PRESIDENT'S ESSAY

Assessing Information

Building a new philanthropic initiative begins with a process much like that of analyzing intelligence. We start with questions: Is this an important issue or problem? Can anything be done to address it? Can MacArthur alone or with others have a meaningful impact?

To answer these questions, program staff members undertake an extensive review of what is known. They examine a range of evidence, commission studies, and consult widely with experts and practitioners. In many cases, what we learn persuades us that the issue is not suited to our strengths, or is beyond our capacities to impact significantly.

Helping to increase social and economic opportunities for low-income Chicagoans, MacArthur supports the New Communities Program, a comprehensive community revitalization effort in 16 Chicago neighborhoods. Photo: Marc PoKempner

At present, we are exploring the high incarceration rates in the United States. Why does America imprison a higher proportion of its citizens than any other nation? What are the effects on individuals, their families, communities, and society as a whole? Is the system ripe for reform? What credible alternatives can be imagined? As part of our investigation, and in partnership with the Department of Justice, we are funding an expert panel on the issue convened by the National Academy of Sciences, commissioning papers, and consulting widely before we consider committing ourselves to a program of grantmaking.

Over the last year, we have been looking closely at aspects of America’s political system, guided by the intuition that an increasingly divided republic is not being well served by a contentious climate in the media, by elected representatives who appear unable to compromise and build consensus, and by the organization and funding of our electoral processes. We have consulted with scholars, and studied media trends, campaign finance, redistricting, and the sources and consequences of increasing inequality. So far, we are not persuaded that we have discovered a path to radical change for the better, but we will continue to deepen our understanding and make modest grants to organizations working to make our democracy function more efficiently and fairly.

Sometimes our preliminary investigations uncover a system that is ripe for development, needing only a catalyzing influence. We recently decided that girls’ education in the developing world offered promising opportunities, particularly at the secondary level. A 2010 grant to the Center for Universal Education at Brookings led to a policy document, developed in consultation with stakeholders in the field. The document, A Global Compact on Learning, sets out an agenda for education in developing nations. It has received enthusiastic support from government and private donors and from civil society organizations, and was endorsed at meetings held during last year’s UN General Assembly opening session. We hope that education and learning will be prominent in the next set of goals that form the global development agenda, after the current Millennium Development Goals expire. We are now moving into a second phase of work, during which we will help establish a research agenda for secondary education, bring participants from developing countries to the table, implement pilot programs, and try to align the interests of more than 30 funder organizations.

We need to hold ourselves accountable, be clear about our goals and methods, and make sure that everything we do is open to independent assessment.

MacArthur’s research networks are perhaps the best known examples of our commitment to learning through a structure that is collaborative and interdisciplinary. In some cases, such as the Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, the findings of a network are powerful enough to lead to a substantial area of work—in this case the Models for Change initiative, which advances replicable models of effective, fair, and developmentally sound juvenile justice systems. The influential Successful Aging Network led to the new Research Network on an Aging Society. In other areas, like the transition to adulthood and regional resilience, a network stands alone as a contribution to knowledge in the field.