The Lost Gospel of S.B.F.

S.B.F. aides once talked openly about a 50-year campaign for influence that would transform the state of American politics and policy. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
November 22, 2022

Over the last few months, before FTX filed for bankruptcy and its 30-year-old founder admitted to being a fraud, aides to Sam Bankman-Fried began thinking bigger than just their quotidian work of preventing the next pandemic. The crypto king was at the height of his powers, with a $20 billion net worth and seemingly everyone in Washington begging for an introduction. And so quietly, in private conversations that made their way to me, S.B.F. aides hatched a venture to tackle not just pandemics, but all of the great challenges of the day.

The name of the outfit being built was The Center for the Future, an umbrella organization designed to capture all of the imagination, all of the ambition, and yes, all of the money emanating from Bankman-Fried and his effective-altruist colleagues in the Bahamas. The idea was, in one sense, just a legal rollup and brand refresh of the many existing entities comprising S.B.F.’s philanthropic-political machine. But it struck me and those involved as having more symbolic significance, beginning with the grandiose name itself. The plan, according to people familiar with it, was to eventually divide and conquer all of the world’s long-term problems, from climate change to nuclear nonproliferation and democracy reform. In April of this year, aides quietly filed to incorporate in Delaware. People who spoke with S.B.F.’s aides came away with the impression that The Center for the Future had ambitions to rival The Gates Foundation in its financial and cultural heft.   

Those in the blast radius of S.B.F.’s fall—Democratic candidates, donor-advisors, nonprofit grantees—can’t help but shake their heads and marvel at how quickly it all came tumbling down. After all, S.B.F. aides once talked openly about a 50-year campaign for influence that would transform the state of American politics and policy. “Sam’s idea is he basically saw all the world’s biggest problems as being multi-decade, multi-century trillion-dollar problems,” said one person who worked with his political and philanthropic shop. “How do you solve global hunger? You can’t possibly hope to solve pandemic prevention on the timescale of one person’s lifetime. Rather than think about how to solve that in a 10- or a 20- or a 30-year career, think in terms of 50 or 100 years.”

Obviously, that dream is dead. In the meantime, I’ve been talking with sources over the last few weeks about some of the big ideas—some hubristic, some creative, all now defunct—that S.B.F. and his team had been kicking around, including new details about how he was using the midterms to prepare for a Biden vs. Trump rematch during which S.B.F. very well could have spent $1 billion. Below, a glimpse at what could have been.

FTX the Vote

Perhaps the most unusual detail I have uncovered is that S.B.F. personally purchased a hot Democratic tech startup this summer called Deck, spending about $4 to $5 million of his own money to buy out all of the existing investors, I’m told by people familiar with the deal. A donor in their individual capacity buying a startup outright is, well, very unusual. But S.B.F. had heard good things about Deck—which helps Democratic campaigns target voters—from Mind the Gap, a Democratic donor network founded by his mom, Barbara. So I’m told that S.B.F. made informal commitments to personally fund the organization going forward, offering the company and its founder, Max Wood, a path to a realistic, solvent future. 

Now, in the wake of FTX’s implosion, S.B.F.’s verbal commitments are worthless. Deck is facing a cash crunch and will have to seek new investors to make payroll in a few months and keep the organization alive. One complication? Deck is listed in the FTX bankruptcy filing, even though Deck is not itself bankrupt. Deck has been trying to fix what it believes to be a clerical error, but one that is making it more difficult to raise money.

Buying Deck was one of several political moves that S.B.F. was quietly preparing ahead of the 2024 election, a cycle during which he had designs to be the biggest donor in the Democratic Party. I have previously reported that S.B.F.’s team was actively looking for future advisors to join them in drafting “plays” for the 2024 cycle, and that one of those ideas was to fund some more progressive organizations, for instance. Some of those plans were already underway. I have learned in recent days that S.B.F. was already quietly funding some experiments across the Democratic ecosystem, such as randomized-controlled trials that might have yielded data that could help Democrats in 2024, according to two people familiar with the work, by assessing the impact of things like community newsletters, Facebook ads, and so-called “relational organizing.” Much of this work was proactive rather than reactive, I’m told—as in, Sam’s team was seeking out folks to fund rather than just handling incoming pitches. “The idea is that he would then be able to map out and perfectly allocate all of the money that he wanted to in 2024 from these experiments in 2022,” said a person familiar with his investments.

The 2022 midterms, after all, were a sometimes humbling experience for Bankman-Fried and his crew. Sam’s team learned about the importance of branding and local support after his candidate of choice in Oregon, Carrick Flynn, got slaughtered despite him spending $12 million on Flynn’s behalf through an S.B.F.-funded super PAC, Protect Our Future, a record-shattering amount to spend on a single hopeful in a House primary.

Protect Our Future generally tried to back friendly candidates in open-seat primaries where they could get the highest R.O.I. At one point, however, Sam’s squad was eyeing an even broader slate of races. I’ve since learned that the political team was not only vetting existing candidates to support in midterm races, but it also explored ways to recruit people who were pro-pandemic preparedness to run for office, according to a person who spoke with them. Some of the candidates that S.B.F.’s aides wanted to recruit would have challenged incumbent Democratic congressmen. “They were very focused on primarying other people,” said the source. That idea included a primary to at least one person who is currently in House Democratic leadership, I’m told.

This is all to say that I am learning new information by the day on the scale and scope of the political plans that S.B.F once planned to put into motion. I’ve estimated the amount that he has spent at about $100 million, but that could be an undercount. For instance, I recently obtained tax filings for S.B.F.’s primary political group, Guarding Against Pandemics, which shows that the organization took in $22.7 million in revenue in 2021. (A 2020 tax filing, the first year of GAP’s existence, shows just about $600,000 in revenue.) Most of that $23.3 million probably came from S.B.F., and that’s to say nothing about the amount that GAP took home from S.B.F. in 2022, which is when GAP scaled up significantly as a professional organization and hired many more full-time staff and consultants.

While GAP’s tax filings don’t show funds flowing to The Center for the Future, they do pull back the curtain on a new, previously unreported S.B.F. group called Planning for Tomorrow, which was started last year and took in $2 million from Guarding Against Pandemics. I’m told that the 501(c)4 group, which is new and hasn’t yet filed a tax return, was one of a number of S.B.F. organizations that had been started in recent years, this one with a focus on some sort of civic fellowship program. (Even a boring benefits-administration organization was called “Bughouse,” a reference to a style of chess that Sam and his brother Gabe liked to play.) But all of these were going to be reorganized around the Center for the Future, which was meant to bring some operational clarity to a complicated, sprawling political network where few memos were drafted and lots of ideas were debated over text. In S.B.F.’s internal workflow, people were already referring to the work of the Center, not GAP.

One to Zero

Can the advocacy movement imagined by S.B.F. continue without him? The challenge, of course, is that there is now a stench attached to anything S.B.F.-related, following revelations that he misappropriated FTX user deposits, gambled with customer funds, and used the proceeds to lend himself massive sums of money, liquidity that he was then able to use for his political and philanthropic projects. Anything Sam touched is tainted, and many related organizations are taking steps to distance themselves from their benefactor. Barbara Fried, Sam’s mother, recently stepped down from Mind the Gap, the political donor network she founded a few years ago. Gabe likewise stepped down from his own founded organization, Guarding Against Pandemics.

And the number of groups distancing themselves from S.B.F. continues to grow. Among them is Election Reformers Network, a Bankman-Fried-backed group trying to modernize American elections by promoting reforms like impartial election administration and ranked-choice voting, an S.B.F. priority. Back in February, the organization released news boasting that S.B.F. had “chosen ERN as a recipient of a major grant to support electoral reform innovation” to fight “partisan capture of election administration at the state and local levels.” In recent days, however, ERN deleted that announcement from its website, and is now downplaying Sam’s involvement, despite previously calling him “one of our largest organizational donors.” 

An ERN spokesperson declined to say how much S.B.F.’s family foundation, called Building a Stronger Future, had donated. “BASF was among several funders from which ERN received one-time grants. Our diverse funding base will allow us to continue working with both parties to reduce the role of politics and parties in election administration, in order to protect fair elections and bolster voter trust,” said a group spokesman, Zachary Roth. No response to a question about the deletion.