Since the close of the Cold War, nuclear armament has become a problem in the abstract for many.

Data doesn’t support that. The number of nations believed to have nuclear capabilities has grown to nine. More than 13,000 weapons remain positioned around the globe. And in the past three decades, there’ve been 454 confirmed movements of nuclear or radioactive material and incidents of illegal possession. With all the volatile actors on the world stage, President Joe Biden’s 10-minute window to discern between an attack and a false alarm has never seemed shorter.

Detonation would destabilize the world in staggering ways, impacting everyone on the planet, and causing devastating environmental harms. A single weapon deployed over New York City would result in millions of fatalities.

Yet, this is an area where philanthropy lags. The number of funders engaged on the issue seems to be on the rise, but peace-related grantmaking comprises less than 1% of overall giving; less than 20% of funders surveyed consider it “very important” to their work. And the field is about to lose an important leader.

In late 2020, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a funder in the nuclear response category for more than 40 years, announced that nuclear challenges will no longer be one of the four big bets it’s placed on the future. “Data from multiple sources, including grantees and experts, indicated that the foundation’s investments and the opportunities afforded by the external landscape did not offer a line of sight to our ultimate Big Bet goal,” said Managing Director Valerie Chang, who heads MacArthur’s Nuclear Challenges team.

MacArthur first rolled out the big bets approach in 2015 as a way to narrow the previously sprawling grantmaker’s focus down to a select number of key priorities. MacArthur said that each big bet is time-limited and undergoes a midpoint review. “Based on this information, MacArthur made the decision to begin winding down the Nuclear Challenges program, while aiming to contribute to lasting change in the field with our capstone project,” Chang said.

MacArthur is taking a number of steps toward making a responsible exit from the field. In early 2021, the foundation announced that it would be shifting its nuclear funding to a capstone program, and conclude funding in 2023. The program is intended to build up the field, bring in new voices, and invite in new donors. Here are five things to know about MacArthur’s plan and the overall state of funding in the field.

A long history

MacArthur’s history of investing in global security dates back to 1984, with its work in Asia and the former Soviet Union. Decades later, funding for Nuclear Challenges made the cut as one of four big bets seeking “transformative change in areas of profound concern,” along with Climate Solutions, Criminal Justice and support for Nigeria. Big bet funding provided a surge of resources to the nuclear field at a faster pace, with the specific goal of ending the production and stockpiling of material that fuel nuclear weapons.

Chang said each of the time-limited big bet strategies will sunset in the coming years in “varying” timeframes. Despite that, MacArthur’s big-picture goals haven’t changed, she said. “We remain committed to aligning our programs with our mission of building a more just, verdant and peaceful world.”

Meeting nuclear challenges

Since 2015, MacArthur’s Nuclear Challenges program has made field grants of around $20 million per year, totaling more than $100 million. The capstone project is expected to provide another $30 million to the field through 2023.

Over time, investments have boosted nuclear civil society and diplomacy by educating and training hundreds of emerging leaders in the field, according to the foundation. Many went on to contribute to international treaties and agreements like the Iran nuclear deal and engagement with North Korea.

Chang said that MacArthur’s grantees played an especially important role immediately following the Cold War, when the fall of the Berlin Wall orphaned materials from the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Working with their Russian counterparts to reduce the danger, early grantees contributed to the creation of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

Through it all, one strategic constant was MacArthur’s investment in furthering informal dialogues between world leaders, calming rhetoric, and creating diplomatic pathways to dial down the heat.

Capstone priorities 

Like other long-running funders, MacArthur is no stranger to changing course. Chang said that the three-year, $30 million capstone project was strategically “based on our learnings during the Nuclear Challenges Big Bet and the current landscape of the field.” Shifting priorities is always tricky for funders, though MacArthur has a history of exiting intentionally, employing best practices like multi-year capstone funding and community building.

Chang said that MacArthur saw a “particular need to support new voices and ideas to help the field become stronger and more diverse.” As a result, capstone grants will help cultivate new talent and support groups and projects that will help increase “the demographic and intellectual diversity of the nuclear field.”

The three other goals for the remainder of the program are to establish a research network to challenge nuclear deterrence theory; lead at the nexus of nuclear and climate risks; and stay the course with a finite number of organizations it sees as key to sustaining critical nuclear dialogue.

Partners and execution

Twenty-eight organizations recently received a total of $21.3 million in grants, or two-thirds of earmarked capstone funding.

Partners in the category of cultural diversity and new voices include Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC); Girl Security, Ploughshares Fund and the Truman Center for National Policy.

Chatham House, the Managing the Atom (MTA) Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and the New Venture Fund’s Horizon 2045 project were tapped to challenge deterrence theory, the idea that nuclear armament yields peace and stability due to the threat of mutually assured destruction.

Four organizations will continue to examine the intersection of nuclear and climate risks by modeling productive dialogue, “reimagining” the global nuclear governance system and elevating nuclear energy discussions in U.S. foreign and domestic climate policy. That portfolio includes Good Energy Collective, the Council on Strategic Risks, the Partnership for Global Security, and Third Way, a national think tank that positions itself as center-left.

The lion’s share of capstone funding so far—$9.2 million—went to continuing complex nuclear dialogue. The six partnerships there include the Stimson Center, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Middlebury’s Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Punching above their weight

Though donors are finite, peace and security funders are smart about pooling their efforts—an approach that Alexandra I. Toma, executive director of the Peace and Security Funder’s Group, said allows them to “punch above their weight.”

Toma leads a group that was founded more than two decades ago, and has since grown three-fold. Today, its more than 50 members work together to raise the sector’s profile and capacity, and produce an important Peace and Security Funding Map in partnership with Candid, which delivers a roadmap for impact areas and tracks grant values.

Remaining leaders include Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ploughshares Fund.

Carnegie has been at the forefront of international peace and security funding for 111 years. Its work to reduce the threats posed by nuclear weapons began in the early 1980s, and focus on mitigating regional tensions and crisis-born instability while strengthening governance measures aimed at nonproliferation, disarmament and security. Other tactics include educational efforts, fostering research policy and expert delivery, and promoting global dialogue between key countries.

Now marking its 40th anniversary, the Ploughshares Fund supports the people and organizations that work to prevent the advent of new nuclear states, promote the elimination of weaponry and build regional peace.

‘Not a clear line of sight’

Though MacArthur did point to progress made, a February 2021 evaluation of the program did not discern a path to intermediate and long-term outcomes within the Big Bet timeframe. In its first five years, “our grantees had a deep and critical impact in the nuclear field, contributing, for example, to a reservoir of credible policy solutions and helping keep bilateral and multilateral communications and dialogue channels open,” says Chang.

MacArthur is one of the top funders in the field, and its exit will leave a significant hole in the fabric of nuclear funding that grantees have characterized as “a big blow” and “really disappointing.”

“Now is the time to be really investing more resources in innovation for problem-solving within this space,” Joan Rohlfing, president and COO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told Politico in July.

The capstone program is intended to ease the disruption, and MacArthur is also holding the door open for other donors who may see synergies with its work. “The nuclear field, despite its strong record of impact, has not attracted the attention it deserves from other major funders,” Chang said. MacArthur hopes that will “change over time,” and stands ready “to help other funders understand the field and its deep potential.”

MacArthur is also pointing out the outsized risks of inaction and connections to other issues. “In addition to our capstone funding,” said Chang, “we are in conversation with other funders and partners about the importance of investments in civil society to reduce nuclear risks.” That includes connecting “the dots between nuclear risk reduction and other critical issues, including the worsening climate crisis.”

Toma echoed those sentiments. “Peace and security issues are life or death issues, whether we’re talking about atrocities or the risk of a nuclear war. Funders understand the immediate gravity of these challenges” and the “real opportunity to make a lasting impact.”