seeing around [the Rohingya] is not really coming out of left field.”
- “I, Too, Was a Rohingya." Soros Steps Up in a Humanitarian Crisis. Will Other Funders Follow?
- A "Textbook Example of Ethnic Cleansing." Who's Helping the Rohingya of Myanmar?
As for themes that might arise in the field in the near term, the director of the index project, Rachel LaForgia, observed several possible issues.
“A few current-day themes funders are considering are, 'Have the rules of the game changed?' 'Is the post-WWII liberal world order dead?' Is multi-polarity the wave of the future? If so, how will peoples all over the world relate to one another, to sovereignty, to the nation-state, etc.? Who will be 'winners' and 'losers,' and what is our role?” said LaForgia in an interview with Inside Philanthropy.
Among the other topics LaForgia discussed were the influence of artificial intelligence and machine learning on peace and security, the ‘rules of the road’ in the digital and cyber space, climate change’s effects on everything from refugees and migration to failing states and national security, and movements and social media trends such as #MeToo and #TimesUp.
Despite the challenges in the field, Toma offered a hopeful assessment of funding prospects.
“As peace and security issues will still be around in the next decade, our hope is that foundations continue to fund this work and that those who aren’t currently peace and security funders begin to consider how peace and security issues affect their work,” she said.
Toma calls peace and security funders the "ground zero" of the philanthropic community, in the sense that their work provides a foundation upon which other interventions can succeed in everything from health care to economic development. This point echoes the logic of Carnegie and other earlier philanthropists in this space—without peace, it's hard for humanity to achieve all of its other goals.
Toma’s assessment for the coming decade is that the “best-case scenario” for peace and security funding is that funders of all sorts view peace and security as fundamental to all their work, and they begin to invest more in these causes.
That's a nice thought. Right now, though, apart from such stalwarts as the MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Open Society Foundations, there aren't that many funders giving to peace and security issues on a large scale. The new index shows that only eight foundations made more than $10 million in grants in this space in 2015.
If the world really does stand at two minutes to midnight, it’s time for its billionaires and foundations to dig deeper on peace and security issues, in a way that’s proportional to the gravity of the challenges.