As Star Trek celebrates its 50th birthday, we take a look at the philanthropy of creator Gene Roddenberry’s family, including a new prize with a total of $1 million in annual awards.
Any sci-fi fan (myself included) will argue to the bitter end that a successful work of speculative fiction is about so much more than space ships and ray guns. Case in point: Since 1966, 50 years ago this month, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek and the many spinoff shows, movies and books that followed have sought nothing short of depicting a better humanity.
We’re not quite living in a Star Trek society absent of greed, prejudice and poverty, but the show really has had a big impact. Star Trek blazed trails for onscreen diversity, inspired real world technology, encouraged countless fans to pursue STEM careers, and explored forward-thinking philosophies in areas like ethics and economic policy.
Roddenberry passed away in 1991, but his legacy of envisioning a more just world lives on, most explicitly through a foundation established by his son Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry and Rod’s wife Heidi Roddenberry. The philanthropy officially launched in 2010, and gives to science and technology, the environment, education, and humanitarian advances, with a Trek-like emphasis on challenging the status quo to create a brighter future.
Latest records show assets of $88 million, and annual giving around $4 million. Some big past grantees including the J. Craig Venter Institute and the Gladstone Institutes, biotech research outfits that have each received seven-figure grants. Other substantial past giving has gone to environmental nonprofit As You Sow, and the Crohns & Colitis Foundation.
The relatively young foundation still seems to be finding its path, though, and just announced its latest development, the Roddenberry Prize. The competition is pretty broad, seeking bold ideas to build a better future, whether in art, science, technology, education or another domain, as long as it seeks a world-changing solution. The contest is also open to just about anyone, including individuals, nonprofits, and businesses, with the first year’s deadline on November 16, 2016. Five winners will be announced at the beginning of next year, with one receiving $400,000, and four others receiving $150,000.
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The foundation has a couple of other avenues for giving. Its Catalyst Fund is a rolling, open-ended grantmaking program that gives between $2,500 and $15,000 for each award, and is similarly flexible in terms of the subject matter, funding people with innovative ideas to take a first step toward making them reality. There’s no limit to the number of projects it will fund in any given year, or deadlines, and anyone can apply through what looks to be a pretty simple process.
The foundation’s third major program is the Roddenberry Innovation Fellowship, which is set to launch in 2017 and will fund a new cohort of social entrepreneurs each year.
It looks as though the Roddenberry Foundation is getting more sophisticated in its giving as it develops, and these three programs—a fellowship, a prize, and many small bursts of seed funding—are approaches we’re seeing among a lot of leading foundations these days.
Notably, the foundation is open to many fields and subjects, held together only by some core values exhibited by the Star Trek creator. It will be interesting to see what kinds of enterprising applicants take home the early rounds of these grants.