Bringing grants to life
Most of what MacArthur accomplishes does not happen in our offices on South Dearborn Street in Chicago. Our mission is to empower creative people and organizations across the U.S. and around the world; their achievements justify our existence as a private foundation. This brief essay is a tribute to our grantees, with a focus on those I have met, and a consideration of how foundations go about their work.
Since becoming president of MacArthur, I have travelled to each of the countries in which we have offices (India, Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia), to some of our grantees in the United States, and to many of the organizations we support in Chicago. I have learned that time spent with grantees in the field brings to life the challenges they face, the expertise they bring to bear, and the complex environments in which they work.
I have seen conservationists trying to save biodiversity in the forests of Madagascar, courageous human rights workers in Moscow and Lagos, and doctors training traditional birth assistants in Rajasthan and Chiapas. I have seen juvenile justice practitioners rehabilitating young offenders in Louisiana; community financing experts bringing affordable credit to low-income people; groups in Chicago's neighborhoods building community and creating opportunity; and arts organizations reaching out to underserved schools, lifting the ambitions of students while honing their talents.
On each visit, I have come away more impressed with the quality of our grantees, their talent and creativity, their energy and determination—often in the face of overwhelming odds.
My background in the world of nuclear issues leads me to think in terms of the sciences, pure and applied. To build a reactor or nuclear device one needs both physics and engineering. Philanthropy too has theoretical and practical dimensions.
For MacArthur, the "physics" is our framework of strategic grantmaking. We locate pressing problems, research ways to address them, and establish goals for what we hope to accomplish. When we set the direction of our grantmaking, we are choosing from an overwhelming array of worthy alternatives; it is vital that we choose wisely and plan carefully and realistically.
Our staff is experienced and accomplished in charting our course, refining our understanding of issues, and identifying the points at which our action would have the most leverage.
In most of our work, however, we are trying to have an impact on large, complex, and intractable systems. Changes in government, economic recession, or rising commodity prices can each upset a carefully prepared strategy and are entirely beyond our control. Still larger shifts, in political sentiment, or demography, or climate, can threaten gains we have made or unsettle our calculations for the future.
That makes an intimate knowledge of places, societies, and systems essential. Our grantees, on the front lines of engagement, have that knowledge. They can best outline a vision for practical change, and then find the strategies that are likely to work in their situations and the tactics to apply them in practice.