At MacArthur, a Foundation Chief Who Favors Big Bets and Is Handy With an Ax

Who is it that said that top foundations should provide more general support, better focus their sprawling grantmaking, and make bigger, riskier bets?

No, I’m not talking about the writers at Inside Philanthropy, who’ve sounded like a broken record on all these points over the past year, as we’ve channeled the familiar—and long ignored—complaints of myriad other critics.

I’m talking about the heads of two of the biggest foundations in America, Darren Walker of Ford and—most recently—MacArthur’s Julia Stasch.

Walker won wide accolades earlier this summer when he pledged that Ford would give more general support grants. And while Walker’s fans will surely be scarcer when nonprofits realize that such support goes to fewer grantees, as I’ve written, he’s had a nice run.

Well, move over, Darren, because now it’s Stasch who deserves to bask in some Twitter kudos.

After serving as MacArthur’s interim president, following Bob Gallucci’s forced departure last year, Stasch officially got that job in March—and hasn't wasted time in making big changes.

Related: Julia Stasch Atop MacArthur: Change or More of the Same? Maybe Both

While Walker embarked on a lengthy listening tour of Ford’s many outposts around the world, and has gingerly steered that bloated foundation to a new path, Stasch—who once was chief of staff to Chicago’s Mayor Daley—clearly believes in ripping off the Band-Aid fast. She’s been moving with impressive speed to streamline a place that, as of last year, was working in over twenty issue areas.

Her first move was to whack MacArthur’s work on housing, which was a big deal—considering the foundation’s long presence in this area and that this issue is entwined with Stasch’s own career. She had worked closely on housing in Chicago, before coming to MacArthur. She also previously oversaw the foundation’s work on housing as vice president for U.S. programs.

Smart, right? Kill your own darlings first, before swinging the ax more widely. And, yes, “widely” is the operative word here.

Yesterday, Stasch announced a major streamlining of the foundation, saying that in addition to winding down its housing work, MacArthur would end its work on juvenile justice and population and reproductive health, and spinning off its work on digital learning. She also said,

global migration and U.S. immigration, girls’ secondary education in developing countries, aspects of international peace and security, and strengthening American democracy are also examples of initiatives and programs we will bring to an end over the next few years.

That’s a lot on the chopping block, with the hint of more to come. You can only imagine the pain and unhappiness around these decisions, since changes like this mean withdrawing support from grantees doing good work and, often, laying off program officers. (All of which, by the way, we predicted would happen a year ago, after Gallucci was sacked.) None of this is easy; yesterday was surely a grim day for many nonprofits, as well as some staff within the foundation.

But such is the nature of reforming institutions, and Stasch is doing what needs to be done—while sparing everyone a dragged-out strategic planning process that leaves folks in limbo.

Whereas Darren Walker outlined a new set of priorities for Ford in June that looked a whole lot like the old priorities, and so far hasn’t killed off many big programs (stayed tuned), Stasch has gone for the bigger shake-up, narrowing the scope of MacArthur's grantmaking to focus on three areas: “global sustainability, global security, and the rule of law rationally and equitably applied.” Even more specifically, Stasch says the foundation will put climate change and criminal justice reform front and center.

Stasch didn’t offer up many details on the security funding, except to mention likely work on nukes, a longtime MacArthur concern. She also mentioned a possible major push in Nigeria, where Mac has long worked, and says the foundation will step up its impact investments in a new way.

Almost as striking as the tighter focus, though, is the new emphasis on “big bets.” Whereas many large foundations slog away at challenges for years on end, with no specific timetable for scoring a major win, Stasch says that MacArthur will now "work primarily through programs and projects that are larger in scale, time-limited in nature, or designed to reach specific objectives…," adding,

MacArthur’s next chapter will be characterized by big bets that strive toward transformative change in areas of profound concern. This is not a search for quick fixes or easy wins, but an all-in, timely commitment—of talent, resources, time, and reputation—to real change that matters for many, many people.

MacArthur has already announced one of these big bets—its recent new major initiative to reform U.S. jails. Stasch says that, going forward, the foundation will make a new $100 million bet every three years.

This strategy of grantmaking is hardly unique among big foundations. Hewlett, for example, is now engaged in two major bets within a specific time frame (on polarization and cybersecurity). But it’s a departure for MacArthur, which previously worked on issues in a more open-ended way, as many funders do.

There’s a lot to be said for foundations embracing big bets, with a ticking clock. It’s more akin to how elected officials—such as presidents and governors—try to get things done: They put forth a few major goals and then throw everything they have at winning. Indeed, while it’s often said that philanthropy needs more hard-headed business thinking, maybe what it really needs are more leaders with strong political skills who know how to push policy change in a time-urgent way.

Among the question marks remaining about MacArthur’s grantmaking is whether it will make larger general support grants to fewer institutions—as opposed to sprinkling program grants far and wide, as it’s done in the past. Stasch didn’t address that point in yesterday’s announcement, passing up a chance to reinforce Walker’s point that at least some foundation leaders "get it" on general support.

But I’d bet that more general support will also become a feature of the new regime at MacArthur. If Stasch really believes in “hard choices,” as she says, the foundation will also focus more laser-like within its program areas—backing only those groups that can really make change.

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