Sometimes, in philanthropy, we can begin to question the pace of our impact. We see important incremental progress, but we get frustrated by the steady work towards the solution to a problem we’re trying to tackle. So we begin to dream. We think of the significant project that could make a major dent, or even solve, a problem we care about. We begin to wonder: Is it even possible? What would it take?
Here at The Philanthropic Initiative, we love when we’re able to do this - dreaming together with our clients, helping funders of all shapes and sizes go big and bold while also being smart and strategic with their grantmaking. And we get excited when we come across others who are out there in the world, inspiring us to think big and help our clients to act boldly. This year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago has been one such inspiration. They have put a stake in the ground showing us all that, yes, there are thoughtful and strategic ways to underwrite really ambitious ideas that could have significant and lasting social impact.
The Foundation has launched a new, daring initiative called 100&Change – a competition for a $100 million grant to fund a single proposal that lays out a significant problem and proposes a detailed solution to either significantly address it or solve it completely. The Foundation put no restrictions on the geography or sector of the initiative, inviting proposals from around the world and across fields. To select the eight semi-finalists, the Foundation staff, Board, and a panel of 413 judges have reviewed the more than 1,900 applications and shared information publicly as much as possible along the way. You can view videos submitted by those semi-finalists on the MacArthur Foundation’s website.
Recently, we were able to learn more about 100&Change from MacArthur’s Cecilia Conrad, Managing Director, Fellows, Awards, and Exploratory Philanthropy. Cecilia shared that the Foundation did not anticipate the level of interest it received from other funders and, given this interest, has put time and resources into making the information accessible and useful online. She also told us about the decision-making process behind 100&Change and the associated risk analysis, and she shared advice for other funders interested in taking bold chances with their philanthropy.
What was the impetus for the MacArthur Foundation to develop the 100&Change program? What inspired the Foundation to develop this bold, ambitious program?
Philanthropy is best positioned to provide society’s “risk capital,” according to MacArthur’s President Julia Stasch. Taking more risk is imperative for philanthropy, especially in the current era of sweeping national and global change and declining trust in key institutions. Foundations should be less risk averse than government, which invests public dollars, or the private sector, which must answer to shareholders.
When the MacArthur Foundation designed the 100&Change competition, we set out to do something audacious. We knew it would require significant resources – risk capital. Some problems can’t be solved by the $100,000 grants foundations typically provide. By funding at a $100 million level, MacArthur can address problems and support solutions that are radically different in scale, scope, and complexity.
100&Change is also an expression of our humility. We realize we do not have all the answers. We are choosing to look beyond—indeed far beyond—our own small number of programmatic areas to focus on a serious problem and its solution in a meaningful and lasting way.
Giving such a significant grant comes with significant risks, which many foundations are hesitant to take. What did your risk analysis look like?
The focus of 100&Change was to support tested, evidence-based solutions that were ready to scale. We required applicants to provide rigorous evidence that their proposed solution would effectively address the problem they identified. Compelling evidence could include:
- Data from an external evaluation of a pilot project or experimental study;
- Citations in peer-reviewed research indicating a strong scientific consensus; and
- Documentation of a detailed pathway from the proposed actions to specific outcomes.
We wanted to mitigate the risk of picking a proposal that was completely untested or untried. There is a space for competitions like the XPrize, which is focused on breakthrough innovations. MacArthur was not seeking to occupy that space.
In philanthropy, there is a tendency to want to be the first to fund an idea or project. But we perceived a gap in the philanthropic field, a need for funding to take tested ideas to scale. We saw 100&Change as a way to address that gap. Having evidence a proposal worked—at least once, somewhere and on some scale—was important to us.
What steps are you taking to minimize risk as you consider the semi-finalists?
With 100&Change, we recognize we are taking a bold step by awarding a single organization a significant amount of money in order to solve or significantly impact an intractable problem. This, by its very nature, is risky. We are excited to take the kind of risk that will help alleviate a critical problem of our time. As with all awards made by the foundation, due diligence is an important part of our process to minimize risk. Our due diligence for each organization includes a legal review, understanding its financial stability, and investigating its technical capacity to deliver on the proposed project. In addition, Management Systems International is working with each semi-finalist to strengthen proposals so teams can expand, adapt, and sustain projects over time to benefit a greater number of people. You can read more about the MacArthur and MSI partnership on the 100&Change perspectives blog. We will work closely with the institution to identify obstacles to success, assist with problem solving, and use the Foundation’s reputational assets to bring people to the table if needed.
What advice would you offer other funders interested in being big and bold with their giving?
Being bold with your giving takes courage, patience, a desire to learn, and most importantly, transparency. These four elements have played a critical role in helping us to build and execute a strong competition. As part of the Foundation’s design-build philosophy, we continue to learn daily about what went right and how we can improve the competition. So, our advice would be to think big, be courageous, and be prepared to learn from both your successes and your mistakes. For us, it has been an exciting journey. We look forward to learning from other funders who are taking bold steps with their funding decisions.
Like so many others, TPI will be excitedly following 100&Change to see which project is selected and how the implementation goes. We invite you to follow along with us, including through these upcoming live, online events and on the MacArthur Foundation’s Perspectives on 100&Change Blog. You can also learn more about the other applications they received through their Top 200 interactive map and online searchable database. We hope this initiative inspires you to take chances and be bold in your own philanthropy!