If you are considering making philanthropic donations to psychedelic work, here are a few funding principles to keep in mind.
Funders who conduct a proper examination of motive, of organization leadership, and of potential impact have the potential to revolutionize mental healthcare in this country. But new opportunities for growth come with new risks. Greed is a powerful force right now, and mitigating it is right and proper for any charitable endeavor.
And by charitable I mean work with any tax vehicle. Too often a false dichotomy exists between nonprofit and for-profit spaces, but one can do good and generous work under either designation. Despite popular convention, greed is not limited to for-profit vehicles.
The pool of major funders in this space is extremely limited. Fundraising for nonprofits (the work I do) can feel like frogs fighting over a very small lily pad.
Two philosophies seem to be emerging: ballot measures, as we see in Oregon and Washington DC, and lobbying efforts with local elected leaders, as we see in Oakland.
Ballot measures are much more expensive, and their viability varies from state to state, but this approach has several benefits that make them a worthwhile option. One, they’re relatively testable. Early polling can indicate (within a margin of error) a sense of the viability of an initiative. They also apply statewide, a less tedious and more expedited way to accomplish impact.
Lobbying work through local elected officials is painstakingly slow, but it comes with advantages. One is cost -- funding grassroots lobbying work (which often happens through volunteers) is extremely cost-effective. Another is the ability of the work to respond well to local voices and be crafted with nuance to reflect individual communities. The biggest variable here is humans. Funders have very little control over the personalities and motivations of a small group of elected officials. What’s more, there are few well-organized lobbying groups with the message discipline necessary to find success across the political landscape. The message is therefore in the hands of amateurs, some of whom have a tendency to go off-message. By its very nature, psychedelics filter for anti-authoritarian and contrarian personalities. Don’t be surprised when they emerge in your funding work.
For funders: I recommend a two-fold approach. First, fund every elected official who is brave enough to come out publicly in supporting psychedelics. Invest in the people, not the direct policy outcomes. Second, give your full-throated support to ballot measures when you believe they have a chance of success. Just make sure to balance your expected risk and plan your budget according -- most ballot measures have a slim chance of success.
Who does it well:
In politics, psychedelic legalization can run parallel to cannabis reform. But in research, they are very different. It’s been written about ad nauseam, but I’ll repeat it again here: Psychedelics offer real potential for us to save ourselves from depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and a host of other growing threats to public health. As of this writing, many organizations are emerging to do this research.
Here greed enters again. Much of the research is being carried out by for-profit companies who adapt a naturally occurring plant just enough so that they can patent it. Right now it seems like 1-3 sessions of psychedelics is enough to make a measurable impact on the above medical conditions, but short-term usage doesn’t lend itself well to profit. Drug companies want you to keep renewing your monthly supply.
Even more troubling, most of the venture capital decks I’ve seen give no credence to the therapeutic practice of integration and therapeutic guidance after using a substance. Mindset and setting (two important variables in psychedelic therapy) are often ignored by the traditional pharmaceutical approach.
The dangers of a difficult trip are real, but the risks aren’t over when it ends. Even if all goes well, most practitioners recommend a period of putting the pieces back together after the journey is complete. This “integration” phase is crucial to making the impacts last.
In other words, the medicines are a scalpel (Stanislov Grof calls them the “nonspecific amplifier of the unconscious”), and they need to be wielded by a skilled surgeon.
There are also a few sure-fire bets in the space -- research institutions who are investigating powerful peer-reviewed experiments, including Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley (ongoing), and Imperial College. The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been at the forefront of this work since 1986. Slowly, carefully, they have advanced psychedelics through FDA trials while maintaining a non-profit status. No research institution is more respected in the space right now.
Not all research is the same. Look under as many rocks as you can. Many for-profit companies are calling their process research, but they’re really just trying to get patentable isomers through FDA approval. In my mind, the most effective research is widening use cases, discovering new information about effective and safe dosage, and exploring the cultural difference across various underserved mental health populations (those who are returning from jail, the homeless, etc.)
For funders: Research is expensive, and funders should dig deep here. But keep both eyes open, especially when incentives aren’t aligned towards your goals.
Who does it well:
Actors in the psychedelic space can seem like they belong in a Venn diagram that doesn’t overlap all that much.
In one circle I lump together the engineers, those who are numerically inclined, the venture capitalists, and the effective altruists who see potential for impact and profit at scale.
In the other are the more spiritually inclined seekers. This includes the indigenous, the traditional, and the keepers of ritual and spirituality.It often also includes a few bearded Berkeley residents who’ve been to their fair share of Grateful Dead shows.
This is not a zero-sum game, and there’s room for both groups to thrive.
Underground guides and indigenous groups have deep wells of experience, and there's incredible excitement to deploy psychedelics widely quickly. However, rushing to market has real risks: dangers of unsafe use, lack of integrative therapeutic care, and loss of historical wisdom of how these compounds can most effectively be used.
Long term, there will be sustainable clinics that are able to serve patients and provide a safe, supportive environment. However, right now, there's few people effectively laying the groundwork to implement non-extractive business models, train guides/therapists, and create operational standards.
For funders: Funders should look for replicable models of therapeutic care, especially those that cater to our most vulnerable populations. These are the hardest to find, as the field is nascent and there isn’t much profit motive for this type of work. But because they are hard to find, this is one of the greatest opportunities for impact.
Who does it well:
Note: There may be more groups, I’m just not aware enough to have them on my radar.
Thanks for reading,