Moonshot philanthropy: the audacious approach to giving that delivers lasting change

Moonshot philanthropy has the capacity to solve real, global challenges — and we could all learn from the approach.

Moonshot philanthropy has the capacity to solve real, global challenges — and we could all learn from the approach. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

James Chen
Chair, Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, Hong Kong SAR
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  • Scattershot approaches to philanthropy are good — but, to deliver lasting change, focused and sustained giving is a better approach.
  • Inspired by President JFK's 1962 'moonshot' address, moonshot philanthropy focuses the capital, expertise and networks of high-net-worth individuals on specific, contained challenges.
  • The philosophy of moonshot philanthropy — ambitious, targeted change and the willingness to learn from failure — can be applied by anyone.

John F. Kennedy’s landmark ‘moonshot’ address in 1962 committed his country to the audacious goal of placing a man on the moon within a decade. JFK calculated that the opportunity to deliver lasting change far outweighed the chances of failure.

Applying this kind of moonshot thinking to philanthropy — moonshot philanthropy — can deliver lasting change, but it requires donors to be similarly bold.

Moonshot philanthropy calls on high-net-worth individuals to invest capital, time and expertise into high-risk, early-stage innovations with the potential to achieve disruptive impact.

There are three elemental building blocks that form this model in the philanthropic space: the willingness to take risks, absorption of failure and adoption of a single-issue approach. Indeed, it’s likely that many people already apply moonshot thinking in their everyday lives without even knowing it — and this is particularly true for those high net worth individuals who have already achieved great things.

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Why moonshot philanthropy works

Unlike private sector venture capitalists, moonshot philanthropists operate with an understanding that while short-term return on investment is unlikely, they can use their significant wealth to make longer-term progress against specific ambitious goals.

Take, for example, the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation’s Clearly campaign urged international institutions to take on the challenge of providing vision correction to everyone who needs it. Giving the 2.5 billion people all around the world affected by poor vision glasses or other assistance is a mammoth task — but it also represents a clear opportunity. In a trial of Indian tea pickers, having their vision corrected meant a more than 20% productivity boost; not to mention the quality-of-life improvements they all experienced.

Clearly’s campaign ultimately pushed international bodies like the World Bank and UN to take vision correction seriously — and to start viewing it as an opportunity. The campaign afforded monumental strides in addressing the challenge of vision correction, attested by both the Commonwealth landmark decision of ‘quality eye care for all’ in 2018 and the UN adopting its first ever resolution on vision in 2021.

This campaign is an example of the transformative potential of moonshot philanthropy. The issue, global inaccessibility to vision correction, was huge — but the willingness to address it was there, and now progress is being made. This approach is replicable the world over.

Moonshot philanthropy does not necessarily rely on a sole donor to deliver real change. It depends on sharing domain expertise and trusting the experts on the ground to identify issues and lead on solutions. However, it is a method that can be only successfully executed in pursuit of a sole cause.

To scale this maverick thinking and to enact real change, we need collective and concerted action from ultra-high net worth (UHNW) individuals. One-off donations, however sizable in sum, cannot replace what could be achieved if all UHNW individuals took on a single cause and sought to make societal change.

Grounding the moonshot

Common critiques of philanthropy usually focus on the most obvious element: the money. Indeed, moonshot as a way of giving is incumbent on personal wealth on the scale that most people will never come close to. Moonshot philanthropy simply cannot be deployed by everyone — but for those it is available to, there is nothing more impactful for current and future generations that they can do with their money.

The risk of any moonshot venture is failure. Without trusting in the next generation of extraordinary thinkers and without the tangible possibility of failure, how could we ever truly overcome climate change, poverty, health inequity or any of the other historical challenges we now face?

To support the pipeline of disruptive innovation we must take on the lessons of President JFK’s moonshot thinking and make them a reality at home. We must embrace the moonshot philanthropy model as a way of thinking to drive a new era of truly transformative ventures.

Anyone can take on the moonshot approach

Those without the sizeable capital required to take on a moonshot project can take on moonshot thinking in their own lives, too. We all have the ability to practice the formula of successful innovation: learning from failure.

Many view the first failure as a deterrent to furthering extraordinary ideas. Viewing a misfire as an opportunity to once again test bold new ideas, absorb the consequences of setbacks and to learn and go again is the method of thinking that will accelerate real change, on an individual and societal level.

Everyone can and should draw on the spirit of JFK’s 1962 speech and adopt moonshot thinking in their own lives. For it is only through our collective efforts, a shared vision and expertise that we can drive true, sustained and equitable change, for the good of all.

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