What We’re Learning About MacArthur’s Philanthropy Powerball Experiment

 An African woman rejoices after cataract surgery

An African woman rejoices after cataract surgery

What could you do with $100 million dollars? That was the question the MacArthur Foundation posed to the world last year when it launched its already famed 100&Change program. 

The answer I proposed back when it was announced was providing a bunch of general operating support to a coalition of community-led groups working on a systemic problem. But I don’t have $100 million, so those are the breaks. 

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From the start, it's been tempting to see 100&Change as gimmicky philanthropy, brought to us by the same brand-conscious foundation that invented the "genius" awards—that annual airdrop of cash on recipients who, by and large, have already succeeded in fancy careers. 

But actually, there's a lot to like about this initiative. It’s a refreshing experiment in moving a whole lot of money, which shows that MacArthur really is looking to shake things up under its new president, Julia Stasch, and its big bet-focused revamp. An open and transparent call for proposals, done right, can introduce a breath of fresh air to the philanthropic arena. The recently announced semifinalists are also very impressive, taking on issues from blindness to digital knowledge. Here are a few stray observations—some criticisms and some kudos. 

A lot of people spent a lot of time on this

One knock on philanthropic competitions is that they often make applicants spend a ton of time with very little chance of any benefit whatsoever. In the case of 100&Change, there were 1,900 entries. The application was not brief, and I’ll let you get out a calculator and ballpark the amount of time spent on 1,900 proposals. Also note that 80 percent of applications were submitted in the three days before the deadline, and about 1,100 of the applications were ultimately disqualified, leaving only 800 standing. For that reason, I wish more of these contests would heed suggestions to have first-round proposals be much easier on applicants (and judges).

An interesting development, however, is that, along with the eight semifinalists prominently highlighted by the foundation, all applicants will eventually be included by MacArthur in a searchable database. That’s a step in the right direction toward providing at least some potential benefit for participants, and we've written about other competitions that pay quite a bit of attention to boosting the runners-up. Hopefully, the foundation is thinking about other ways to help out those who don’t place, especially the semi-finalists. In an era when lots of deep-pocketed donors are said to be looking for shovel-ready big bets, one dividend of 100&Change could be to serve up a menu of such bets in an easy-to-use way. (MacArthur should be talking to Bridgespan about this, since the consulting firm has become a leader lately in scouting out large-scale investment opportunities for the new donor class.) 

It's looking like traditional program support, just bigger

The elevator pitch for 100&Change was something like, "If you have the ingenuity, we’ll give you huge resources to solve a problem." The finer print specifies “make measurable progress toward solving a significant problem.” And the semifinalists mostly fall under the latter category—making progress. Largely poverty or health-focused, they scale up or kick off programs like providing educational content to displaced children, or online healthcare expertise to uninsured Americans. 

This is not in any way a knock on these semifinalists, which would all likely make a great impact. But we’re mainly talking about some pretty standard philanthropy—project funding to meet a set of deliverables within a larger entrenched problem. Which raises the question: Aside from the amount, is that really a big bet? If we’re talking about incremental progress, why not just give organizational support so those on the ground can become stronger forces in their ongoing battles? 

Some of the semifinalists could make a big dent

The cool thing about some of these projects, however, is that they do bite off a big enough chunk that a winner could feasibly spend the money and mark a big fat “CHECK” on their list. And that’s pretty impressive. In some cases, these are clearly one-time expenditures that, once covered, could accomplish their goals. 

One example is a proposal from the Internet Archive to help libraries overcome hurdles that have prevented them from meeting their potential as digital lenders. The $100 million would digitize and make available to libraries 4 million of the most widely held and used books, reducing digitizing costs through scale. And a number of the projects target one health issue, such as preventable blindness, in one region, in hopes that the strategy can be replicated elsewhere.

Go global to get the greatest bang for the buck

A final observation, here, is that six out of eight of the semifinalist ideas are for work in developing countries. The Carter Center made the cut, with its proposal to eliminate river blindness in Nigeria. HarvestPlus, another semifinalist, put forth a plan to reduce hunger in Africa by fortifying staple crops. Himalayan Cataract offered a proposal to eliminate needless blindness in three countries. 

As it turns out, if you have $100 million and want to make truly dramatic progress on a big problem, the lowest-hanging fruit is in poorest countries. Of course, top philanthropists like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg have long known this and allocated their grant dollars accordingly. Many newer donors, though, find it intimidating to work in far-off and unfamiliar places. Let's hope one of them scoops up a 100&Change semifinalist that doesn't win, yet has a strong idea that's already been closely vetted.

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In some ways, MacArthur is really breaking some new ground for a big institutional funder. In others, it’s business as usual. But it’s an experiment in progress, and one that could show the possibilities when larger sums are unlocked, and hopefully lead to some even bolder approaches in future iterations.