MacArthur Fellows Program: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 1981

Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society (Duke)



At one of the very first board meetings of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, William T. Kirby, a trustee of the young Foundation, brought up an article that would have a major influence on the Foundations’ subsequent charitable grantmaking. The article, written by Kirby’s doctor, George Burch, argued that philanthropic organizations should allocate funds to free creative people from constraints on their ability to be innovative. This article was the jumping off point that led the MacArthur trustees to establish, as one of the Foundation’s first endeavors, the MacArthur Fellows Program, which has been giving five-year unrestricted grants to talented and promising individuals every year since 1981.
The fellowships, dubbed “genius awards” by the press, are intended to give “maximum freedom and flexibility,” so that recipients can follow their own lights, free of virtually all outside constraints. The actual award is a five-year stipend, currently set at $500,000. . . .



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