News and analysis
February 15, 2017

MacArthur Names 8 Semifinalists in $100 Million Grant Competition


HarvestPlus, a semifinalist for MacArthur’s $100 million grant, has proposed reducing malnutrition in rural Africa by breeding nutrient-rich staple foods such as orange maize, now being grown by hundreds of thousands of farmers in Zambia.

Proposals by the Carter Center to eliminate river blindness in Nigeria, by Catholic Relief Services to improve the care of children living in orphanages, and by the Human Diagnosis Project to connect underserved patients virtually with medical specialists are among the eight "big ideas" that will compete for a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

"These eight ambitious proposals exemplify the passion, range, and creativity of the hundreds of applications," Julia Stasch, the fund’s president, said in a statement Wednesday announcing the semifinalists in its 100&Change contest. "We hope that the competition inspires individuals and organizations to be bold and think big, because solutions are possible."

Unveiled in June 2016, the competition was a clarion call to the brightest nonprofit, civic, business, and academic minds. The aim is to catalyze great ideas to tackle the biggest problems "affecting people, places, or the planet," according to the foundation. 100&Change fits within a strategy shift at MacArthur that has included ending some traditional grant-making programs to focus more intensely on a handful of major issues, including climate change and criminal justice.

The semifinalists announced Wednesday include a proposal by the Himalayan Cataract Project to eliminate blindness in Ghana, Ethiopia, and Nepal by training community health professionals and delivering low-cost, sight-restoring cataract surgery. The Internet Archive proposed working with traditional libraries to create a digital storehouse of 4 million books accessible to people around the world. The organization has already digitized 540,000 books in the past six years.

Learn More About Prize Philanthropy

MacArthur’s $100 million competition is just one of many contests turning grant making into a glitzy, freewheeling event. Read more in our new report, 'What Will Matter in 2017.'

Rice University said it wants to reduce childhood mortality in Africa by developing and implementing infant-care technologies that help manage labor and delivery, keep babies warm, and treat jaundice, among other things. The technologies and measures have already proven highly effective in poor regions of the world.

The International Rescue Committee and Sesame Workshop submitted a joint plan to produce multimedia educational content for the tens of millions of children around the world displaced by conflict. Featuring the Muppets, the programing will be tailored to reflect the realities of refugee life and help ease trauma.

The international nonprofit HarvestPlus proposed tackling nutritional deficits in rural Africa that commonly lead to stunted growth, blindness, and cognitive impairment by breeding hardy strains of nutrient-rich staple foods like corn, cassava, and wheat.

Bev Postma, chief executive of HarvestPlus, said in an email that Africa is already making strides in improving nutrition and local economies with this approach to agriculture.

"This grant from the MacArthur Foundation would greatly accelerate this movement and help to move closer to the permanent eradication of hidden hunger and poverty," she said.

Hundreds Eliminated

MacArthur said it received 1,904 applications for the $100 million grant, four-fifths arriving within three days of the October 3 deadline. Proposals were judged on four main criteria: meaningfulness, verifiability, durability, and feasibility.

In winnowing down the pool, the foundation said it eliminated 463 proposals because their budgets were well below $100 million. Others lacked empirical evidence showing proposed solutions would be effective. For still others, the lead applicants failed to demonstrate sufficient financial transparency. Sixty-six proposals were nixed because they would materially benefit the people or organizations behind them. Individuals were not allowed to apply, but some sought to flout that rule by creating limited-liability corporations with only themselves as staff.

At the other end of the transparency spectrum, Civilla, a Detroit nonprofit that works largely with government agencies to improve the delivery of public services, produced a podcast to document its work on its proposal, inviting the world to follow along.

In the coming months, the semifinalists will work to show they have the organizational and technical capacity to execute their proposals. They must also demonstrate that they are involved in the communities they hope to serve. The MacArthur board will select up to five finalists in September, with the announcement of the $100 million award scheduled for December.

"It is our hope that these creative proposals will benefit from expert feedback, technical assistance, and public attention," Cecilia Conrad, the MacArthur managing director who is leading the competition, said in a statement. "And that they attract funding from other sources, even if they do not win 100&Change."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.