The Notorious S.B.F.

Sam Bankman-Fried
The online focus on Sean McElwee, a media-savvy pollster, became more negative following the downfall of Sam Bankman-Fried (pictured). Photo: Tom Williams/Getty
Theodore Schleifer
February 15, 2022

Every so often in political and philanthropic consulting, there comes along a client whom everyone wants—needs—to find a connection to in order to pitch and, perhaps, land a hefty payday. Right now, that’s Sam Bankman-Fried, the provocative, whip-smart, and omnipresent 29-year-old C.E.O. of the crypto exchange FTX who has, in the words of Cory Booker last week, “a much more glorious afro than I once had.” Bankman-Fried, or S.B.F., as he is now universally known in this world, has been an in-demand character for months, but the chase to woo him has grown more feverish of late as he has expanded the tentacles of his political machine in new and fascinating ways. I know several Democratic advisers who are trying their damndest to get in front of him right now.

Two years ago, no one had heard of the founder of FTX, then a pipsqueak competitor in a market dominated by Coinbase. I first discovered S.B.F. on a campaign filing in the fall of 2020, when he and an LLC he founded gave $10 million to Future Forward, a long operating-in-stealth super PAC. I like to think I cover the donor class as fervently as anyone, but I had no earthly idea who this guy was. (Google Trends data tells me, comfortingly, that few other people did then, either.) 

Sam and I spoke off-the-record that fall, and I published an on-the-record interview with him a few months later. Of course, that was before his net worth reached $23 billion and counting. Before his company bought the naming rights to the arena of Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. Before he moved to the Bahamas and pregamed the Super Bowl with Shaq. Before he testified before Congress and fielded compliments on his hair from a U.S. Senator. Uh, yeah, things have gotten a little heady.

Like many an aspiring mogul, S.B.F. has now turned his gaze firmly to politics. He has a stake in defending crypto regulation before people like Booker, sure, but far more interestingly, he is also someone who thinks a lot about the intersection of effective altruism and politics—in short, how to leverage his vast wealth, mastery of data analytics, and knowledge of the campaign finance system to maximize the political utility of every dollar to do the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people. Eighteen months ago, often in concert with his close friend and fellow effective altruist, Nishad Singh, FTX’s chief engineer, S.B.F. began to dabble more publicly in political mega-donordom. His $11 million or so in disclosed donations in October 2020 evolved into what is today a burgeoning political empire, guided in large part not by a hired gun from the political and philanthropic consultantverse, but effectively by Sam’s younger brother, Gabe. (Gabe isn’t a traditional gatekeeper; he offers advice and vets opportunities, but isn’t formally employed by his brother.) S.B.F. also consults with Mike Sadowsky, a Democratic donor-adviser steeped in effective altruism, I’m told. Sadowsky keeps a low profile, but he is well-regarded by the fellow nerds in the industry, collaborating often with his former Civis Analytics colleague David Shor, the political quant who today enjoys a rabid fanbase that makes him border on celebrity in this world.

Bankman-Fried’s most specific policy mission at the moment, executed by his brother and Sadowsky, is convincing policymakers to invest in the next generation of pandemic preparedness. It’s a perfect target for an effective altruist: a neglected, long-term and extreme tail risk event wherein a small sum could have an outsize impact. S.B.F.’s efforts on this front are complicated, overlapping, and multifaceted, but it’s worth examining the full scope of the operation—whether you want his business or just want to understand his business.  

I reported this past summer on the first iteration of S.B.F.’s pandemic preparedness campaign, which began with a 501(c)4 called Guarding Against Pandemics (GAP). That group, helmed by Gabe, spent hundreds of thousands on ads and hired both an in-house and external lobbyist to try to convince Congress to apportion $30 billion for the anti-pandemic cause as part of the Build Back Better legislation. GAP later started a PAC that raised another $85,000 from smaller donors who were capped at $5,000 a check. But the SBF-GBF effort appears, for now at least, to have been derailed by the larger drama surrounding B.B.B., which Democrats were forced to back-burner after failing to secure a majority vote in the Senate. GAP, a dark-money group, hasn’t disclosed how much money it raised or how much S.B.F. donated, although it says it has multiple donors.

As that Washington effort struggled, S.B.F.’s LLC and another effective-altruist mega-donor, the philanthropy of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, contributed $5 million each into a new group, Californians Against Pandemics, that sought to find a statewide solution to the same problem. (The donation technically came from GAP directly, not S.B.F.) That group, led by entrepreneur Max Henderson, is pursuing a ballot initiative to go before voters in November. 

That, I thought in the months since Joe Manchin deep-sixed BBB, was the state of play. But then SBF did something that surprised me, and spoke to his wisdom: He got more political, not less. In recent weeks, S.B.F. and Singh have also become founding donors in a new super PAC called Protect Our Future, which focuses on backing pro-preparedness Democratic candidates. Starting a super PAC is a strategic escalation, especially given that it would allow Bankman-Fried et al. to intervene in primaries, something not all donors would do. The group is spending real money, too. Protecting Our Future plans to spend at least $10 million alone in Democratic nominating contests. (It hasn’t disclosed amounts donated from either S.B.F. or Singh.) Protect Our Future is distinct from GAP, which is run by Sadowsky. But, for instance, the list of seven candidates endorsed by the super PAC is almost identical to the eight people listed by GAP as their “Champions.” The groups have no formal relationship, but it’s part of a coordinated advocacy effort. (Then, there is crypto—you know, Sam’s day job. There’s a second super PAC called GMI PAC that isn’t yet affiliated with or funded by S.B.F., but its financing includes $1 million from one of FTX’s top executives, Ryan Salame. That group also has another, affiliated super PAC with the very fun name: Web3 Forward. The twin efforts are unrelated, although there’s a lot of overlap between the EA and crypto communities.) 

In total, the S.B.F. empire, has grown over the last six months alone to include a 501(c)4, a PAC, a ballot initiative, and a super PAC or two. His total outlay of cash on this pandemic crusade isn’t clear yet, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s in the $10 million to $15 million range, and that’s just the start. This is all to say nothing of his company’s new nonprofit foundation, run by Nick Beckstead, who joined late last year from Moskovitz’s philanthropy organization, OpenPhil.

Bankman-Fried told me last summer that he might eventually hire someone full time to manage his sprawling political operations, but the reality is that few of the professionals who today are lusting for his work are the sort of candidates that S.B.F. would consider. Yes, it might behoove you to have a PhD in statistics, or at least some familiarity with Peter Singer from your senior year philosophy seminar. But Bankman-Fried wants to do things his way. “If you’re an ambitious person that is trying to go after Sam, that’s a negative signal that you know what you’re talking about,” said one person close with S.B.F.’s team. “There’s only a small subset of people that speak his language and his certain set of preferences.“ Plus, the aide-de-camp position isn’t exactly an open seat: Sadowsky is talented, and I also wouldn’t undersell the credentials of Sam’s family (including his mom Barbara, who founded the donor-advisory group Mind the Gap.) I wonder if the money-chasers are chasing ghosts.

What is clear, though, is that S.B.F.’s ascent is at the forefront of a generational shift in political philanthropy. When I first started reporting on politics, there was already a rising generation of operatives schooled in the effective altruist tradition of randomized-controlled trials, cost-per-vote calculations and a right-brained obsession with the latest political literature. What’s new is that up-and-coming big donors like S.B.F. are now steeped in that tradition, too. Some people are already wondering: How soon until we see candidates preaching the gospel of effective altruism, like the hopeful Carrick Flynn in Oregon’s Sixth District? We might look back on 2022 as the election cycle when, in retrospect, things were just getting started for S.B.F., and the rest of us too.