Insights from the Research Team

Explaining a Small PPF Grant on Nuclear Security

Published on
2022-07-28
Written by
Christian Ruhl

Image: Titan II ICBM at the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/7332367192/. Adapted and used under licence.

NB: Although Founders Pledge advised the Patient Philanthropy Fund (PPF) on this particular grant, it does not speak for the Fund’s Management Committee and any opinions expressed here should not necessarily be attributed to the PPF.

Recently, the Patient Philanthropy Fund (PPF) made a small grant related to nuclear security: the Fund paid $2,000 to the Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG) for Alex Toma, PSFG’s executive director, to write a short (1,500-2,000-word) analysis of the changing nuclear funding landscape. This analysis (which thanks to Toma’s work ended up being over 4,500 words), is now finished and viewable online here.

What is a Small PPF Grant?

The Patient Philanthropy Fund is designed as a philanthropic co-funding vehicle that invests and grows donors’ collective resources to support the long-term flourishing of humanity. The Fund will step in when extraordinary opportunities to do this arise — years or even centuries into the future. (For a short overview, see the Fund webpage or this recent Vox article).

The PPF is currently in phase 2 of a four-phase plan:

  1. Fund Launch ($1 million): creating the legal, governance, and administrative structure of the Fund; standing up an initial management committee; and developing initial grant-making policy;
  2. Early Development ($1 million to $10 million): making first small grants; adding one or two additional management committee members; publishing updated research on patient philanthropy;
  3. Growth to Maturity ($10 million to $100 million): expanding the investment strategy to include active and mission-aligned options; adding further research partners; preparing governance and operations for spin-out;
  4. Spin-Out ($100 million): creating an independent charitable entity; hiring and contracting relevant staff (occurs either if the Fund hits $100m or after 10 years with minimum $10m).

In stage 2, PPF small grants are yearly deployments of a very small fraction of the Fund’s size (0.1-1%) — this year, it was around 0.1%. The grants, while small, serve an important purpose:

  • First, they help build the Fund’s grantmaking track record, allowing it to become nimble and experienced enough for eventual large-scale deployment.
  • Second, they can help build the field of patient philanthropy; in this case, by exploring what happens when a major funder (MacArthur) leaves an important cause area (nuclear security).
  • Third, they help send a signal to the PPF’s generous supporters, which includes both entrepreneurs who have generously pledged their wealth to do good in the world, and small-donor dollars who give regularly through EA Funds and Every.org. This is a signal about transparency, about how the management committee makes decisions, and about what kinds of use cases there are for the PPF.
  • Finally, small grants may help inspire additional donors to use their money to help people in the future who might need it most.

Why did we recommend this grant?

The PPF Management Committee asked the Founders Pledge Research Team to look into whether there were potential funding opportunities related to MacArthur’s exit — after all, a major funder leaving an important space (like nuclear security, biosecurity or AI safety) is one potential use case of the PPF in the future.

We spoke to several experts on nuclear philanthropy — including some current and former grantmakers from large traditional foundations — to better understand the reasons for MacArthur’s departure, the potential funding shortfall, and any organizations that might need support right now. From these conversations and further research, we came to believe that a grant of around $1,500-$2,000 to an organization working directly on nuclear risk would have a mostly symbolic value (communicating that, in the future, the PPF might step in if something like this happened on another important field, like biosecurity).

Instead we proposed using this money to fund a short written analysis by an expert in the field to better understand the expected effects of this funding shortfall. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggested that the expected funding shortfall after MacArthur’s “capstone” funding (and Longview’s entry into the field) would be over $7 million dollars.

Therefore, we felt that an analysis of the nuclear funding landscape could have high decision-making value — funders who are considering stepping in to fill this shortfall may wish to use this information to guide their thinking. If it turned out, for example, that no important projects or organizations were endangered by MacArthur’s withdrawal, then $7 million could be counterfactually spent on other worthwhile projects to safeguard the future.

From speaking to experts and researching the field, we believed that the Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG) would be especially well-positioned to write such an analysis. Specifically, we thought that Alex Toma, PSFG’s executive director, would be able to write an insider’s perspective on the funding situation, given her birds-eye view of the field. PSFG provides data for the Peace and Security Funding Map, the most comprehensive database on grantmakers and grantees available. (To view an interactive constellation of nuclear funders, for example, click here.) We spoke with Toma, who agreed that this could be a valuable use of time, and resource for other funders.

We therefore pitched this to the PPF management committee as a hits-based small grant — there was a chance that this would have no or low impact, but also a small chance that the analysis could help at least some funders make a more informed decision, and thereby make the overall philanthropic market on global catastrophic risk more efficient. After deliberation and speaking with one more expert, the management committee decided to make the small grant.

Key takeaways from Toma’s analysis

We recommend reading Toma’s analysis in full, but highlight several key takeaways:

  • Magnitude and timing of funding shortfall: According to Toma, the expected funding shortfall due to MacArthur’s withdrawal is about $5 million/year after 2023. Notably, this is conditional on no other major funders entering the field.
  • Chronic neglectedness: Toma argues that the field has been chronically neglected by philanthropists, and that “backfilling” MacArthur’s departure isn’t enough — this raises important questions for patient philanthropists. For example, when there is a sudden fall in funding, should an emergency infusion of patient capital merely “backfill” this lost funding, or seek to correct more general neglectedness?
  • Opportunity in crisis: The next few years may be a fleeting moment of opportunity to reshape the field of nuclear security, and thereby have an outsized impact on its trajectory for several decades to come. Thus, while the funding shortfall is smaller than stated in some media portrayals of MacArthur’s exit, the impact of marginal donations may be unusually high in terms of donors’ ability to shape the field.
    • This is a potentially important insight for patient philanthropists. When there is a major infusion from a single source of patient capital (such as the PPF) to replace lost funding (such as MacArthur), the new donor wields outsized power over the field. This results in the ability to not merely fill a gap, but to correct course and potentially make interventions more effective than before.
  • Natural end for some organizations: Toma highlights that some organizations have been on “philanthropic life support” for years, and that the departure of a major funder like MacArthur can sometimes be healthy for the field as a whole, by forcing ineffective organizations to close their doors.

Note: The Patient Philanthropy Fund and its Management Committee do not necessarily agree with all of Toma’s views, and in particular don’t hold a strong view on whether longtermist funders should step into nuclear security at this moment to fill the funding shortfall that MacArthur has left. This grant was made to provide information to potential funders in nuclear security, rather than to make an argument for or against funding the space.

Lessons learned for patient philanthropists

More broadly, there are several lessons that patient philanthropists can learn from this small grant.

First, funding databases can help to accurately assess the magnitude and potential effects of a fall in funding. The Peace and Security Funding Map turned out to be a valuable resource for this project as a centralized database on funding related to nuclear issues. Often, when assessing the neglectedness of a field or an intervention, researchers need to dive deep into annual reports or required financial disclosures of individual organizations, and build jury-rigged spreadsheets based on these data. Resources like PSFG’s funding data, on the other hand, are easy to search and organize, so estimating the magnitude of the expected funding shortfall was relatively straightforward.

Similar databases for other important cause areas — like AI safety, biosecurity, and more — could help patient philanthropists monitor levels of funding and understand more precisely how much is needed to backfill a shortfall, and where it is needed most. Building such databases could be a valuable intervention today, and we’re excited to see more projects along these lines.

Second, there can be opportunities in a funding crisis to “course correct” a field’s effectiveness. As Toma notes, some highly ineffective organizations are funded for longer than is optimal because “some funders have a hard time letting go of their favorite grantee organizations because of ego, legacy, inertia, reputation, relationship with key experts at the organization, and/or other reasons”. Shuttering organizations who are funded mainly for these reasons and not for their effectiveness can be healthy for the field. Moreover, a major funding shortfall can be a fleeting opportunity for philanthropists to have an outsized impact. Because some grantees will need to attract new funding, they may be especially amenable to making beneficial changes. For instance, if there were a major shortfall in biosecurity funding in the future, this may be an opportune time to reduce the risks of information hazards from biosecurity, e.g. by making all new funding conditional on having clear processes in place to assess the risks from publicizing certain findings.

In short, filling a funding shortfall can go beyond returning to the status quo; it can actively reshape a field for the better. Patient philanthropists ought to plan for the appropriate ways to take advantage of such opportunities.

Third, in retrospect, we may have recommended funding a more quantitative analysis of these questions, potentially built on insights from probabilistic forecasting. Toma’s insider perspective was highly valuable, but many of the key uncertainties that remain hinge on empirical questions about the future, such as:

  1. What is the probability that another funder will enter the nuclear field with a funding commitment of at least $5 million a year?
  2. Conditional on (1), what is the probability that this funder will follow a longtermist approach to their giving?
  3. What is the expected level of funding allocated to nuclear issues in 2025?

Crowdsourced probabilistic forecasting could help patient philanthropists find answers to these questions, and use these answers to plan for the potential deployment of funds (with the understanding that the philanthropists’ own actions may be “priced in” to the forecasts). In the future, organizations like the Patient Philanthropy Fund could run rapid-response forecasting tournaments on prediction markets (like Manifold Markets) or forecast-aggregation platforms (like Metaculus or Good Judgment Open) to rapidly harness the wisdom of the crowds on these questions and assess the most likely effects of funding shortfalls.

To illustrate this, we have posted a number of questions for forecasters, including the following. We encourage you to add your own predictions to these questions:

On Manifold Markets, “Will a new funder commit at least $5 million/year to nuclear security by the end of 2023?”:

On Metaculus: “How much philanthropic funding will go to nuclear issues in 2025?”:

These more quantitative and forward-looking approaches are not necessarily a replacement of, but rather complementary to, qualitative inside-view assessments like Toma’s. In the end, the combination of both of these techniques will help patient philanthropists assess whether the time is right to step in when a major funder leaves an area.

Christian Ruhl

Christian Ruhl is an Applied Researcher based in Philadelphia. Before joining Founders Pledge in November 2021, Christian was the Global Order Program Manager at Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s global affairs think tank, where he managed the research theme on “The Future of the Global Order: Power, Technology, and Governance.” Before that, Christian studied on a Dr. Herchel Smith Fellowship at the University of Cambridge for two master’s degrees, one in History and Philosophy of Science and one in International Relations and Politics, with dissertations on early modern submarines and Cold War nuclear strategy. Christian received his BA from Williams College in 2017.