Donors Who Come to the Aid of Their Country

You thought only government could do defense? Think again!

The New York Times ran a surprising article this spring about a serious problem of war: How to clean up the minefields left behind after nasty guerrilla conflicts. In combat zones stretching from ­Cambodia to Colombia and Afghanistan to Angola, buried explosives continue to maim innocent people years after the bullets have stopped flying. Fear of mines causes much valuable farmland to be abandoned in hungry countries, just because the acreage cannot be cleared of hidden dangers in a cost-effective manner.

National governments and international bureaus have tried. They hire men in bomb-suits to painstakingly sweep land with handheld metal detectors. Each metallic strike must be carefully dug up to find out if it’s a booby trap or a bobby pin. Using that method, a civil servant can clear about a bedroom-size plot per day.

But now there are new angels hovering—and ­crawling—over the world’s minefields. As a boy ­growing up in Belgium, Bart Weetjens kept rats as pets. He became interested in their powerful ­scent-detection ability, and how that might be put to good use for humanity. A few years ago Weetjens founded a charity that trains rats to detect TNT and raises money to deploy the animals to minefields across the globe. His so-called Hero Rats don’t false-alert on shell casings or empty sardine cans—they zero in solely on high explosives, which they are too light to trigger. As a result, a rat and its handler can clear 20 bedroom-size plots of land per day rather than just one. And ordinary people can go to websites like to “adopt” a Hero Rat for an $84 annual donation. (The rats get paid in peanuts and bananas.)

War-cleanup, war-preparation, war-fighting—these are generally thought of as classic government responsibilities. So it may be surprising to learn that private philanthropy has sometimes led the way in these areas. The military realm isn’t the only one where we have a hard time imagining “civil society” solutions. For years, wisemen like John Stuart Mill and Paul Samuelson liked to cite lighthouses as examples of a service that only government could provide. Then in 1974, Nobel economist Ronald Coase wrote a paper showing that, actually, 34 of the 46 lighthouses that protected British navigation in 1820 were built and maintained by private individuals, and 11 more were run by a private mariners’ association. Could there be unexpected contributions of a similar sort in the world of national defense?

Financing our revolution

The war that created America depended heavily on private action and philanthropy. In present terms, it cost billions of dollars to equip Washington’s ­Continental Army, launch our new navy, and fund the deliberations of Congress. Financiers Robert Morris and Haym Salomon borrowed or raised much of the necessary money—working for free, battling for low interest rates, and repeatedly donating their own funds.

The unsung Salomon, for instance, gave money over and over to help key members of the Continental Congress come to Philadelphia to deliberate. He personally bought vital supplies and used his connections to get the best possible terms for the nation as it borrowed funds in turbulent money markets. When Washington trapped British General Cornwallis near Yorktown but lacked the means to move and supply his army for the final battle of the Revolution, he cried “Send for Haym Salomon”—who quickly scratched together $20,000 under great pressure.

Having joined the Sons of Liberty early on, ­Salomon was twice imprisoned by the British as a spy. The second time he escaped on the day before his execution. He was an active philanthropist in several sectors, and gave money to many men he considered unrecognized heroes of the war, like army surgeon Bodo Otto, who had bankrupted himself buying medical supplies for his soldier patients.

Salomon died at age 44 of tuberculosis (contracted while he was in prison). His repeated contributions in wartime left his widow and four children penniless, because the hundreds of thousands of dollars of ­Continental debt he bought with his own fortune were worth only about 10 cents on the dollar at the time of his passing. (Robert Morris, who personally purchased much of the ammunition used by Washington’s army, was likewise damaged financially by his giving and his work without pay during the Revolution.)

Print of the USS Essex battling British frigates in the harbor of Valparaiso. The Essex was one of America’s most famous warships, with a central role in building the outsized reputation of the U.S. Navy in its earliest years. Amid threats to the nation from revolutionary France and the Barbary pirates, the frigate was built by patriotic citizens from the small city of Salem, Massachusetts, who took up a collection to raise the necessary funds in donations ranging from $10 to $10,000. The donors also hired a captain, then put the ship into national service.

Fighting ships by subscription

In the late 1700s, when the newborn U.S. was exchanging blows with Barbary pirates and rebuffing aggression from revolutionary France, private donors joined together to build fighting ships for the nation. Boston, Baltimore, Salem, New York, Philadelphia, and other towns took up subscriptions. Salem, for instance (with a population of less than 10,000 but a proud seafaring tradition), built the famous 32-gun frigate Essex, which dealt retribution on behalf of its nation over the next two decades. In amounts ranging from $10 given by Edmund Gale to a pair of $10,000 donations from Elias Derby and William Gray, citizens of Salem contributed a total of $74,700 to create their warship for the common defense.

The donors didn’t just provide cash; they honed the weapon. Subscribers met at the Salem courthouse and voted on the exact kind of vessel they would build. Later, locals selected the captain who would command the ship when she was presented to the U.S. Navy three months after being launched.

Residents who couldn’t donate funds were asked to supply building materials. This newspaper advertisement ran in the Salem Gazette: “All true lovers of Liberty of your Country! Step forth and give your assistance in building the frigate to oppose French insolence and piracy. Let every man in possession of a white oak tree be ambitious…in hurrying down the timber to Salem…to maintain your rights upon the seas and make the name of America respected among the nations of the world. Your largest and longest trees are wanted.”

The privately won war

In the War of 1812 a decade and a half later, private contributions were even more vital. When the conflict broke out, the U.S. Navy possessed a total of seven frigates and less than a dozen other seagoing ships. The British Navy at that same moment numbered a thousand warships—including 175 double-gundeck “ships of the line,” of which the United States had none. The comparison by firepower was even starker: The U.S. Navy carried 450 cannons; the Royal Navy 27,800.

The British were at the absolute peak of their historic maritime power, as a young Theodore Roosevelt noted in his classic book The Naval War of 1812: “Each European nation, in turn, had learned to feel bitter dread of the weight of England’s hand. In the Baltic, Sir Samuel Hood had taught the Russians that they must needs keep in port when the English cruisers were in the offing. The descendants of the Vikings had seen their whole navy destroyed at Copenhagen. No Dutch fleet ever put out after the day when, off Camperdown, Lord Duncan took possession of De Winter’s shattered ships. But a few years before 1812, Britain’s greatest sea-fighter…had crumbled to pieces the navies of France and of Spain.”

So how did America avoid obliteration by the English juggernaut? Individually funded, decentralized warfighting—in the form of privateers. Typical records of the day from Marblehead, Massachusetts, showed that 900 local men volunteered for service during the 1812 conflict—120 of them in the Navy, 57 as soldiers, and 726 as privateersmen. Not long after hostilities were declared, there were 517 private corsairs defending the U.S. “Let every individual contribute his mite, in the best way he can to distress and harass the enemy, and compel him to peace,” urged Thomas Jefferson in 1812.

Over the course of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy captured or sunk about 300 enemy ships. Privateers captured or sunk around 2,000, blasting British trade. Maritime insurance became three times more expensive than when all of Europe was at war in the Napoleonic era.

“Privateers contributed more than the regular navy to bring about a disposition for peace in the ­British classes most responsible for the war,” concluded Henry Adams in his history of this era. The American merchants and ordinary sailors who organized themselves into private fighting units got everything they hoped for: no more impressment of U.S. seamen, a restoration of free trading, and deep respect for the ability of America’s small colonies—weak of government but strong of civil society—to defend their interests.

Harry Guggenheim, the son of one of America’s wealthiest men—mining magnate Daniel Guggenheim—volunteered as a pioneering naval pilot in World War I. He is pictured here with the shorter Jimmy Doolittle, hero flier of the Tokyo Raid. Grasping the vital role that flight would play in both war and commercial life, Harry subsequently directed much of his family’s fortune into building aeronautical engineering schools at universities across the country. By the 1960s, nearly all of America’s senior aerospace engineers were graduates of one of the Guggenheim-sponsored schools.

The birth of cryptology

Jumping forward a hundred years: Private donors and volunteers are still putting big imprints on U.S. military capacities.

George Fabyan was a classic entrepreneurial philanthropist—curious, full of passionate interests, deeply respectful of inventive thinking, distrustful of conventional wisdom and bureaucracy. A great believer in science, he set up one of America’s early private research labs, Riverbank Laboratories, on his estate near Chicago with proceeds from his textile business. Becoming interested in genetics and plant growth, he brought in a promising Cornell student to study, among other things, the effects of moonlight on wheat maturation. William Friedman went on the payroll in 1915.

Fabyan was also fascinated by secret messages and cryptography, and soon Friedman was as well. Before long, Friedman and his wife were running the lab’s Department of Codes and Ciphers and publishing a series of papers that established much of the mathematical basis for cryptanalysis. When World War I broke out, the U.S. military asked Riverbank Laboratories to train its personnel in the use of codes. Friedman became the principal instructor, and eventually an officer in the army’s cryptography unit. Throughout the war, George Fabyan’s private lab was the center for U.S. military code-making and -breaking.

Friedman eventually ran signals intelligence for the army. He headed the group that famously broke the Japanese diplomatic codes—one of the great technical breakthroughs of World War II. He helped create for America the most secure cipher machine used in the war. The organization Friedman established evolved into today’s National Security Agency, the nation’s preeminent coding, surveillance, and information-security entity. The young geneticist whom George Fabyan recruited into the world of ciphers is today described by the NSA as “the father of American cryptology.”

Mining the skies for defense and prosperity

Young Harry Guggenheim was a member of one of America’s richest families, worth around $300 million when World War I erupted. He entered military service and became a pioneering naval pilot. Returning to civilian life full of enthusiasm for the possibilities of the airplane, he convinced his father, Daniel, the mining magnate, to become a seminal backer of the science and industry of flying.

In 1925 a half-million-dollar gift from the ­Guggenheims to NYU created the nation’s first college aeronautical department. The family later established additional schools of aeronautical engineering at MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, Syracuse, Harvard, Georgia Tech, the universities of Michigan and Washington, and other campuses. The Guggenheims bankrolled a weather-tracking service for commercial pilots, and underwrote development of a gyroscope compass and other technology.

To hasten the arrival of commercial airline operations across the U.S., a Guggenheim fund was created to offer loans for the purchase of passenger planes. The fund also set up a Safe Aircraft Competition with over $150,000 in prizes to spur innovation in methods of flying passengers through bad weather, unstable air, primitive airstrips, and other adverse conditions. The Guggenheims also worked to popularize air travel by touring famous aviators like the pilot who reportedly flew Commodore Byrd over the North Pole.

They personally funded Theodore Kármán, who invented the wind tunnel and designed the DC-3 airliner and an early helicopter. By the 1960s, nearly all of America’s senior aerospace engineers were graduates of Guggenheim-sponsored schools, and the family continued to endow professorships and fund research and development to improve flying. Today, U.S. aeronautic superiority is both a huge contributor to the U.S. economy and a linchpin of our national security.

America’s other great angel of aeronautics could hardly have been more different from the ­Guggenheims, or pursued a more divergent means of bolstering flight. Raymond Orteig was a French immigrant to New York City who started as a porter at age 12 and worked his way up to owning hotels. Impressed by the good that regularized air travel could do for international understanding, economic growth, and human exploration, Orteig created one of the first great philanthropic prizes in 1919. He donated $25,000 to be awarded to any aviator and team of engineers who succeeded in flying nonstop between New York and Paris.

That distance was twice as far as anyone had managed to stay airborne to date, but Orteig’s challenge spurred continual technological improvements. Six men died in failed attempts over an eight-year period. Then in 1927, Charles Lindbergh lifted off from a Long Island airfield, buzzed across the gray Atlantic chop for 33 hours, and touched down outside Paris. Orteig, who happened to be vacationing in France, rushed to hand the pilot his check. It was estimated that Orteig’s $25,000 gift sparked 16 times that much investment in new technology, speeding America into the skies.

After he buzzed from Long Island to Paris, Charles Lindbergh collected the $25,000 prize donated by New York City philanthropist Raymond Orteig. It was no easy task—six men died in failed attempts before Lindbergh succeeded eight years after Orteig first offered his gift. It is estimated that Orteig’s challenge stimulated contestants to make 16 times that much investment in flying technology, speeding America into the skies.

Launching rocketry

Another crucial defense-related innovation that was incubated almost entirely by Guggenheim patronage was rocketry. Robert Goddard was the world’s greatest genius in rocketry, which only existed in science fiction when he penned his first articles about it in high school. After he earned a doctorate in physics at Clark ­University in 1911, Goddard’s expenses for rocket research overwhelmed his salary, and he began fundraising.

Despite launching the world’s first liquid-powered rocket in 1926 and notching other forms of progress, Goddard drew little or no support. Government and fellow scientists considered his field unserious, and the press mocked his ideas so mercilessly that he subsequently refused all publicity.

In 1929, when Goddard was the only person in the United States doing scientific work with rockets, he was befriended by Charles Lindbergh. The famed aviator connected Goddard with Daniel Guggenheim, who provided a $100,000 grant in 1930. From then until Goddard’s death in 1945, the Guggenheims were the scientist’s primary (nearly sole) supporters. They provided his salary, research funds, and the materials he needed for his many breakthroughs in rocket and jet propulsion.

Freed by their contributions from the demands of fundraising or teaching, Goddard made bold progress. He built and launched many rockets, and developed a gyroscope system to control them, as well as parachute recovery systems and other innovations. For all of this, Goddard is considered the founder of modern rocketry. The Guggenheims were the fairy godfathers.

At his death, Goddard held 214 patents and was the creator of many inventions that set the stage for the jet and rocket revolutions, and eventually space exploration. His estate continues to earn royalties every time a multi-stage booster roars skyward. Indeed, the federal government, which largely ignored his work while he was alive, agreed after Goddard’s death to pay his widow and his patrons at the Guggenheim Foundation $1 million for infringing on his patents during World War II. (Guggenheim continued to fund space research at other labs, contributing to the Mars lander and probes that traveled to Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond.)

When in 1946, a year after Goddard’s death, U.S. Army intelligence scooped up German rocketry genius Wernher von Braun and whisked him to White Sands, New Mexico, he was amazed to discover how much progress Goddard had made working alone with naught but a private donor. (Interestingly, German rocketry was also a product of civil society rather than government. In 1927 a group of enthusiasts organized themselves into the Society for Space Travel, and with donated money and time created the basics of a rocket program, until Hitler dissolved the society in 1933 and absorbed the experimenters, including von Braun, into the German army.)

Philanthropist Alfred Loomis, far right, used a fortune he built on Wall Street to create a private lab next to his home that hosted some of the world’s greatest scientists. During World War II, Loomis led U.S. production of radar, which turned the war’s tide, and he set the template for development of the atomic bomb. President Roosevelt described Loomis as second only to Winston Churchill in civilian contributions to Allied victory in the war. At the opposite edge of this photo is Loomis’s close friend, nuclear scientist and Nobelist Ernest Lawrence.

A modern Franklin prepares to battle fascism

Alfred Loomis came from a philanthropic family that created sanitariums for tuberculosis patients, funded medical research, and built up NYU, among other causes. The son and grandson of experimental physicians, he had a powerful scientific bent. But he realized it would take money to pursue science in a big way. So he made a plan.

Applying a mathematical approach, Loomis and his brother-in-law built one of the largest investment banks on Wall Street by financing rapid development of the brand-new electric-utility industry during the 1920s. From almost nothing, his firm grew to underwrite almost a sixth of all the securities issued in the U.S. Then Loomis became convinced that the stock market was overvalued and likely to collapse. In early 1929 he and his partner began transferring all their money into cash or Treasury bills. When Black Thursday hit in October of that year Loomis was not only safe, but ­well-positioned to bargain-shop. It is estimated that he made the modern equivalent of more than $700 million in the first years of the Depression, ending up one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on Wall Street, in a league similar to the Rockefellers and Morgans.

Now able to subsidize high-level scientific research, he cashed out in 1933 and threw himself into the work of the private lab he had set up during the mid-1920s in a rehabbed mansion near his home north of New York City. The Loomis Laboratory became one of the world’s great research institutes, better equipped than top academic or corporate labs, and visited by many of the world’s leading scientists.

Loomis had a special ability to crash-study a new subject and quickly become expert. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he used his fortune to conduct pathbreaking experiments, alone and with other scientists, on ultrasound, radiometry, the precise measurement of time, and many other subjects. He created the techniques for monitoring brain waves, discovered new sleep states, and co-invented the microscope centrifuge. He also funded scores of other researchers and built up the science departments at universities like MIT. When Yale gave him an honorary degree, the citation compared him to the American who had best combined science and philanthropy: “In his varied interests, his powers of invention, and his services to his fellow man, Mr. Loomis is the twentieth century Benjamin Franklin.”

Travels to Germany in the late ’30s left Loomis disturbed over both the popularity of Hitler and the gathering technical might of the Germans. Biographer Jennet Conant summarizes his next dramatic move: “Long before the government moved to enlist scientists to develop advanced weapons, Loomis had assessed the situation and concluded it was critical that the country be as informed as possible about which technologies would matter in the future war. He scrapped all his experiments and turned [his lab] into his personal civilian research project, then began recruiting the brightest minds he could find to help him take measure of the enemy’s capabilities and start working on new gadgets and devices for defense purposes.”

Winning WWII with radar

Loomis put his main focus on using radio waves to detect and fix the location of objects—what eventually became known as radar. He immersed himself in the field, recruited academics, studied England’s successes, then launched a series of intensive practical experiments. This work drew on several areas of science where Loomis personally was a scientific leader—wave behavior, electromagnetic spectrum research, and precise measurement of time. Within a year the Loomis Radiation Laboratory had completed basic research, achieved breakthroughs in making ­radio-detection practical, and created a working prototype radar mounted in a converted diaper-delivery truck. Loomis had made himself one of the world’s experts on radio-location.

At just this point, bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor, kicking Loomis into overdrive. Back in World War I he had volunteered for service and been sent to test new weapons at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. The experience left him amazed at the sluggishness and resistance to change of the military establishment, and government generally. As this next, more terrible, war broke out, Loomis understood as few others did how important technical breakthroughs would be in determining the winner, and how much America’s deep bench of scientists could contribute to victory. He made it his personal mission to prevent bureaucracy from gumming up America’s magnificently inventive industrial machinery and blocking vital military innovations.

Loomis’s leadership skills were even more essential to his success than his scientific perspicacity. When a small group of British scientists arrived in the U.S. on a secret mission to share their radar secrets in the hope that the Americans could make the technology more usable, precise, and widely available to Allied fighting forces, Loomis was the catalyst in instantly understanding their crucial breakthroughs, pressing U.S. military and civilian authorities to build on them, and then orchestrating important refinements and advances beyond the British technology.

He moved all of his valuable personal equipment and prototype findings to MIT, which had its own radar project (funded by him). When Congress was slow to approve the support needed to ramp up the MIT lab, Loomis began paying expenses out of his own pocket. Then he convinced MIT, on whose board he served, to advance the project $500,000, and he appealed to his friend John Rockefeller Jr. to advance another half million. (When government funding finally came through, MIT and Rockefeller were repaid.) Most importantly, Loomis and his close friend Ernest Lawrence, the Nobel-laureate physicist, used their credibility with many of America’s top scientific minds to recruit them to drop everything and go to work in Loomis’s new radar lab. Nearly all agreed.

“They had no official appointment from the federal government to do this. But Loomis got them all talked into doing it,” one observer wrote later, “and it’s a good thing they did.” Loomis, who recognized the power and efficiency of “American individualism and laissez-faire” and believed that most progress came from “free agency and freedom from politics,” fiercely protected the scientists from interference in their work and encouraged them to follow their own individual and team judgments to make the fastest possible progress. As Lawrence told an interviewer, “If Alfred Loomis had not existed, radar development would have been retarded greatly, at an enormous cost in American lives.”

Very soon, the Loomis lab had not only mastered the science and technique of radar, but had designed nearly 100 different lifesaving and war-ending products. By June 1943, the Army and Navy had ordered 22,000 radar sets from the lab. These had many vital effects. Radar shot down Luftwaffe planes and kept the Germans from defeating England. Radar ended the U-boat menace, saving tens of thousands of lives and allowing the crucial output of American industry to be transported to our European allies. Radar negated Germany’s leading technical breakthrough, the V-rocket. Radar gave our pilots and ship captains the ability to detect menaces, to direct fire, and to survive bad weather and night conditions that would otherwise have thwarted or killed them.

Loomis also personally dreamed up the pioneering long-range navigation system called LORAN. Perfected in his lab over the original indifference of military agencies, its debut in combat changed everything for American and Allied wartime navigators. Until the recent arrival of satellite GPS, LORAN continued to serve for decades as the exclusive global positioning system. Fourteen years after World War II ended, Alfred Loomis was awarded patent #2,884,628 for inventing the original system of long-range navigation.

From radar to radioactivity

Contemporary observers concluded that “radar won World War II; the atom bomb ended it.” As it happened, Alfred Loomis also had a lot to do with that latter triumph. He was a friend and important supporter of Enrico Fermi as Fermi led investigations into nuclear fission. And Loomis was the key champion and lead private funder of Ernest Lawrence’s development of cyclotrons at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to putting his own money behind Lawrence, Loomis made it his mission to convince other donors to back this highly speculative project—eventually ­sweet-talking a climactic $1.15 million contribution out of the Rockefeller Foundation.

As soon as Lawrence’s cyclotron was funded, Loomis plucked off his philanthropist cap and donned his entrepreneur/financier hat in order to beg and bully America’s leading industrial corporations into finding the large quantities of iron, copper, electronics, and other war-constrained commodities needed to build the giant machine. Lawrence was astonished by the Wall Street titan’s ability to marshal commercial cooperation. The cyclotron was subsequently used to laboriously purify the uranium for the first atomic explosions.

Harkening back to the Orteig Prize, the Ansari family and other donors put up $10 million to accelerate private space travel. Their X Prize philanthropic competition led to hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in non-governmental space-launch efforts. The SpaceX organization, funded by entrepreneur and philanthropist Elon Musk, is one of the outgrowths of the X Prize. Today, this private entity is at the center of U.S. space cargo delivery and future space travel. Other donors like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are also now subsidizing private innovation in space.

Loomis’s broader contribution to the Manhattan Project was the modus operandi he pioneered in his private lab and then expanded on a large scale in the MIT radiation lab he oversaw during the war. The race to create the atomic bomb followed the Loomis formula: collect the best minds without regard to their immediate expertise, give them superb equipment and material support, guard their freedom to experiment, and encourage collegial exchanges of information and shared problem-solving. Nobel physicist Luis ­Alvarez, who worked in the radar lab and then created the A-bomb detonator for the Manhattan Project, credited Loomis’s interventions for “the remarkable lack of administrative roadblocks experienced by…the builders of the atomic bombs.”

Nearly all of Loomis’s top hand-picked physicists were quietly pulled out of his radar lab when the ­Manhattan Project was launched and sent to Los Alamos or one of the other project sites. Loomis acquiesced because he had long been pushing for exactly this crash program, alarmed as he was by military complacency that viewed atomic weapons as something to think about for “the next war,” the dawdling pace of government research to that point, and the real possibility of German scientists being first to the bomb.

President Roosevelt described Loomis as second only to Winston Churchill in contributions to the Allied victory in World War II. After the war, Loomis helped institutionalize his entrepreneurial style of defense research by becoming an influential founding trustee of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit established to apply the best scientific ideas to national defense. With funding from the Ford Foundation and other donors, RAND promoted multi-stage rockets, intercontinental missiles, magnetic-core computer memory, the building blocks of the future Internet, and many other innovations. The Loomis imprint can also be seen on DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that picked up the mantle of the Loomis lab and carried it throughout the post-war era. (Alfred Loomis also left behind a flesh-and-blood embodiment of his whirlwind entrepreneurial giving: His great-grandson is Reed Hastings—who as CEO of Netflix and one of the most influential progenitors of charter schools has been a huge game-changer in both business and philanthropy.) 

Philanthropy’s entrepreneurial advantage

Philanthropists have continued to make important contributions to national defense right up to the present. The field of artificial intelligence was inaugurated in the 1950s with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. When government efforts in space reached exhaustion in the 1990s, a group of private donors led by the Ansari family offered a $10 million X Prize that stirred up a supernova of new ideas and energy.

Modeled on the Orteig Prize that jumpstarted trans-Atlantic flight, the X Prize sought to initiate private space travel. It promised its award to any non-governmental team that could launch a ­three-passenger vehicle at least 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. In 2004, a group bankrolled by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was the first to meet the requirements. That success inspired the X Prize Foundation to subsequently offer more prizes for achievements in rocketry, 100-mile-per-gallon vehicles, techniques for cleaning up oil spills, and other causes. Currently active is a $20 million prize for any private team that successfully lands a rover on the moon.

The Ansari X Prize dramatically accelerated non-governmental work on space transport. More than two dozen teams invested over $100 million in pursuit of the original award, and the companies created out of the philanthropic competition later received billions of dollars in additional private investment. One of the ventures formed amidst this excitement was the SpaceX organization funded by entrepreneur and philanthropist Elon Musk.

In 2012, SpaceX became the first private entity to deliver a cargo payload to the International Space Station. With NASA experiencing serious design failures, cost overruns, and bureaucratic sclerosis, the SpaceX Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule have become crucial elements in U.S. plans for spaceflight over the next generation. Other individuals, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and entrepreneur Richard Branson, are also using personal wealth to subsidize creation of spacecraft that may become important in the future.

There are other philanthropies that have been created to fill gaps after governmental efforts in space have disappointed. We know that if a large asteroid strikes Earth, the results would be catastrophic for humans. There is thus considerable interest among scientists, and many philanthropists, in mapping all asteroids with orbits that could be dangerous, then studying ways of deflecting or destroying them. After a small meteor injured 1,200 people when it exploded over Russia in 2013, Congress held hearings on this topic. These indicated that nonprofit efforts at asteroid defense like those of the B612 Foundation (funded by individual givers, philanthropies like and the William Bowes Foundation, and firms like eBay and ­Facebook) could accomplish necessary tasks at about half the cost of stalled government efforts.

In the era of just as in the days of Loomis Laboratories, it is not unusual for government programs to be outrun by entrepreneurial philanthropy. In recent undertakings as various as the decoding of the human genome or the creation of our next generation of vehicles for astronauts, private givers have outstripped official efforts that were thought to be the sole province of federal authorities. National defense is of course the ultimate government responsibility and prerogative. Yet even here, as many inventive patriots have shown, there is ample room for generous donors to come to the aid of their country.

Karl Zinsmeister has done extensive military reporting in books, magazines, and documentary film. The history covered here is included in the Almanac of American Philanthropy.

Building the Human Side of National Security The human side of national defense is a focus of several donors today. They invest in new scholarship, support ­intelligence-gathering, build cultural understanding, and more.

Because turnover in leadership is so frequent and the challenge of managing day-to-day crises so ­all-consuming, government is often poor at setting long-term strategies in national security. Many current funders give year-over-year support to working groups to delve into big-picture goals and gnarly security questions. While some ideas never gain traction, others affect government policy for years to come. 

In the early ’80s the Heritage Foundation published research on the possibility of building defenses against incoming nuclear missiles. Called the High Frontier study, it was adopted by President Reagan and sparked major new efforts in missile defense. More recently, AEI scholar Frederick Kagan authored a report at the nadir of the Iraq war called “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq” that made the case for increased troop levels, leading to the successful Surge. Both AEI and Heritage are entirely donor-supported. 

Grants don’t have to be massive to be helpful in this area. The Stuart Family Foundation, an Illinois-based philanthropy with $11 million in assets, keeps Turkey on the map at the Bipartisan Policy Center with regular gifts. While beltway opinion waxes and wanes on ­Turkey’s importance to the West, the center pays steady attention. Stuart also supports America Abroad Media, which broadcasts a U.S. perspective on world events in overseas markets and co-produces documentaries, news programming, and debates. Episodes have included a segment on ending child marriage, a town hall on Jordan’s response to the humanitarian crises in Syria and Iraq, and responses from Estonians, Japanese, and Saudi Arabians on the wisdom of U.S. defense cuts.

The Jamestown Foundation, originally founded to support Soviet dissidents, published intelligence that, for instance, helped Romania become free. With donor support, the foundation still collects and shares intelligence from authoritarian groups and societies. Foundations and individuals like investor Vincent Viola have funded the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point to track militant imagery and analyze important themes.

As informal global networks grow, there is even more opportunity to make connections outside of official state-to-state diplomacy. Ross Perot Jr. and his wife, Sarah, have funded, through the EastWest Institute that he chairs, opportunities for members of today’s Chinese Communist Party to meet with representatives from the American Republican and Democratic parties. Delegates rotate between the U.S. and China, getting to know each other’s priorities and culture.

When diplomacy fails, some donors have taken on life-and-death matters. Ross Perot Sr. spent many millions of dollars supporting U.S. POWs in Vietnam, educating public opinion on the subject, and pressing governments for their release. He became a trusted figure in military special-operations circles, and later used those connections and personal funds to rescue two of his employees unjustly imprisoned in Iran.

Other donors invest in the next generation of thinkers, building fields of knowledge one dissertation at a time. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation’s national security portfolio supports fellows in graduate and post-graduate programs and connects them to top scholars it has identified—Eliot Cohen at SAIS, Stephen Rosen at Harvard, Aaron Friedberg at Princeton, to name a few. Bradley also funds a working group on the use of military history to understand contemporary conflicts, led by Victor Davis Hanson at the Hoover Institution. The Hertog Foundation educates undergraduates through its two-week War Studies Program. The Smith Richardson Foundation supports a strategic array of scholarship ranging from examining the writings of Anwar al-Awlaki to holding West Point summer ­seminars in military history. The foundation also has two special initiatives to foster bright young scholars: one is a yearly competition for an extended book grant, and the second is another competition centered on doctoral dissertations in world politics. 

The George and Carol Olmsted Foundation has for decades funded overseas training of active duty military officers and students at the military academies. Its scholarships let these leaders study culture, history, languages, and other skills useful in security conflicts for up to two years in a non-English speaking country. Former Olmsted Scholars include national security adviser Robert ­McFarlane, General John Abizaid, and Navy Admiral Carl Trost.

In these and many other ways, funders help Americans navigate a dangerous world with open eyes and imagination. —Ashley May

Let’s Keep in Touch

Our Values-Based Giving Newsletter helps philanthropists and charitable organizations apply their values to their giving and follow the best practices for success.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.