Your Reaction to Those “Genius” Awards Says a Lot About Your Views on Philanthropy

Does Ta-Nehisi Coates need $625,000 dropped in his lap right now—when his book sits atop the New York Times bestseller list and he stands to make a fortune over years to come on the lecture circuit?

Do professors at five Ivy League universities—academics at the very top of their games—deserve a bunch of no-strings-attached cash from a wealthy foundation? I mean, really, haven’t these folks already won the lottery in the grand scheme of things?

Does the creator of the hit musical Hamilton—which has just taken New York by storm—merit yet more accolades and money at this exact moment?

These are the kinds of questions we ponder every year when the MacArthur Foundation awards its so-called “genius” fellowships. Last time around, we noted that of the 21 winners in 2014, nine had a connection to Ivy League universities, with several holding degrees from Harvard. This year's winners, which were just announced, also include some pretty elite players. (See the full list here.)

Many of the people who get these fellowships are already envied by their peers. A big bunch of money just makes it worse. In fact, if a U.S. foundation has ever created a better envy-inducing grantmaking program, we’d love to hear what it is.

Related: A Word About Those Genius Grants and "Lotto Philanthropy"

To be sure, some of the fellowship winners really do need a lift professionally, as well as some extra money. But it’s a quirky mix of winners and strivers, and you can’t help but wonder about the methodology of these grants. Who gets the golden nod, and why?

Yes, we know—MacArthur has repeatedly explained its methodology for awarding these fellowships. Still, this annual airdrop of cash feels both mercurial and alchemic, guided by an unknowable formula that even the foundation can’t fully articulate, saying that the “criteria for being awarded a Fellowship is difficult to describe and inclusive of a range of intangible variables.” Can this fellowship program—created in 1981, in an earlier, less sophisticated age of philanthropy—hold up to scrutiny nowadays, when funders everywhere are obsessed with moving the needle on X or Y issue?

Or, to put the question differently, isn’t this exactly the kind of MacArthur program that its impact-obsessed president, Julia Stasch, should be putting on the chopping block? After all, tough choices are being made at MacArthur. How do folks there feel about axing grantmaking that helps poor people get housing, as Stasch recently did, while giving extra cash to well-heeled stars who don’t really need it?  

It’s particularly easy to be skeptical about the genius grants after reading the foundation’s review last year of what decades of these fellowships have achieved. It’s a pretty vague track record. Just as the foundation can’t really explain why people get these awards, it can’t really document their impact—except to say the obvious, which is that extra money and financial stability is a good thing in terms of helping people “express creativity” and advance “toward professional and personal goals.” My financial advisor at JPMorgan Chase could tell me the same thing.

All things considered, MacArthur’s “genius” awards seem to be exactly the kind of elite philanthropy that drives “effective altruists” nuts. As William MacAskill writes in his recent manifesto, Doing Good Better, “effective altruism is not just about making a difference, or doing some amount of good. It’s about trying to make the most difference you can.”

The movement for effective altruism has been gaining steam in recent years, with its proponents—most notably Peter Singer—calling for a much more utilitarian approach to spending philanthropic dollars in an age when millions of people die from preventable diseases and other maladies. Effective altruists have also challenged us as individuals to do more to make a difference. Bill Gates is the most visible philanthropist roughly in the effective altruism camp, dismissing gifts to the arts as frivolous when the same money could be used to vaccinate children against horrible deaths.

MacArthur’s fellowship program feels like the antithesis of this hardline mindset, with its metric-free celebration of talent and creativity in the wealthiest country in the world. What’s more, the foundation’s continued financing of the awards has taken priority over programs that target resources more efficiently to do good. It isn’t just Mac’s housing work that is winding down. The foundation is also phasing out its work on reproductive rights in poor countries, as well as other efforts to help the world’s most downtrodden people.

So if you have ever wanted a quick test of whether you’re an effective altruist, a good one is how you react to MacArthur’s fellowship program. If you think it’s a boondoggle, talk to William MacAskill and Peter Singer about getting a petition going. If you like this celebration of talent, you can count yourself among a range of critics who have pushed back against effective altruism, saying it’s way too narrow a frame to guide philanthropic giving.

Personally, my own reaction to the “genius” awards tells me that while I sympathize with effective altruism, as some of the above points might suggest, ultimately I come down in favor of a broader approach to philanthropy. I just can't help liking these MacArthur fellowships. As I wrote last year about them:

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.

Is my own reaction to the awards logical? Definitely not. And it’s undoubtedly shaped by my own struggles in the creative class and the value I place on the kind of people who inhabit this world.

I’d probably have a different view if I had ever watched a child die of malaria for want of a $1 mosquito net.