As part of our research on the history of philanthropy, I recently investigated several case studies of early field growth, especially those in which philanthropists purposely tried to grow the size and impact of a (typically) young and small field of research or advocacy.

The full report includes brief case studies of bioethics, cryonics, molecular nanotechnology, neoliberalism, the conservative legal movement, American geriatrics, American environmentalism, and animal advocacy. My key takeaways are:

  • Most of the “obvious” methods for building up a young field have been tried, and those methods often work. For example, when trying to build up a young field of academic research, it often works to fund workshops, conferences, fellowships, courses, professorships, centers, requests for proposals, etc. Or when trying to build up a new advocacy community, it often works to fund student clubs, local gatherings, popular media, etc.
  • Fields vary hugely along several dimensions, including (1) primary sources of funding (e.g. large philanthropists, many small donors, governments, companies), (2) whether engaged philanthropists were “active” or “passive” in their funding strategy, and (3) how much the growth of the field can be attributed to endogenous factors (e.g. explicit movement-building work) vs. exogenous factors (e.g. changing geopolitical conditions).

Besides these major takeaways, I also learned many more specific things about particular fields. For example:

  • The rise of bioethics seems to be a case study in the transfer of authority over a domain (medical ethics) from one group (doctors) to another (bioethicists), in large part due to the first group’s relative neglect of that domain. [More]
  • In the case of cryonics and molecular nanotechnology, plausibly growth-stunting adversarial dynamics arose between advocates of these young fields and the scientists in adjacent fields (cryobiology and chemistry, respectively). These adversarial dynamics seem to have arisen, in part, due to the young fields’ early focus on popular outreach prior to doing much scientific or technical work, and their disparagement of those in adjacent fields. [More]
  • The rise of neoliberalism is a victory for an explicit strategy of decades-long investment in the academic development and intellectual spreading of a particular set of ideas, though this model may not work as well when the ideas themselves don’t happen to benefit a naturally well-resourced set of funders (large corporations and their wealthy owners, as in the case of neoliberalism). [More]
  • A small group of funders of the conservative legal movement managed to critique their own (joint) strategy, change course, and succeed as a result. [More]
  • The rise of the environmental and animal advocacy movements contrast sharply with the cases above, both because they grew mostly via a large network of small funders rather than a small network of large funders, and because many of those movements’ activities do not materially benefit any funder or political actor (e.g. in the case of wilderness preservation or campaigns against factory farming). [More]

For more detail, see the full report.


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I regularly refer back to this piece when thinking about movement-building or grants in that space. It provides a lot of really thoroughly-researched historical evidence as well as clear insight. It's a shame that it only has a few karma on the forum - I wouldn't want that to cloud its significance for the decade review.