News and analysis
June 02, 2016

MacArthur to Give $100 Million to 1 Group to Solve 1 Big Problem

MacArthur Foundation president Julia Stasch announced 10 months ago that the grant maker was going to focus on work that would have a “transformative” impact on climate change and criminal justice.

Dream big. That’s what the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is telling organizations to do as they pitch proposals to win a single $100 million grant to solve any of the world’s biggest problems. The competition, announced today, called 100&Change, will award the grant to a nonprofit or for-profit entity that offers the best idea for tackling a big problem “affecting people, places, or the planet,” the foundation said.

The announcement comes 10 months after Julia Stasch, the new leader of the MacArthur Foundation, declared it was ending some of its traditional grant-making programs to focus more on work to have a “transformative” impact on climate change and criminal justice.

But she made clear that MacArthur also wanted to find problems the foundation hadn’t even tried to deal with and solutions nobody had invested in with a big pot of money. Her goal, she told The Chronicle, was to find ideas that would “significantly mitigate a major problem or seize a compelling opportunity.

Cecilia Conrad, the foundation’s managing director and the person running the 100&Change program, said in an interview this week: “There are problems with solutions that we might be able to have an impact on that we don’t immediately know about.”

MacArthur recognizes that other foundations may be in search of such ideas, too — so it will encourage other grant makers to back the top ideas that don’t get the $100 million prize.

Open to All Groups

While the size of the prize is remarkable, so, too, is the fact that any organization with a proven solution to any major social problem may apply for the money, a stark contrast to the typical foundation practice of accepting only solicited applications in predetermined categories. More than 70 percent of foundations do not accept unsolicited grants, the Foundation Center reports.

“It is an exceptionally bold and distinctive decision in that it runs counter to a lot of the established norms in philanthropy but has the potential to make tremendous impact,” said William Foster, head of the consulting practice at the Bridgespan Group. Mr. Foster and his colleagues produced a major study last year that concluded one reason more donors don’t give to social-change efforts is that organizations aren’t often given the chance to think big and devise ambitious projects worthy of investments of the size MacArthur is giving.

Although a few other grant makers, including the new collective Blue Meridian Partners, have emerged or shifted to support “big bets” with grants of up to $200 million apiece, it’s still a relatively rare practice.  

“We are woefully underinvesting in what works,” wrote Nancy Roob, chief executive of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in a letter last year announcing the creation of Blue Meridian Partners.

Criteria to Apply

The contest for the $100 million MacArthur grant will have three stages. Organizations that want to apply must register with the foundation by September 2 and submit proposals by October 3. In December, a panel of judges from outside the foundation will select 10 semifinalists based on how meaningful, verifiable, feasible, and durable the proposed solutions are. Evidence that a proposal will work could take the form of a prototype product, pilot project, or randomized, controlled trial, Ms. Conrad says.

They must also prove they have had “authentic and substantive engagement” with the people they want to help, she says.

MacArthur will provide semifinalists with money and advice to figure out how to expand and copy their proposed solutions, plus how to identify key metrics to evaluate their work. The foundation is offering that aid to ensure that nonprofits with big ideas but not enough resources to immediately absorb a $100 million grant can still participate, Ms. Conrad says.

The pool is to be whittled down to five finalists in the summer of 2017. And in the fall, those five competitors will present their proposals to the MacArthur board, which will choose the winner.

But in an unusual twist, other grant makers will hear their pitches, too, because MacArthur hopes other foundations will decide to support the projects that don’t win the 100&Change competition.

Stimulating New Ideas

The possibility of winning a $100 million grant may “change the market” of ideas by stimulating the imaginations of nonprofit leaders who previously wouldn’t have wasted time on a plan that ambitious, according to Mr. Foster.

“As a society, we have no idea how many leaders and organizations can develop compelling $100 million ideas until we start asking for them,” he says. “The hardest thing is the ambition. They set a very high bar.”

Not wanting to limit anyone’s inventiveness, Ms. Conrad declined to provide an example of the kind of proposal the foundation is hoping to receive.

“What would you do with $100 million?” she says. “We are really open. I’m excited to see what ideas come from the public.”

Send an email to Rebecca Koenig.