Global Impact, Local Connections and Foundation “Voice”

January 25, 2017

Guests at our January 25 Foundation Impact Research Group seminar were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at 100&Change, a project of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to award a $100 million grant to a single organization or collaboration tackling one of the world’s most challenging problems.  MacArthur president Julia Stasch described the vision behind the effort, which is to demonstrate that solutions are possible and that ambitious individuals and organizations can implement them at significant scale. While other foundations have made even larger investments (see for instance, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grants database), 100&Change is distinctive because it is open to proposals from anywhere in the world on any topic, defined by the applicant, not the Foundation.  

Launching the challenge in June 2016, the MacArthur Foundation received more than 1900 applications.  After administrative review, about 800 of them were considered by more than 400 judges, who decided which proposals were the most “meaningful, feasible, verifiable, and durable.” These “wise heads” brought a broad range of skills and expertise to the task, representing the arts and social sciences, education, public policy, social entrepreneurship, conservation, public health, digital technology, and more.  Applicants received the scores and specific comments made by each of judges.

MacArthur is especially encouraged by the interest in the competition from other funders eager to learn about proposals that fit their priorities. Foundation staff are curating lists and providing details about many of the submissions. A comprehensive database of all proposals will be available to the public.   Stasch shared her hope that the MacArthur award will be just one of many projects and programs that receive support as a result of 100&Change.  In the press release announcing the selection of eight semi-finalists by the MacArthur Board of Directors, she said, “These eight ambitious proposals exemplify the passion, range, and creativity of the hundreds of applications. We hope that the competition inspires individuals and organizations to be bold and think big, because solutions are possible.”  Five finalists will have the opportunity to present their proposals at an event that will be broadcast live in December.

Moving from the global to the local, Stasch shared another challenge—that of understanding and responding to issues in MacArthur’s hometown of Chicago.  Part of that is the imperative to pay more attention to local organizations that work close to the ground. And, as Stasch remarked in her recent annual essay, if Chicago is to prosper in the future, MacArthur should help ensure that leadership from its diverse communities is strong and influential, and their organizations effective and sustainable. She concluded that, despite more than $1.3 billion invested in more than 1300 individuals and organizations in Chicago, more than any other single place, the Foundation needs to routinely challenge its own assumptions about what is important and how to accomplish it.  The place to start is to listen more and engage more directly with the communities that have borne the consequences of the poverty, neglect, in equality, injustice and racism that the Foundation wants to help address.

A final thought that lingered well after the discussion was Stasch’s remarks on the Foundation’s “voice.”  “What is the value of our voice?” she pondered. “We have gone through periods where we had a voice; we asserted a world view and our values.  At other times we said that we have no voice; only the voices of the organizations that we fund are important. I think we are entering a period where our voice, and that of other philanthropies, will be required.”



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