Design/Build Strategy

We value adaptation, learning, and innovation.

Graphic design image of the words “LIVING DESIGN / BUILD” with a geometric pattern.

MacArthur places a few big bets on areas where truly significant progress is possible and supports a small number of longstanding commitments in areas of interest through enduring commitments. In addition to committing to a change agenda that includes bolder and bigger objectives, fewer and larger programs, and time-limited initiatives focused on demonstrating real results, MacArthur has adopted a Design/Build approach to how we work.

What is Design/Build?

Design/Build as a concept comes from the worlds of architecture and construction. Traditionally, people might hire a designer then bid out the resulting construction as a distinct and sequential step following design work. In Design/Build, there is greater integration across these steps, bringing all members of a project team together early in the process to identify and address issues of cost, constructability, and schedule and allow for greater iteration between the designing and building processes.

In our philanthropic context, Design/Build is an orientation to how we work, recognizing that social problems and conditions are not static. As with building plans, we can't expect to create a strategic plan, make grants, and wait to see our anticipated result at the conclusion of the strategy. Rather, our work can and should evolve along with the context and environment in which they operate, with greater iteration over time. Importantly, the Design/Build approach acknowledges emergence and systems thinking:


The process by which, through many interactions, individual entities create patterns that are more sophisticated than what could have been created by an individual entity. As a corollary, no one entity could have envisioned the entire solution a priority.

System Thinking

Systems thinking focuses on how the thing being studied interacts with the other constituents of the systems of which it is a part. Instead of isolating smaller and smaller parts of the system being studied, systems thinking expands its view to take into account larger numbers of interactions while studying an issue.

This means we can't and won't develop static strategies that presume a fixed understanding of how to reach our objectives. We must explicitly attend to our work in an ongoing way: scan the landscape, understand and challenge our assumptions, assess our effectiveness, measure our contributions, learn from our efforts and take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Geometric shapes to represent systems thinking.

Fundamental Components

Fundamental components of our philanthropic practice include: developing and implementing strategy, monitoring grants, and evaluating our efforts.

Design/Build is intended to help us best advance our goals through our work. As described in Julia Stasch's 2016 President's Essay, "MacArthur is dedicated to a vision of a just, verdant, and peaceful world, but we know there are many paths to getting there—most not yet conceived. There is no assured blueprint for the future, only determination to press on to the goal. What is certain is that we will ask, in our programs and our own practices, if we are doing enough to advance the first and foremost ambition of our mission."

What it Means in Practice

Design/Build exists within strategies that are goal- and timebound, providing parameters within which we exercise these judgements and adaptations over time. At MacArthur, we think about our work happening over time in three stages.

Thinking about a strategy

Staff begin initial strategy development by conducting early thinking to develop the basis for a Big Bet or set of activities within an Enduring Commitment to be reviewed and considered for endorsement by Leadership and the Board.

Thinking about a Big Bet Right Arrow
Thinking about an Enduring Commitment Right Arrow

Implementing a Strategy

Staff continue strategy development and begin executing against a more fully developed strategy during this stage, including grantmaking and non-grantmaking efforts toward the desired goal. During Implementing, staff will iterate between execution and development as information is gained and reflection is had about the work.

More about Implementing a Strategy Right Arrow

Ending A Strategy

Staff wind down strategy execution through an end, exit or legacy Particularly during Thinking and earlier Implementing, we must be explicit about our thinking, be goals-based, and build in and use regular cycles of feedback in our work. Design/Build means that Foundation protocol must allow for flexibility around what we do. This flexibility will increase the likelihood of successful impact around the problems we choose to address. That means Core teams must engage in regular reflection around the work, what we are learning, how our thinking is evolving, and how the context is changing. Processes for doing our work are intended to support greater nimbleness and adaptability. For example, ongoing 18-month planning is intended to avoid false certainty and surety about the long-term approach to a Big Bet or Enduring Commitment and provide space to learn or observe new things about how to proceed. Budgeting over a multi-year horizon and leaving some slack in how dollars are allocated is meant to allow for new ideas or the ability to shift away from something that isn't working.

More about Ending a Strategy Right Arrow

Key Definitions

"Strategy" itself is a set of ideas, approaches, assumptions, and hypotheses. The Foundation has two types of strategies:

Big Bets: Significant resources applied to a single Foundation-selected problem or opportunity in search of large-scale outcomes and impacts within a specified timeframe.

Enduring Commitments: Outcome-oriented investments in areas where the Foundation has longstanding interest and unique assets. Staff roles and activities relative to strategy include monitoring, evaluation and learning.

  • Monitoring occurs at the grant-level to systematically collect and review data and information to assess the progress of a grant. Monitoring activities (e.g., phone calls, site visits, report reviews) fill multiple functions within grants, including relationship building, troubleshooting, field scanning, shared learning, identifying additional supports for the work and checking on accountability/compliance.
  • Our priority is learning from evaluation rather than finding definitive measures of attribution (or even contribution) between our programs and their intended results. We view learning as an ongoing activity that occurs incrementally and iteratively over time. It involves using data and information gathered through evaluation to enhance our understanding of, and guide decisions about, our programs.
  • Learning is an integral part of living Design/Build. Adapting and refining strategy based on learning requires intentional focus, practices and efforts.

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