Taking Risk and Requiring Evidence
January 6, 2017 | Perspectives | 100&Change, 100&Change Funding Partners, 100&Change Applicants

As I wrote in my recent annual essay, taking more risk is an imperative for philanthropy in the current era of sweeping national and global change and declining trust in key institutions, including those that undergird our democracy. Foundations can be far less risk averse than government, which invests public dollars, or the private sector, which must answer to shareholders. In short, philanthropy is best positioned to provide society’s “risk capital.”

Some thoughtful critics have charged that MacArthur is not actually modeling that imperative in 100&Change, which requires evidence of effectiveness as an essential element of a successful proposal. On the contrary, risk is at the center of the competition. A single grant of $100 million is inherently risky. The complexity of an open competition, with proposals welcomed from anywhere in the world, on any topic or issue, increases the risk.   

There is risk involved in the decision to look beyond—indeed far beyond—our own small number of areas of focus and the deep staff expertise we have developed in each of them. 

A single grant of $100 million is inherently risky.

An additional source of risk in 100&Change comes from the transparency to which we have committed ourselves. Information about all proposals will be available online. We are sharing details of our evaluation process, including the names of the more than 400 round one judges and the reasons proposals did not move forward. Each eligible applicant will receive feedback from judges, including scores and specific comments. Our blog series shares our thinking on key competition decisions and challenges and provides regular updates.

100&Change is a competition for solutions and significant impact, not just for great ideas. Herein lies the greatest risk—the risk of actually being able to implement something meaningful at scale. That’s where evidence comes in. We did not ask for evidence that proposed solutions have been implemented at the scale of $100 million. We asked for evidence that the central idea was sound and would provide a solid foundation for the risky process of implementing it at real scale, often in multiple places with the challenge of local context and variable replication. 

We required that applicants provide rigorous evidence that their proposed solution would effectively address the problem they identified. Compelling evidence could include:

  • Data from an external evaluation of a pilot project or experimental study;
  • Citations in peer-reviewed research indicating a strong scientific consensus; and
  • Documentation of a detailed pathway from the proposed actions to specific outcomes.

All of this is not an abundance of caution, but a strategic, foundational investment in the impact that is the goal of 100&Change.

Of course, there is a legitimate, compelling place for a competition for good ideas, even at their earliest stages. In our own increasing focus on openness and respect for the energies and efforts of others, we might provide resources for good ideas. Such ideas might even help build a pipeline for a future 100&Change award.  

Finally, as it turns out, the high degree of interest and robust participation in 100&Change risks broad disappointment among organizations and coalitions that spent a lot of time and energy putting together comprehensive proposals. We are addressing that certainty with a plan to make public key information about all serious proposals, to curate the submissions for other interested funders, and to market them in an effort increase the number and range of projects that may receive resources. 

My essay committed MacArthur to operating more openly and creatively, listening carefully, taking more risk, helping support others’ ambitions and talents, and making real progress in solving urgent problems, using all available means. I am convinced that 100&Change does just that.

We welcome challenges to our approach and thoughtful critique. Both help make us a better steward of our resources and increase the likelihood of achieving the impact we seek.

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