Would you donate to a charity that won’t pay out for centuries?

Photos: Getty Images, Photoillustration: Javier Zarracina/Vox

A new philanthropic initiative aims to act as an insurance policy for humanity’s future.

A French mathematician once tried to make fun of Benjamin Franklin. He wrote a spoof of Franklin’s economic views, joking that he’d probably do something super weird, like leave money in his will for charity but stipulate that it has to sit collecting interest for hundreds of years before it can be spent.

Franklin knew this was intended as mockery — but he thought it was a brilliant idea. In 1785, he wrote to the mathematician, Charles-Joseph Mathon de la Cour, to thank him for the inspiration. Then he drafted a will leaving £1,000 each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, but stipulating that the money be invested for 100 years, with part of it being disbursed after that and the balance to be distributed completely in 200 years.

It worked out great: In the 1990s, Boston got around $5 million and Philadelphia $2.3 million, all to be spent on charitable causes.

Franklin’s experiment was an early example of what philanthropists today call “investing to give,” where you invest money for profit (rather than donating it right away) in order to have a greater impact later. This is an unorthodox approach to giving, and there’s lots of room for debate about its pros and cons, but it is a potentially huge impact multiplier in philanthropy. Now, a new philanthropic initiative is seeking to do what Franklin did, but not just for Boston and Philadelphia — for the whole world.

Founders Pledge, an organization that guides entrepreneurs committed to donating a portion of their income to effective charities, has launched the Patient Philanthropy Fund (PPF) aimed at safeguarding the long-term future of humanity.

The fund has launched with $1 million, courtesy of donors such as Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn. That’s not very much for now, but the goal is to hit $100 million in the next 10 years and spin out the fund into its own charitable organization. The PPF is collecting donations that will sit in investments — maybe for decades, maybe for centuries — earning compounding returns until the fund managers decide humanity has hit a moment when the money is needed most.

How will they know when we’ve hit such a moment? “The fund will end up doing the most good in those cases where there’s either a really sharp spike in need or a fall in funding,” Philip Trammell, whose work in economics at Oxford University inspired the new fund, told me.

Humanity might experience a sharp spike in need if there’s an emerging pandemic that’s much worse than Covid-19. Or a great-powers war. Or an asteroid that could end up on a collision course with Earth.

We want to be able to prevent such massive catastrophes (say, by funding asteroid monitoring), or at least intervene quickly when they do arise (say, by standing up a good asteroid deflection program). These types of causes are underfunded relative to how consequential they could be (in the asteroid’s case, it’s pretty low-risk — but if it does happen, it could be existential).

Trammell also wants the fund to be able to step in when funding from other sources collapses. “In the past year, the MacArthur Foundation, which was the largest single foundation funding nuclear security efforts — looking into paths for nuclear disarmament and so on — cut its funding from the area,” he told me. “That resulted in something like a halving of philanthropic funding for nuclear security.”

In the future, if major funders of crucial causes like AI safety or biosecurity should drop out, Trammell wants the PPF at the ready. Its managers plan to watch for opportunities to help with issues like this — and pounce at just the moment when an infusion of cash could do the most good.

The fund signals a milestone for a growing intellectual movement: longtermism

The PPF, the world’s first fund of this kind, is an outgrowth of a movement called longtermism.

In a nutshell, longtermists argue that future people matter morally just as much as people alive today; that there may well be more people alive in the future than there are in the present or have been in the past; and that we can positively affect future peoples’ lives.

From the perspective of a longtermist like Trammell, the trouble is that people tend to place more value on the present than on the future. (Just think of every time you’ve eaten a sugary snack even though you know it’s bad for your health in the long term.)

As economists would say, we “discount” the future. Because we exhibit this time preference, and our governments respond to our preferences, they’re incentivized to prioritize the now — not what’s best for future generations.

This is a problem among philanthropists, too, Trammell said. “There are reasons to think that people systematically spend too quickly,” he told me. “There’s a lot of social pressure, for instance, on philanthropists to look good by spending quickly.”

What we need, Trammell argues, are more “patient” philanthropists who will make up for the “impatience” of everyone else. By pooling their money into a fund, they can buy humanity a sort of insurance policy against its own short-sightedness.

How much of our money should we be “patient” with?

Although longtermists think we should focus more on the future, there are plenty of “neartermists” who tend to think we should focus more resources on current problems like global poverty, health, and well-being.

After all, billions of people — and billions more animals — endure tremendous suffering every day. Many of us think we’ve got at least some moral duty to help them. And the great thing is, some of these current problems are highly tractable — we already have cost-effective solutions to save human lives.

As my colleague Kelsey Piper has noted, there’s “low-hanging fruit” to be reaped by funding global health and development right now. Plus, giving now can cultivate a habit of generosity in us.

Trammell says problems like poverty are absolutely worth donating toward today. But in his opinion, the current neglect of “patient” longtermism militates in favor of moving more funds in that direction.

“Ultimately, my best-case scenario is that this just becomes a normal thing for people to do,” Trammell said. “It’s sort of just like, we’re all going to chip in a little bit for insurance.”

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!