A Word About Those Genius Grants and "Lotto Philanthropy"

There's an old saying: "To those whom much has been given, much more will be given."

Okay, that's not how the quote goes. But that version does occur to me every year when the MacArthur Foundation announces its new class of "genius" fellows, many of whom are either established superstars or heading that way, and often well acquainted with elite institutions. Of the 21 winners this year, nine have some connection to Ivy League universities, with several holding degrees from Harvard. 

Of course, recognizing outstanding people is a key goal of the program and, yes, many such people start out at top schools or end up teaching at those places. And while it's true that more of the MacArthur fellows selected over the years took the happy phone call from New York than the Deep South, Prairie States, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and Mountain States combined, it's equally true that many have come from very humble backgrounds. This year's list is no different, including a number of artistic and social justice folks who've probably never ridden on the Acela. 

In an age of strategic philanthropy, MacArthur regularly draws flak for what might be called "lotto philanthropy"—dropping a pile of money on people out of the blue and placing no restrictions on how that cash is used. 

Even as prizes and fellowships with ever narrower and more focused goals have proliferated in recent years, MacArthur's fellowship program has remained as eclectic and free form as when it began in the early 1980s.

Who gets these awards and why remains murky. As the foundation recently noted in a review of the program, "The criteria for being awarded a Fellowship is difficult to describe and inclusive of a range of intangible variables... Among the considerations are: past achievement, future potential, ability to inspire, ability of the award to 'enable' the Fellows, and the 'uniqueness' of the Fellow’s work."

Trying getting that onto an Excel spreadsheet. Metrics schmetrics. 

As for evaluating the impact of the many millions that have been spent over thirty years on nearly 1000 fellows, all the foundation can really say on this score, based on survey responses from 300 fellows, is that getting a sudden windfall of hundreds of thousands of dollars is, well, fantastic

Financial stability, opportunity to express creativity, advancement toward professional and personal goals, and a sense of independence were among the most recognized impacts of the Fellowship on Fellows.

Meanwhile: "Few negative impacts were reported and were minimal compared to the positive impacts."

That's a relief to hear, given how many lottery winners end up, bizarrely enough, in bankruptcy court

You'd think that some fellows might suffer from post-genius depression disorder, once their five years on Mac's gravy train is up and everybody's forgotten how special they are. On the contrary, getting one of these awards is more like growing a few inches: The increased stature stays with you, and fellows "report that the benefits persist well beyond the five-year term of the Fellowship."

[At this point, I should pause for a disclaimer: Neither I nor any of my brilliant friends have ever gotten one of these grants, leaving us annually green with envy, just like thousands of others in the creative class who imagine themselves as shoe-ins.]

It's not just the also-rans who have grounds for envy. Other foundations can only drool over the press that the famed genius awards get, and resent the unfairness of the media lavishing attention on a foundation that performs the exact same trick every year. Of course, this is understandable given who's reporting the news. Why write about that malaria breakthrough bankrolled by Gates when a guy you knew at Columbia just got $625,000, with no strings attached?

In turn, the press attention helps explain why MacArthur's internal review of the fellowship program found 43 percent of the "engaged public" knew of this program—those numbers are astonishing, given that only a sliver of that same engaged public can likely name more than five foundations. 

So what should we make of all this? 

Actually, these fellowships are great. For the well-established superstars, a big Mac sack of money is just desserts after long years of hard work. It often lands on their doorstep around the same time that college tuitions bills are coming in and retirement jitters are surfacing. Remember, even for those creative class or save-the-world types who do reach the tops of their professions, the monetary rewards are meager compared to what certifiable meatheads pull down on Wall Street or pimpled pipsqueaks make in Silicon Valley.

So you gotta love a foundation that does its small part to remedy our society's totally upside-down hierarchy of compensation. 

But the bigger value here is the extra rocket fuel that rising stars get from the grants. While the impact of the fellowships is hard to pin down, we know anecdotally that MacArthur has placed a huge number of winning bets over the years through this program.

And it's not just that the foundation has gone with winners; these grants help push careers to the next level by bringing attention to people who deserve it and giving them badly needed resources to advance their work. 

Bottom line: I'm all for these fellowships. And even more so if I get one some day.