War and Peace Hall of Fame: The Funders Pushing Back Against a World of Violence

Compared to such global killers as malaria and tobacco use, war is hardly the deadliest menace stalking humanity these days. And according to Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, organized violence has become less of a menace over time. For all the horrors of the past quarter centuryin Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, and the Middle Eastit's now been more than two generations since we've had a world war that's claimed lives at a cataclysmic level.

All of which helps explain why fostering peace and security isn't a top priority for philanthropy lately. After the end of the Cold War, this issue become a lower tier concern, with some funders shifting attention elsewhere. 

The move away from peace and security funding occurred even as U.S. foundations stepped up their overall global giving, and by a lot. A report published in 2010 by the Foundation Center found that global giving by U.S. funders soared from $5.6 billion in 1994 to $15.8 billion in 2002 to $25.2 billion in 2008. That's big money, and shows that U.S. philanthropy certainly has not turned its back on the world. 

Yet only the tiniest sliver of funds of that growing pie goes to peace and security. A study by the Peace and Security Funders Group found that just $257 million went to this area in 2008 and 2009 combined.

That's not a big investment in keeping the world safe, and the price of this under-investment is high. There's no better example than the chaos in Iraq. Over a decade ago, during the rush to war, civil society didn't check a hawkish state to the extent that might have been the case if funders had nurtured stronger institutions with a mandate to promote peace and question war. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was the only major think tank to oppose the Iraq War, and peace advocacy groups scrambled to find the resources to oppose the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (whose iron-fisted rule now seems like the good old days.) 

Looking further back, to the rise of Islamic terrorism and the origins of 9/11, it's fair to say that under-resourced nonprofit institutions did a woefully bad job of grappling with an emerging new sphere of security threats. More recently, the sector has struggled to keep up with metastization of the Islamic State, and it's hard to find cogent voices for "peace" in this debate.

In East Asia, tensions have been growing fast between China and its neighbors, but I haven't seen a comparable rise of work by U.S. funders to head off what could become a very dangerous situation. Meanwhile, until the Hewlett Foundation launched its big cybersecurity initiative last year, funders were largely ignoring this peril too. And one last thing: Many experts believe the use of nuclear weapons or materials is actually more of an acute threat now than during much of the Cold War (which is why the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' fabled doomsday clock stands at three minutes to midnight), yet just a few funders still work on nuclear security. 

I could go on complaining about the short-sightedness of funders and how much of the philanthropic world seems to have forgotten the hard learned lessons of history—just as I could complain about the hard-heartedness of funders who've largely turned a blind eye to the vast refugee crisis created by today's wars in the Middle East, a shameful failure we've written about often

But let's skip all that for this post, and get to the good news, which is that some funders have stayed in the peace and security game no matter what, while various new funders have entered this space. Alexandra Toma, the director of the Peace and Security Funders Group (who we profiled last year), told me that the membership of that affinity group has risen by 33 percent in the past 18 months, and Toma is seeing new energy in this area at a time when the world seems to be on fire. 

"People are reading about Syria, about Iraq," says Toma. "They're reading about Boko Haram. They're reading about refugees on boats fleeing ethnic conflict in Myanmar." And all that news is sparking more funder concern. “I’ve seen an increased interest in conflict prevention and genocide prevention, given what’s happening in the world.” One example of funders stepping up in the past year, says Toma, is the creation of the Central African Republic Peacebuilding Partnership, which brings U.S. AID together with a number of foundations to stabilize that conflict-torn country. 

In short, bad news in the world has meant good news for peace and security funding.

With Memorial Day around the corner, a holiday to remember the 1.3 million Americans who've died in war (including nearly 7,000 since 2001), we thought it'd be good shine a spotlight on the funders working for a safer world. Our list draws on the data that the Peace and Security Funders Group compiled for 2008 and 2009, the most recent analysis available. 

1. Carnegie Corporation of New York

The granddaddy of peace and security funding, Carnegie is still at it. In the past year, we've written about Carnegie's support of new research on best practices in peacekeeping, how it's supporting an African Peacebuilding Network, and how, like MacArthur, it's never stopped fretting about the nuclear menace, with a recent effort focused on new technologies and the future of deterrence.

2. MacArthur Foundation

MacArthur became a major funder of security work in the 1980s, and to its enormous credit, never lost interest, remaining a crucial player in this space. Most recently, to give one example, the foundation laid out some serious cash for a program to nurture a new generation of nuclear security experts at Stanford. Mac's new president has begun some overdue streamlining of that foundation, but let's pray she doesn't mess with this vital work. 

Editor’s Note: The MacArthur Foundation is currently winding down several of its grantmaking programs. Although the foundation has not officially announced a plan to close its Peace and International Security program, it is “exploring the elements and feasibility of a big bet based on a new approach to reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons. We also think that a big bet could be a place, rather than an issue.” MacArthur is currently exploring Nigeria as a region of focus for its future nuclear security related grantmaking. We’ll keep you posted as new information comes in. 

3. Hewlett Foundation

No sooner had Hewlett started to wind down its $25 million nuclear security program, begun in 2008, than it rolled out an even bigger initiative focused on cybersecurity, where it's already committed twice as much in grant money. Here, too, is another funder that gets just how dangerous today's world really is and the price we'll pay if we ignore old and new threats alike. 

4. Humanity United

This Omidyar-backed operation, with Pam Omidyar taking the lead, is an example of the fresh blood that's come to the peace and security funding world in the past decade. Focusing on mass atrocities and other nasty emergencies, it's jumped into complex conflict zones like Sudan, where many other funders fear to tread. Humanity United is said to be revamping its strategic plan right now. 

5. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Judged by dollar amounts, RBF isn't one of the top players in peace and security, but it's among the smartest. Over a decade ago, it started working to defuse growing tensions surrounding Iran's nuclear programs, and can claim some of the credit, as we've reported, for major recent progress toward a deal to end this standoff. Kudos to RBF chief Stephen Heintz for playing the long game. 

6. Ploughshares Fund

RBF's biggest grantees for its Iran work has been the Ploughshares Fund, a longtime player in peace work that also mobilizes significant donor support for efforts to address conflict and security issues. In another sign of growing concern about the state of the world, Ploughshares has seen a real uptick in its fundraising in the past year. 

7. Skoll Global Threats

This outfit, bankrolled by Jeff Skoll, focuses on nuclear security and the Middle East, among other global threats. Last year, as we reported, it joined Carnegie, Hewlett, Ploughshares, and MacArthur to launch the N-Square, a funders collaborative to "catalyze innovation that moves the world toward disarmament while improving global safety and security in the meantime." 

8. Howard Buffett Foundation

For the past few years, the foundation of Warren Buffett's oldest son has been deeply involved in efforts to bring peace to Great Lakes Region of Africa, as we've written here. In Congo alone, an estimated 5 million people have died due to warfare since the late 1990s. Buffett's foundation is spending heavily to stabilize this blood-soaked zone of suffering, most recently through an ambitious energy project. 

9. Ikea Foundation

This funder doesn't make grants to prevent conflict, but it works to relieve the human misery and turmoil that comes from war, and has made huge grants in recent years in many of the world's top conflict zones, particularly the Middle East, but recently in South Sudan, often working in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

10. GHR Foundation

This is another relatively new funder that cares about peace, bringing a faith perspective to conflict issues. GHR works to promote peace in Africa through inter-religious dialogue, and came to our eye last when the foundation made a big grant to the Alliance for Peacekeeping.

11. Compton Foundation

Compton is a devoted and steady progressive funder in the peace and security space, with a unique grantmaking strategy we've reported on that focuses on strengthening leadership and storytelling in the nonprofits it supports. Grants aren't huge, but this funder is a crucial ally of smaller peace groups. 

And Never Forget: Ted Turner

Turner's headline-grabbing quest for a more peaceful world may seem like yesterday's philanthropy news, but he's still a billionaire, and his funds have supported both the United Nations Foundation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative in recent years. 

In fact, $81 million went to UNF in 2013 and 2014 from Turner, and he remains co-chair of the board of NTI. What's less clear is how much money Turner will give in the years ahead for peace and security, now that he has met his big pledges. But his fortune is estimated at $2.2 billion and he's signed the Giving Pledge. So we're betting we haven't heard the last from the most famous peacenik on the Forbes 400.