Marlies Carruth, Director of MacArthur Fellows, discusses findings from an evaluation of the program and how Fellows use the distinctive award to catalyze impact with peers and society.


What makes the MacArthur Fellowship so distinct after more than 40 years? It is a question we hear often. The MacArthur Fellows Program goal of identifying and supporting extraordinarily creative individuals who imagine, design, question, catalyze, inform, and challenge boldly—has not changed since the program’s inception in 1981. We have identified and supported individual creativity and achievement this way for more than four decades.

Recently, we wanted to better understand how we were doing in this cause and how our audiences were receiving our work in this moment. To that end the MacArthur Fellows Program has been engaged in an evaluation and learning exercise. In partnership with external partners, we are collaborating to analyze the impact of our work on Fellows, specifically, and in the broader society, and reflecting on a series of changes made in response to feedback from the previous program review in 2012.

The strategic evaluation was both broad and deep. Learning partners conducted surveys, interviews, public polling, and a landscape review reaching nearly 5,000 network participants, peer organizations, engaged audiences, and nearly half of all 955 living Fellows.

What we have heard so far both surprised us and pleased us.

Uniqueness in Approach

First, after more than forty years, the Fellows program continues to be unique in philanthropy, providing an unusual combination of five-year, “no-strings-attached” financial support across the domains of science, art, social science, public issues, and the humanities. No other Fellowship awards a track record of past accomplishment and the promise of future work, in addition to this basket of award features.

Notable Personal and Professional Impact

Second, the program has had a significant impact on the professional and personal lives of our Fellows, encouraging risk taking and confidence in academic and artistic practices and issue-oriented spaces. It enables bold work that catalyzes change. In the words of one MacArthur Fellow: “It gave me the confidence and financial freedom to pursue new professional dreams.”

Expanding Effects

Additionally, the Fellowship has a positive halo on the Fellows’ fields and on peers who work in the same or contiguous communities of practice. An award to an individual Fellow inspires others nearby. When peers and students of a Fellow share increased visibility and legitimacy in a field, we see that though awards go to individuals, there is collective impact.

Opportunities and Collaboration

Finally, Fellows value the opportunities to connect with other Fellows and build community within new and existing networks. After seven years of supplemental grantmaking for nearly 50 public-facing events hosted by 130 Fellows, we see continued enthusiasm from Fellows to collaborate and to share their work with audiences large and small. Also, a recent convening for Fellows was the first in five years, and hopefully a return to a regular schedule of these events. The talks, performances, discussions, and opportunities for connection at this Fellows Forum were well received by all.

“It gave me the confidence and financial freedom to pursue new professional dreams.”

The work of our external learning partners, though largely complete, will continue into the second quarter of 2024. In response to their recommendations, we will consider a variety of actions, including experimenting with new forms of outreach to new partners and communities and new operational systems to support our work. A full summary of this decennial review will be made public later this year.

This learning exercise could not have come at a more critical time. The moment we are in demands a great deal from all of us. Societal impasse, disagreement, disconnection, and anxiety require us to act, intervene, and course correct before these festering challenges metastasize beyond treatment. We find ourselves with both the responsibility and the opportunity to address our challenges, through engagement, collaboration, imagination, and clear-eyed determination. Together, we can create a society that is sustainable and just. This goal, though daunting, is the obligation of our generational work.

MacArthur Fellows continue to contribute individual creativity to our most pressing problems. As the new year begins, the challenges of the previous year, and the cumulative effects of challenges of years before, loom large. Listening to hear and hearing to act, after rigorous consideration and intentional reflection, is imperative for this moment and beyond.