No Shiny Objects Here: What MacArthur’s Quest for a Big Bet Can (and Can’t) Teach Other Funders

Credit:  Syda Productions/shutterstock

Credit:  Syda Productions/shutterstock

There’s been some pushback lately against public competitions for grant money, as well as philanthropic prizes that seem overhyped. But as my colleague Tate Williams has often pointed out, there’s a wide spectrum of efforts along these lines now underway—from those that waste nonprofits’ time and raise false hopes, to grant competitions that are quite well designed and beat the bushes for new ideas.

The MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change initiative, which is now nearing its finale, seems thoughtfully conceived, at least in its mechanics. The idea, here, is to put $100 million behind “a single proposal that promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.” The foundation has been willing to consider proposals from “any field or problem area.” The selection process has involved external judges vetting submissions, although the foundation will have the final say about who gets the mega-grant.

It’s been cool to see a top foundation throw open its doors in this fashion, and it's hard to think of any comparable effort in the annals of philanthropy—a world where many funders won’t even entertain unsolicited inquiries and where LOIs may have to be molded with great precision to meet detailed program guidelines. Too often, nonprofits that aren’t on the inside track don’t have a prayer when it comes to landing a grant from institutional funders. And even those that do get funding rarely receive the kind of money they actually need to solve the problem they’re working on, much less fully cover their overhead costs. Too many legacy funders only help grantees scratch the surface of major challenges—as opposed to going all-in and backing promising solutions.

MacArthur’s 100&Change has offered a counterpoint to these failings of institutional grantmaking. It cast a wide net, drawing in 7069 registrants and 1904 proposals for tackling a dizzying range of problems, both in the United States and worldwide. And while even $100 million is rarely enough to really move the needle on a problem, it’s the kind of grant commitment that social change nonprofits rarely see. Nine-figure gifts almost always instead go to places like universities, hospitals, and arts institutions.

All that said, it’s hard to be fully enthusiastic about 100&Change—and all the more so as it enters its endgame.

The drawn-out hype around this thing has felt excessive, while the finale sounds like it could be unseemly. MacArthur first unveiled 100&Change in June of last year amid much fanfare. Then came the big announcement of the eight semifinalists in February. And this week brings news of the selection of four finalists. But more press releases can be expected as the finalists start to field online questions later this month and then present their proposals during a live streamed event on December 11 before the MacArthur board of directors—a Shark Tank-like reminder of who really calls the shots in the end, namely the people with the checkbook. The whole selection process will run about 18 months from start to finish before a single dollar of grant money is awarded, although who knows how much has been spent on administering and publicizing 100&Change.

But here’s the real kicker: This competition has yielded a slate of finalists that aren’t so surprising, after all. The selection process confirms what many top philanthropists already know, which is that the surest way to use wealth to make big “measurable progress” on a “critical problem” is to focus on unmet needs in poor countries. This is where the lowest-hanging fruit lies for major funders. And predictably, this is where 100&Change has ended up.

Of the eight semifinalists announced in February, six offered ideas for work in developing countries, including two proposals to tackle preventable blindness. Of the four proposals that have now made the final cut, all are focused on improving life in poor regions of the world. There’s a plan for reducing the deaths of newborns in Africa, another for educating refugee children in the Middle East, a third to move children from orphanages to family-based care, and a fourth for fortifying staple crops in Africa.

These all sound like great proposals, and thanks to 100&Change, they have a shot at being funded on a large scale. Even the losers will receive attention they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten—including, hopefully, from other funders.

Still, it’s not clear why it should have taken 15 months of beating the bushes to identify a handful of good ideas for solving big problems. GiveWell, which evaluates philanthropic opportunities, has long offered a rich menu of carefully vetted options for donors who want a high level of assurance that they’ll get a strong return on their investments. Many of the organizations it endorses work in poor countries, where millions of people still die from preventable causes every year.

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies are both engaged in global giving that delivers lots of bang for the buck and know where reinforcements are needed. Staff at these and other grantmaking institutions could have offered MacArthur good ideas for deploying $100 million—and by now, that money would already be having an impact. Instead, we’ll have a few more months of anxious 100&Change finalists rehearsing their do-or-die PowerPoint presentations.

I get why the MacArthur Foundation didn’t take a more typical path to identifying a new big bet. In that scenario, its board and staff would have been in the driver’s seat the entire time, which is how elite foundations usually operate. And such a process would have greatly reduced the likelihood of surprising new ideas emerging from left field. By experimenting with a highly unusual approach, 100&Change, MacArthur has been making an important statement to its fellow funders: Don’t think you have all the answers. And start making some bigger grants—like, much bigger.

Inadvertently, though, MacArthur has also sent a troubling message with this initiative: that it’s really hard to give away big money to solve critical problems. It’s so hard that you need to scour the world with fresh eyes and ask a panel of judges to help you out. And then you have to agonize for months over which promising proposals to back, as if you’ll likely be wasting a lot of money with the wrong choice.

In fact, there’s a great chance that all eight of the 100&Change semifinalist ideas that emerged in February, mostly from organizations with strong track records, could achieve plenty of impact with Mac’s $100 million, especially since this grant can be used over a period of up to six years. And I bet there’s another bunch of runners-up that could also have put this money to good use.

It’s constantly said that few nonprofits have the capacity to absorb $100 million and use the money wisely. But that seems like nonsense. Looking just at organizations working on global health and development, as well as humanitarian relief, you’ll find plenty of impressive groups with budgets over $200 million and long wish lists as they seek to solve critical problems. Many smaller organizations doing great work could be scaled up to operate on a much higher level, just as venture capitalists scale up businesses all the time.

What’s missing are not nonprofits that can do a whole lot of good with mega-gifts; it’s foundations and major donors ready to make such big bets. It’s been great to see a well-known grantmaker like MacArthur move a large pile of chips onto the table—but frustrating to watch the caution and constipation it’s brought to placing an actual bet. It’s worth remembering that risk is central to the concept of betting. Foundations need to learn to move faster and with less timidity—failing often and failing fast, if need be.

Let’s hope that other funders are inspired by the MacArthur Foundation’s bold vision, while avoiding a process that makes giving on a large scale look harder and scarier than it needs to be.