Finding Optimism and Thinking Big
February 15, 2018 | Perspectives | 100&Change

"Make no little plans; they have no magic… Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."

These words, of course, belong to the famed architect—and Chicago's own—Daniel Burnham. His quote has become a credo of sorts not only for urban planning, but for Chicago itself. At MacArthur we decided to apply those words, and that spirit, to our work. We were encouraged by our Board of Directors to raise our sights, to be bold.

We asked ourselves, what if we made a big bet on a critical challenge? What kind of change is possible?

We asked ourselves, what if we made a big bet on a critical challenge? What kind of change is possible?  

We are applying that approach to specific social challenges, like the existential threat of climate change and criminal justice reform, essential for a functioning democracy. Those are our priorities.  But what about the ambitions of others? As stewards of substantial philanthropic resources, shouldn't we support those as well? 

We said, tell us where you would focus, what issue you would tackle. Tell us about a critical problem of our time and how you could make truly significant progress toward solving it. Tell us what difference $100 million would make. The result was 100&Change: a $100 million grant to make solutions a reality and to make the world a better place.

We learned some critical lessons since the public launch of 100&Change about 18 months ago, including these three:

 

Be Optimistic 

It is easy to become cynical when all you hear is that things are not working and all you see is political fighting and policy gridlock. 100&Change provided the opposite. It highlighted powerful collaborations with game-changing solutions to problems seemingly so intractable that they have to be approached at scale.
We saw it all: creative, thoughtful, insightful, experienced and passionate people with bold solutions to an incredibly diverse array of critical challenges affecting people and places across the country and around the world—eager for a partner.  

 

Be Involved

There are so many opportunities to support important work. 100&Change should not be the only resource. Just as inspiring as the ideas we received were the relationships we watched form—an engaged community connected by common values and the same driving belief that we can all make the world a better place—right now.
We want to continue to nurture the networks that started before us, courageous early stage funders of many of the projects. And we want to nurture the new relationships we saw develop between judges and advisors who helped applicants sharpen their proposals and funders who were introduced to new organizations.

 

Be Bold

Even for an organization like ours that is focused on small number of big bets, a single grant of $100 million is a risky proposition. Ultimately, we awarded $100 million to a partnership of Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee because we felt compelled to respond to the urgent, but overlooked, issue of millions of young Syrian refugees without access to the early education that is critical to future learning, educational attainment, and physical and mental health. Our funds will support the largest early childhood intervention program ever created in a humanitarian setting, with a long-term goal of allocating more humanitarian aid to the educational needs of young children.   

Among the proposals to 100&Change, there are hundreds of projects ready to be supported and to amplify their impact. 

 

In considering the four finalists, our Board looked at the strength of the teams and partnerships, the viability and credibility of the proposal, and each team's ability to sustain the benefits of its project over the long-term. It was almost an impossible decision, as the Board felt they all represent bold systems change and are worthy of support. To signal that to other funders, we awarded three additional grants of $15 million each to Rice 360° Institute for Global Health, HarvestPlus, and Changing the Way We Care.

To repeat what others have said, philanthropy is best positioned to provide society's risk capital. Among the proposals to 100&Change, there are hundreds of projects ready to be supported and to amplify their impact. We see 100&Change as just the beginning, not the end. So we partnered with the Foundation Center to create the 100&Change Solutions Bank, which features nearly 2,000 competition submissions that are searchable by geography, subject, strategy, population served, sustainable development goal alignment, and linked research. Our hope is to help drive investment in these proposals, facilitate collaboration among organizations working on similar problems, and inspire other funders to join us.

We also supported the University of Pennsylvania's Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP), which analyzed the top 200 scored proposals to identify the projects with the greatest potential to achieve the greatest social impact. CHIP's "Bold Ideas for Philanthropists to Drive Social Change" showcases 81 proposals that stood out for the clarity of their social impact and their proposed solution. From those, CHIP's team identified 11 projects that it deemed "Best Bets."

We also worked closely with Charity Navigator, which identified 100&Change participants that it rated with four stars, and shared its analysis with a broad group of individual donors.

This is just the beginning of the types of resources and tools we hope to make available to funders and the field, given the rich repository of proposals we received that are ready to go.

Just as we asked our applicants to think big and just as Daniel Burnham says later in that famous quote, "do things that will stagger us…," we will be bold. We hope others will join us by supporting solutions at scale—at a level far greater than what is typical in philanthropy.

What we heard from nonprofits, universities, foundations, and others is that 100&Change inspired them to think big and to believe that solutions are possible. We have drawn on that optimism. We are encouraged to continue to think big as we take what we have learned and use it to inform what 100&Change will do next. 

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