Cecilia Conrad, MacArthur Foundation

Using Philanthropic Competitions to Achieve Social Impact

March 6, 2018 – The Center was joined by Cecilia Conrad of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation who spearheaded 100&Change, the Foundation’s competition for a single $100 million grant to help solve a critical problem.

Conrad began the discussion by highlighting how philanthropy grapples with how best to allocate scarce resources to achieve social impact: Are philanthropic dollars better held in endowments and paid out over time; or are we better served if those dollars are spent today? Are boards, program officers and individual donors well-positioned to make choices about how philanthropic resources are allocated or should we incorporate broader perspectives that reflect the ideas from the community? Are philanthropic dollars more effectively spent across multiple programs areas to address an array of different needs or should philanthropists focus bigger bets in fewer places?

In a move that tests some of these questions, the MacArthur Foundation developed 100&Change, as a challenge for nonprofits and social entrepreneurs to compete for a single $100 million grant that would solve an intractable problem. Beyond the sheer size of the award, the competition was unique in many ways. “For one thing, we were completely open. We didn’t define or constrain the problem or the nature of the solution we were looking for. We issued a wide open call: tell us what problem you can address with $100 million and how you will address it,” Conrad said.

Applicants were scored based on four key criteria. First, was the solution offered meaningful and bold? Second, was there evidence to suggest that it would yield results? Third, was it feasible in terms of the applicant’s capacity and ability to get it done? Fourth, was it durable and did it have some staying power?

A group of 413 judges – multi-disciplinary thinkers, visionaries and experts in the U.S. and across the world – were empaneled to review 1,904 completed proposals. The judges helped to whittle those applications down to just eight semi-finalists, and then four finalists.

In December of 2017, the four finalists presented their projects at a public event. It was then up to the MacArthur Foundation’s board to decide who would receive the $100 million grant.

After much debate, the board selected a joint proposal from Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee for an early childhood intervention focused on the Syrian refugee crisis. Much to the surprise and delight of everyone, including MacArthur staff members, the board also decided to provide $15 million grants to the three other finalists as well.

Conrad shared some reflections on what MacArthur had learned from the process. One lesson around sustainability is to bring high net worth individuals along on the journey as a way to expose them to different ideas and potential projects that they might help to fund. Another is to create screening mechanisms so that very small nonprofits and early stage projects, with little hope of winning such a large grant, do not needlessly waste their time and resources trying to apply.  With these and other lessons in hand, Conrad says that MacArthur will hold another $100 million competition in three years.

“My problem my first year of college wasn’t that I didn’t study hard,” Conrad quipped. “It was that I just wasn’t very efficient. We believe that 100&Change has the potential to be an efficient mechanism, if included in a portfolio of mechanisms, for identifying promising projects and allocating scarce resources, not only for us, but also for the philanthropic community as a whole.”

The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information:
Please contact Nicholas Williams, Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at [email protected] or (213) 740-8557.