Can MacArthur Competition Money Boost Public Transit and the South Side?

The MacArthur Foundation recently launched a really interesting philanthropic challenge called 100&Change, which will offer up a $100 million to advance a solution that addresses an important problem. If that strategy sounds a bit vague, that’s because it is, and intentionally so. An absence of strictures, the thinking goes, is more likely to bring forth big and bold ideas. 

For this competition, MacArthur opened itself up to proposals that target problems in any field and anywhere in the world. A news release reads, “When we announced 100&Change, we were not sure what to expect. There was significant and immediate public attention, but it was not clear if that initial interest would translate into robust participation and many proposals for real social change.”

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But in the most recent competition update provided by the MacArthur Foundation, we learned that 7,084 people registered on the competition website and 1,884 organizations submitted proposals by the deadline that passed in early October. These proposals are undergoing review, and more about that process will be shared in MacArthur’s next update. There are a ton of judges involved in this evaluation, which you can learn more about here.

Clearly, this is not a grant competition for just Chicago, but there is some hope around town that a Chicago-focused group could secure the money. And while we could never, ever imagine that Mac's judges would engage in favoritism toward hometown proposals, we could imagine certain upsides for the foundation if a local winner did emerge. MacArthur's taken some heat lately for not paying enough attention to Chicago and while it's forcefully rebutted such claims, $100 million would be a nice way to underscore the point that this wealthy foundation with global reach really does care about its neighbors. That pile of money would come on top of another pot that Mac is helping create. In partnership with the Chicago Community Trust and the Calvert Foundation, MacArthur rolled out an initiative last spring called Benefit Chicago, which is a $100 million effort to mobilize nonprofit impact investments in the city.

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So what's a scenario whereby a hometown effort might snag that $100 million in competition grant money? Well, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago Central Area Committee (CCAC) submitted a proposal to make Chicago’s downtown area grow and work better, first by adding capacity to the Chicago Transit Authority lines from the north and west. These train lines are beyond capacity during peak hours and crucial to reducing traffic congestion throughout the metro area.

But CCAC’s pitch to MacArthur involved more than just boosting transit. Another big part of the proposal was to address the South Side’s big needs for new services and redevelopment.

There’s a third component to this MacArthur proposal as well, and that involves preserving the legacy of Chicago’s very own Barack Obama. The Barack Obama Presidential Library is planned for the east end of Hyde Park in the Jackson Park neighborhood, and the new public transit improvements would take people there. Chicago has never had the opportunity to have a presidential library before, so this is a big deal and a sense of pride for the city. Obama has identified with Chicago’s South Side throughout his presidency, and right now only occasional service via the suburban transit line goes to this area.

"The idea is to deal with both problems and do something for everybody," Ed Zotti told Crain’s. "We don't want to get in an adversarial role with anyone, but we want to ask: How do we make the best use of limited federal money" available for new transit projects?

This all sounds great for Chicago. But it also sounds a bit pedestrian and not exactly like a high-leverage opportunity for MacArthur. After all, when it comes to big urban development challenges like mass transit, $100 million is small change. If we had to guess, just a few of the 1,883 other proposals are more compelling. 

Anyway, this is all just speculation. Reviews are going on through November 22, and then up to 10 semi-finalists will be selected by December 6. (At which point we can engage in even more speculation.)

What we can say for sure is that the mechanics of MacArthur's big competition look quite well-designed, at least from the outside. This is a multi-step process which then involves phases for assessment planning, capacity assessment, report response, finalist selection, finalists’ preparation, a pitch event for finalists in early September 2017. Selection of the final award recipient rests with MacArthur’s board of directors. It’s a long road ahead for CACC and the other applicants, but winning MacArthur’s support would be huge. We’ll continue to keep an eye on how this all moves forward.