News and analysis
March 11, 2015

New MacArthur President Promises Grant Making With a More Immediate Impact

Julia Stasch, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is working to fight climate change and improve the conditions of people in prison.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation looked within its own ranks to pick its new president, Julia Stasch, who has promised to instill a sense of urgency at the grant maker.

Ms. Stasch served as interim head of the Chicago foundation since the departure of Robert Gallucci last July. For the previous 13 years, she led U.S. programs for the fund, which had $6.3 billion in assets in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available.

When Mr. Gallucci departed, MacArthur’s board chair, Marjorie Scardino, said she would look for a "new kind of leadership" that would accelerate the foundation’s work.

The board undertook an extensive search, Ms. Scardino said, and in the end, "we kept measuring everybody against Julia."

Ms. Scardino credited Ms. Stasch with creating a $75 million effort to relieve overcrowding in jails and designing a yet-to-be-announced effort to promote impact investing.

Under Ms. Stasch, the foundation, which works in the areas of human rights, conservation, security, and urban issues, is more likely to focus on fewer programs to free up resources — and support newer, unproven ideas.

"The times call for a slightly less deliberative process than has characterized philanthropy for a long time," Ms. Stasch said.

Too often, she said, large foundations spend a long time dissecting a challenge before taking action.

"It’s fine to have a pedagogical approach," she said, "but shouldn’t we be actually working on a problem?"

$100-Million Challenge

Ms. Stasch says that as interim president she worked to make the foundation’s impact more immediate. "I never thought I was just warming the seat," she said.

Part of her plan, now that the seat is hers, is to commit $100 million to a challenge aimed at solving a single social problem. The foundation hasn’t specified what that problem will be but said it will ask for public input on how the money is designated.

Efforts like the planned challenge are more risky than MacArthur’s previous grant making, Ms. Stasch said, and she’s braced for the possibility of failure. "You have to be prepared for some of the things you support to not have as positive an outcome as you hoped," she said.

At least one MacArthur grantee is pleased with the foundation's selection of a new leader.

"Julia Stasch is a great choice for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and for the field of philanthropy,” said Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, in a statement. “She appreciates the big, transformative ideas as well as the importance of executing on small, under-appreciated good ones. She understands the art and science of grant making and philanthropic leverage."

Added Mr. Turner, a former managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation: "Just as importantly, she has the deep practical experience and knowledge to know what it takes to translate those things in the real world and change lives on the ground."

Ms. Stasch is the first MacArthur president without a background in academia. Before joining the foundation, she served as chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and deputy administrator of the General Services Administration.

Other large foundations, like MacArthur, have also searched far and wide, only to find their next leader within the building, bucking a previous trend of picking presidents from outside philanthropy. (Mr. Gallucci’s previous job was as dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.)

In 2013, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation picked La June Montgomery Tabron, who rose through its ranks for nearly three decades, to be president. The same year, the Ford Foundation called on Darren Walker, who had worked at Ford for several years, to serve as leader.

"There are a number of organizations with tremendous bench strength," said Vernetta Walker, chief governance officer at BoardSource, a membership organization for nonprofit board members. "These people know their organizations inside and out, and very often they’re the best person for the spot."

This article is corrected from a previous version that stated the foundation would make no changes in its areas of focus.

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