In Defense of Moonshots: True Social Innovation Requires Taking Risks

Social impact leaders need to think differently to drive innovation in the social impact space and work with funders on a different investment approach to social impact — Moonshot Philanthropy.

Eric Ressler
January 17, 2023

We have written about the power of unrestricted funding and effective altruism and how Jeff Bezos is A/B testing philanthropy. These approaches to philanthropy are based on giving to established and proven organizations. A great deal of effort is spent on ensuring that effective altruism is, in fact, effective.

While we’re all for this type of philanthropy, we want to encourage an additional type of investment in the social impact space — an approach that can drive innovation in the traditionally risk-averse social impact sector: Moonshot Philanthropy.

What is Moonshot Philanthropy?

In much the same way that we encourage nonprofits to embrace the strategies of digital media companies to win in the attention economy, we are looking to the business world and an unexpected source of inspiration — government — to understand the benefits of a moonshot philanthropy approach.

In business, one of the most well-known examples is Google X, renamed X Development LLC in 2015. The self-described “Moonshot Factory” has the stated goal of, “...10x impact on the world’s most intractable problems, not just 10% improvement.” They “...approach projects that have the aspiration and riskiness of research with the speed and ambition of a startup.”

One of the best known moonshot notions in government, (besides the famous Apollo 11 mission to the moon) is the ‘cancer moonshot’ effort that President Biden spearheaded when he was vice president. Their stated goal was, “To make a decade’s worth of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, in five years.”

In general, the concept is to invest in new, novel, or underfunded ideas or approaches with the view that a major breakthrough can come from one or more of these investments. By their nature they are risky. The philosophy behind moonshot investing involves understanding that some ideas won’t bear fruit. X Development encourages a mindset that kills off ideas as soon as they are proven unfeasible. This is considered a successful outcome. The moonshot approach involves exploring lots of new ideas, many of which will fail, but a few that create exponential impact.

Moonshot philanthropy follows this same model. A moonshot philanthropist (or philanthropic organization) funds a project or organization that is trying or proposing something new in the social impact space. They develop a proof of concept, quickly shut down prospects that lack feasibility, and advance ideas with potential.

A Recent Public-Private Moonshot Example

The mRNA Covid-19 vaccines that have helped combat the recent pandemic and saved countless lives are a result of research that began as early as 1989. The development of mRNA to produce these vaccines was accelerated by government investment in early 2020 as part of the Operation Warp Speed public-private partnership. Initially funded with $10B, funding was increased to about $18B by October 2020. This was moonshot funding aimed at ending the Covid-19 pandemic and saving lives. Today, mRNA vaccines are being developed for cancer, Ebola, HIV, influenza, Malaria, Tuberculosis, Zika, and more.

Advantage of Moonshot Philanthropy

New approaches to solving intractable problems are risky. Modern philanthropy and social impact investing tends to be risk-averse. Funders want to invest in something that they know will produce results. They don’t want to be seen as “wasting money”. This is a prudent approach.

By accepting risk, moonshot philanthropy can open the doors to innovation. It aims for something similar to the 10x impact over 10% improvement results that X strives for. A breakthrough on that scale could be transformative. These are high-risk/high-reward investments. While many won’t pay off, the goal is to learn from the ones that don’t work out and have some deliver big. Big successes could move the social impact sector and a specific cause forward in a significant way.

Innovation is needed in the Social Impact Sector

It takes courage to try novel approaches when there is risk of failure. It also requires bravery, tenacity, and optimism to fund them. But we believe that the slow incremental progress we often see in the social impact space must be complemented by moonshots to propel us forward and create much greater impact than what we see today. Unfortunately, we don’t find support for backing moonshots as often as we’d like.

Innovation in the social impact sector is vital. We strongly encourage every social impact organization to leverage the power of the information era. That innovation keeps them relevant, helps maintain and grow their supporter base, and earns awareness in the time of the attention economy. Without moonshot philanthropy, innovation will come slowly. We believe that it’s possible to accelerate change by developing new ideas and approaches.

Funders Need Moonshot Ideas to Support

We need social impact leaders thinking differently to drive innovation. Without some out-of-box thinking there’s nothing bold for funders to support. Leaders should dream big and express new approaches through their digital media. Give your staff permission to put current constraints aside and think about radical new ways to address the cause you address to move humanity forward.

Put your organization’s big ideas out there. Get your thoughts in front of a moonshot philanthropist. You could be thinking about a game-changing breakthrough right now that could transform the sector and/or significantly impact your cause.

Who Should Fund Moonshot Approaches?

It’s time that philanthropic organizations, family offices, and individual philanthropists place the proper emphasis and investment into this niche. Small dollar donors won’t (and probably shouldn’t) fund moonshots. Proven social impact organizations need their support to fund ongoing activities. Wealthy individuals, government agencies, and well-endowed foundations must be the source of funds for these ventures. They are in the best position to back moonshot social impact approaches.

Funders should think about investing in moonshot ideas in the same way one might think of a financial investment portfolio. You want some safe, dependable investments that consistently produce results. But a balanced portfolio often includes higher risk/reward investments as well — ones that could possibly produce a significant return.

We understand that the risk to reputation is also an element of moonshot philanthropy. No funder wants to be seen as supporting ideas and organizations that fail. But think about VC firms. They fund lots of startups that fail. But that’s not what they are known for. Their reputation is built on the successes that come out of the process of investing in ideas and people, quickly ending projects that don’t work out, and developing concepts that have the potential to shake everything up.

“Because They Are Hard”

To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy’s ‘Choose the Moon’ speech, we need moonshot philanthropy because innovation is hard. That’s not to say that traditional philanthropy is easy. It takes a lot of work to vet organizations to be sure that they are as effective as possible. When you have confidence in an organization, funding them and their approach is a no-brainer, and brilliant organizations everywhere need that funding.

Funding unknown ideas and approaching social impact work with an open beginner’s mindset is difficult — and risky. We believe that it’s vital to making progress and finding bold solutions that can propel change. It’s time for the social impact space to aim for the moon in terms of creating impact. We need organizations and people to step up and take on extra risk in order to produce greater change than we currently see in our sector.

Let’s reach for the moon and take everyone on earth with us.

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