Moonshot Philanthropy

One small step, or a giant leap?

By Karl Wilding
Moonshot philanthropy is an emerging approach where philanthropists deploy capital at scale to accelerate ambitious but achievable ideas or interventions.

In an era of complex global challenges, solutions often seem out of reach – much like setting foot on the moon did just two generations ago when US President John F Kennedy set out the first ‘moonshot goal’ of landing a man [sic] safely on the moon and returning him to earth safely. Reaching the moon required ambition, scale, and expertise, with less computing power than a modern smartphone. Tackling today’s ‘wicked’ problems, such as climate change, curing cancer or rising polarisation, might require a similar audacious approach, albeit with new tools. Enter ‘moonshot philanthropy.’

Man walks on the Moon - 1969 newspapers (Kennedy Space Center)
Man walks on the Moon – 1969 newspapers (Kennedy Space Center)

Moonshot philanthropy is an emerging approach where philanthropists deploy capital at scale to accelerate ambitious but achievable ideas or interventions. It is characterised by working with communities and experts across business and government. It is an approach that emphasises learning from failure, long-term (10+ years) commitment and stretching goals.

Traditional philanthropic approaches have their merits but also face criticism. The vogue for large scale, ambitious investments – aka ‘Big Bets’ and ‘audacious’ philanthropy – might seem out of step amid calls for community, trust-based giving. Moreover, approaches that aim for measurable difference at scale have been argued to prioritise quantifiable solutions over complex problems where no obvious solution is in sight.

Moonshot philanthropy seeks to address these limitations. The approach aims to “privatise failure and socialise success” such that donors bear the financial risk whilst the rewards are made available to all, and to remain humble in the pursuit of ambitious goals. Importantly, it may unlock significant capital sums from donors more motivated by catalytic than incremental change. This matters because scarcity of funding is arguably the biggest barrier for those seeking to solve society’s problems.

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Examples of successful moonshot philanthropy range from funding civil rights and equalities campaigns to the eradication of polio. Current moonshots include finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, developing carbon-free cement, and tackling deforestation to combat climate change – aligning with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The moonshot approach is attracting significant interest across the public and private sectors. But it is worth remembering that the next moonshot attempted by a US President was Nixon’s ‘War on Cancer’ – a failure. And moonshot approaches can be applied too often, without sufficient clarity about why the approach is suitable.

Mission-based approaches are a promising way of scaling innovations that address humanity’s most pressing problems, but this remains emerging practice. If moonshot philanthropy is to inspire a new generation of philanthropists, we need a better understanding of what constitutes a good moonshot. What ingredients maximise the chances of a moonshot succeeding? And to what problems is the moonshot approach best suited? As our research begins to address these and other questions, we are also interested in whether the approach addresses some of the dominant criticisms of philanthropy.

If you are involved in tackling a moonshot goal – either as a donor or a partner – and are willing to talk about your experience and share your learning, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact me, Dr Karl Wilding, at

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