Q&A: MacArthur Foundation's Cecilia Conrad On How A Single $100 Million Grant Can Move The Needle

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The way Cecilia Conrad of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation tells it, there are many philanthropists with untold wealth on the sidelines while worthy charitable organizations striving for social change go unnoticed or under-resourced.

Most people know the MacArthur Foundation for its support of PBS television programming, but a host of other MacArthur programs also do social good.

Conrad is the managing director for MacArthur as well as 100&Change, the foundation’s competition for a single $100 million grant to help solve a pressing social issue now launching its second instalment. She’s also CEO of Lever For Change, a non-profit that helps philanthropists identify and support high-impact philanthropic opportunities with bespoke competitions. Conrad also oversees the MacArthur Fellows Program and its "genius grants," which award individuals with no strings-attached grants to pursue creative excellence.

The first 100&Change competition winner to receive $100 million in December 2017 was the Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee as they teamed to educate young children displaced by the Syrian conflict in the Middle East.

Samaritanmag talked to the Conrad about taking big bets on charitable organizations and matching them with wealthy philanthropists willing to tackle social issues radically different in scale, scope, and complexity — and how to do all that through a rigorous, open and transparent process.

For the second 100&Change competition, you've introduced Lever For Change to fine tune a shortlist of applicants and also run bespoke competitions to identify and evaluate charity-giving proposals for philanthropists. Tell us the thinking behind that.

The genesis of 100&Change happened before the first competition in 2017. The Foundation was in the process of reimagining its work and focusing our attention on a few big bets and enduring commitments. And as we did that, we were conscious that we were making the decisions about what success would be, and what the enduring commitments would be. So we wanted the space to be more open, to hear from people outside the foundation, from all of the wonderful minds out there in the fields of social change to see what they wanted us to do with the $100 million. That was the idea for 100&Change as a competition. It was focused on identifying for the foundation where a $100 million grant could really move the needle on solving a social problem. But when we did that, we realized we were finding not only a great idea for the foundation, but uncovering many great ideas. And we started getting phone calls, partly from institutional funders, and a few individual philanthropists, who were interested in seeing what we uncovered through this big open call. So we stared to think about how we could take these ideas and best get them in front of other donors and philanthropists, and if was there a mechanism to help address the aspiration gap.

And what is that aspiration gap?

There are many ultra-high net worth families who have expressed a desire to give away their money. But they are not doing so at a pace that even they say they would like to. They may want to give away half of their wealth before they die, and they're giving away 1 percent and they're earning about 8 percent. The question then is can we use this mechanism, an open and transparent call, with a commitment to supporting applicants beyond the winner, and can we offer that as a tool to other philanthropists? That's the idea for Lever For Change. It has evolved from 100&Change and it's really a service we might do for other funders.

You'll continue then with 100&Change as you roll out Lever For Change?

MacArthur will continue to do 100&Change, probably every three or four years, and at the same time we are finding other donors, other philanthropists, who will support their own open calls with separate awards. We have one that the Pritzker Traubert Foundation will be opening very shortly. We have a couple anonymous donors who have committed to working with us, one on economic opportunity in the U.S. and another on climate. And there's some more that are in the pipeline. This is kind of a pilot. We're going to see if this is a good way to help donors find the projects they want to fund. And whenever we run a competition, the other best proposals that emerge, we're committed to helping them with their messaging, helping get them in front of other philanthropists. Some philanthropists don't want to run their own competitions. They just want to see what we get from others.

You mention there are philanthropists who can't give away their money fast enough. Which means so much wealth is being kept on the sidelines as worthy charities without proper messaging or scale struggle to achieve social change. So are you really in the match-making business?

That's right. We're asking philanthropists who have become our partners to make a minimum commitment of $10 million, and to make that as a multi-year grant, because we do want to give organizations the ability to think bigger than they have been able to do in the past. And then we're prepared to support them as they consider how to think bigger. Because if you've always had to do with $1 million here and $1 million there, you've not been able to step back and come up with, “What if I had $10 million, or $15 million or $100 million? How would I deploy that and how would I implement that?” So we're providing support to the organizations and we're matching organizations with funders who are willing to step up.

As you evaluate organizations to see whether they can raise their game, what are the one or two things you've observed that consistently hold them back?

The first thing is what we just discussed, that there's just not that many opportunities in terms of grants going out that allow you to plan and to think big. There's a big wide space in grants, between the $10 million and the $100 million. Second, in terms of thinking about how you're going to scale, there's many choices to be made. We work with some scaling experts to help support the organizations, to think about how to do that.

What are the questions to weigh when pursuing scale for social impact?

There’s so many choices to make. There's scaling where the single organization gets larger. There's scaling where you bring on other partners. There's scaling where you need to consider how to adapt what you're doing to a new population. So there's all kinds of questions that organizations haven't had a chance to sit down and think deeply about. The space and opportunity to do that is important. And you need patience to be able to work with organizations to define interim milestones that a philanthropist or a donor feels comfortable with to measure progress over time.

Are you helping charities scale up for social impact in size of staffing and size to achieve their goals, or to scale across different regions or continents for greater impact?

All of the above. We use scale as a loose term over here. It doesn't just mean an organization growing in size. We're particularly focused on how to use scale for impact. For example, one of our finalists (for the 2017 100&Change competition) was Catholic Relief Services who, in a collaboration with two other organizations, had a plan for how we care for orphans globally. They were very ambitious. Their model for impact was to focus on a couple countries where they would demonstrate how it could be done, where you could move from institutional-based care to family care. The notion was, if they could demonstrate this could be done, they could persuade private philanthropy and governments to redirect where they spent their money. So the scale there will be demonstrated in a small number of places that this could work. It's a form of scaling of impact. It's not the organization that is growing. They are just working in each of these countries to help create the demonstration.

Was allowing charities the space and time to develop and pitch impressive plans to donors a lesson you learnt with the first 2017 100&Change competition?

MacArthur gave $100 million to Sesame Street and the International Rescue Committee (for Syrian education), and we hadn't planned to do so, but we gave three additional $15 million grants and what we found in working with the others is that, for example, a couple projects attracted supplemental funding and were broken into phases, and we were able to work with each of them to really come up with a plan and funders really began to step up. So it is an element of being given the space and the chance to make a really compelling pitch on how you can use that amount of capital effectively. Funders do respond to that.

Can you give us more of a picture of the major high-worth philanthropists you deal with? Are they families without their own foundation or personnel to identify worthy charities? Are they people not yet retired, and so without time on their hands to find worthy causes to back?

As I look at the list of the donor partners who are already on board with us so far, I'd say they are not fully retired, and some aren't even close to retirement. They have maybe done philanthropy to an educational institution or their university, or they may have done smaller giving at the local level and they are excited about looking outside their normal giving and doing something bigger. They typically have little staff. In one case, there's no staff. But in other cases, there's two or three people who are helping with their philanthropic giving. I'd also say they're all families at the moment. There's no one individual. Some are just getting started, and they see this as a way to consider the landscape, to find out what is out there, and help them decide where they might want to focus their future giving. We also have interest from what I call intermediaries, who tend to be wealth advisors also interested in advising on philanthropy. And they are really conscious of the need for funds to flow out of accounts.

It's significant that you want these bespoke competitions to match donors and for charities to be open and transparent so other players in philanthropy can learn from them. Explain why this is important for you.

The value of transparency for us happens on multiple levels. There's a close relationship between being open and being transparent. It's very hard to convince anyone that you are open if you're not transparent. And it's always been with MacArthur that we want to open the doors outside our network, outside of those who might typically have access to private philanthropy. And part of having that was needing to describe a transparent process for helping good works, and we wanted people to learn what inhibited their project from moving forward. That's a commitment that we're maintaining for all the competitions. We also wanted to share what projects we received. One of the key reasons is we did want to get them in front of other funders. And we found with 100&Change that there's organizations engaged in very similar work, and with very similar goals, in local areas across the globe who might benefit in learning that others exist. There's a value from transparency in helping people in the field to find each other.

You mentioned earlier bringing in experts to help organizations with their applications get beyond what had been holding them back. What are the lessons learned from that experience?

With our semi-finalists in 100&Change, we brought in a group, MSI (Management Systems International), which has expertise in scaling, and helping them to redefine and scale their proposals. That was a piece that was missing, that we helped them develop. Another was just a question of framing and pitching. We gave our semi-finalists and finalists a workshop where we helped them imagine the mindset of donors and family foundations and what kinds of things that they might be looking for. And that could help them craft their message and present their project in a way that it could immediately resonate with those philanthropists and donors. We found with 100&Change that, even with the strongest organizations, their executive summaries for their projects were not terribly compelling. What's wonderful about these organizations is they are so committed to their work, and when they allocate resources for their work, they don't necessarily have the expertise and help for messaging. That's another space where we've tried to offer additional support.

But surely there are some organizations whose ability to pitch exceeds their ability to deliver on their proposal and work, while others are, as you say, better at their good work than messaging. How do you identify which organizations are best positioned to succeed, even if they can't express that potential as readily as others?

We've designed a process through the use of external evaluators who really are reading and critiquing the projects and looking at the evidence to find those really good ideas that might otherwise have gone unseen, because they don't have connections or, I don't want to use the word “charisma,” but maybe that's the word. And this is the commitment to Lever For Change, is we can commit some resources to help them with the other piece, the messaging.

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