"How Foundations Innovate," Remarks by Jonathan F. Fanton at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education Annual Meeting
June 4, 2008 | Speech | The Power of Measuring Social Benefits, Conservation & Sustainable Development, Digital Media & Learning

Let me begin by saying that I feel very much at home here at the CASE Conference. I have deep personal appreciation for your work. In the mid-70's, I reorganized the Yale foundation and corporate relations office and then led its capital campaign for a season. Later I came with Hanna Gray to the University of Chicago to reshape its development program. And of course, as President of the New School for Social Research for 17 years, I was constantly in a fundraising mode.

I arrived at MacArthur with some skepticism about foundations. I had suffered my share of rejections:

  • “Not in program.”
  • “We don’t do general support, but here is our idea you could try to fit into.”
  • “We have suspended grantmaking while we go through a strategic review.”

Looking back after nine years on the other side, I now realize my approach to foundations was flawed. I tried to arrange summit meetings between the university and foundation presidents to present our gift opportunities. I tried to be a traffic cop queuing up visits from deans to foundations in an order that reflected our internal priorities. I have now learned where the action is: principal to principal. I realize my job was to stimulate more faculty and deans to visit foundations so they could come to know program officers directly. And I know now that it was my job to track the latest developments at foundations, and figure out which school, faculty, program, or project spoke to the foundation’s interests.

This is easier now than it was 30-40 years ago. Foundation websites give you good current information. And foundation program officers are out and about more at professional meetings, where faculty and deans are likely to meet them.

With that general advice in mind, I want to preview some new initiatives at MacArthur, some public, some still in formation. And while I am at it, let me offer some insights into how foundations decide to undertake new initiatives.

First, a few words about MacArthur’s current program. We are best known for the MacArthur Fellows – the so-called “genius grants” – and our support of public television and radio. But they are a small part of what we do. About 40 percent of our grantmaking goes to international programs: conservation, population and reproductive health, human rights and international justice, migration, and international peace and society, principally reducing dangers from weapons of mass destruction.

At home we concentrate on urban economic and community development, housing, juvenile justice reform, and education, especially how technology is changing the way young people learn and how institutions must adapt. We also give attention to domestic policy issues, for example how the looming fiscal crisis poses a threat to social programs.

Over time, our endowment has grown to 6.6 billion dollars, and next year we will make grants and program related investments of over 300 million dollars. We are a steady funder, keeping the grant levels up even as markets turn down. We also stay with fields: our conservation work began in 1986, Peace and Security in 1984, and Community Development in 1980. We have built deep staff expertise and an extensive network in those fields. Our convening capacity is strong where our roots are deep; our reputation as a leader in a field gives us another basket of assets to deepen our impact beyond the money.

But a foundation like ours also has tremendous freedom to tackle new issues and take risks. Mr. MacArthur left no instructions about how his money was to be used. His only comment to the founding trustees was: “I figured out how to make the money. You fellows will have to figure out how to spend it.”

In recent years our trustees have looked at our grantmaking as a portfolio, much as our investment managers view our assets. We set aside a portion of our philanthropy for new initiatives, some of them speculative. And we periodically review our programs to ensure we are still working on significant issues, to see if we are still on the leading edge, and to consider if we have achieved our goals in a particular program.

We think about the process of innovation in four ways:

  • refreshing existing fields,
  • responding to timely opportunities and changes in context,
  • adapting to geopolitical trends, and
  • developing entirely new, sometimes speculative initiatives.

Let me give you a few examples of how our grantmaking has evolved in these four ways. So, fasten your seat belts for the headline news version of what is new at MacArthur.

Let us begin with refreshing existing fields. Sometimes this entails an adjustment like taking account of climate change in our conservation work. MacArthur helps preserve biodiversity in more than 30 countries around the world – from the lush rainforests in Peru to the grasslands and green hills of the Albertine Rift in Africa to the coral reef systems of Melanesia in the South Pacific. In every place we seek to preserve large land and seascapes that are home to rare species.

But, what if climate change makes the national parks inhospitable to the plants and animals we seek to save? Clearly we need to know what climate change models tell us about future migration patterns and then devise plans to adapt to this new reality. MacArthur has undertaken a climate change initiative to do just that. We also are supporting a project at the Carnegie Institution that will do fine-grained analysis of the tropical forests and monitor the impact of climate change. In planes specially outfitted with state-of-the-art laser imaging and navigation instruments, the scientists fly above rain forests in South America and Africa to make spectroscopic images of the forest. From their airborne laboratory, the scientists are able to judge the composition and health of thousands of acres of land, without setting foot in them.

Refreshing existing fields can also mean a complete change in program even though the label remains the same, such as MacArthur’s work in education. For years we tried to improve urban public school systems. And for years we were frustrated by their intractability. Now we are focused on how schools, libraries, museums and other learning institutions must adapt to the digital age, believing that what children do with computers and cell phones outside of school affects them as much as what they learn from teachers and textbooks in their classrooms.

Naturally, we turned to universities to help us understand what is going on. At the University of Southern California, we are supporting an ethnographic study of how young people use digital media in their everyday lives. This study will enable us, for the first time, to know what young people are actually doing with games, instant messaging, and other tools, and to what effect.

Even before the results are in, we know that there are new skills required to help kids maximize the upside, and minimize the downside, of new technology. Call it a new conception of literacy, one that honors the expression through creations made by drawing on the work of others. We have funded a group of faculty at MIT to define the new media literacy and to develop a curriculum to teach it. This curriculum will help young people make good judgments about the credibility of information, and learn new skills such as experimenting to solve problems, searching for and synthesizing information, and respecting multiple perspectives in diverse on-line communities.

We are also supporting a new after-school program run by the University of Chicago, which works with low-income urban youth in digital storytelling, robotics, music composition, and game design. As young people gain confidence and enthusiasm, they are taking their creations into the classroom, sharing their insights with their teachers, and helping to raise teachers’ expectations of their competence and potential.

Let us turn to another factor that affects our program decisions: timing and context. And by this, I do not mean following the headlines or paying excessive attention to the political cycle. MacArthur is looking at three trends that combine to create our nation’s looming fiscal crisis: an aging population, expanding entitlement programs, and inadequate tax revenues.

In January, I met with Comptroller General David Walker. He noted that the percentage of the U.S. population aged 65 and over will likely reach 20 percent by 2047 – perhaps more, if life spans continue to increase. Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will more than double by 2050, from about 9 percent of GDP at present to nearly 20 percent. If tax rates remain as they are now, these entitlement programs will crowd out all other federal spending by 2045. Already, discretionary programs (paid for by money left over after entitlement obligations are met) constitute less than 40 percent of total federal spending. In 1962, they were at almost 70 percent.

The implications for education, social services, housing programs, and more are alarming. Virtually all of MacArthur’s domestic work is at risk if the federal and state governments lose their discretion to allocate needed funds to address social and economic problems.

So we are sponsoring a committee of experts organized by the National Academy of Sciences to gather the data and make it available to the public in an easily understandable form. The Committee will also frame a few scenarios for returning to fiscal health, each reflecting a set of values or preferences that are widely held among the American public. One might favor a strong defense and give less attention to social issues. Another might favor closing the domestic inequality gap and giving less foreign aid. Yet another might support fulfilling our commitment to the elderly against substantial investment in children.

But common to all will be painful choices, some intergenerational, of more taxes, less spending, and more efficient use of scarce public monies.

That latter point leads to another new initiative whose aim is to increase the use of solid evidence in policymaking, especially of the effectiveness and benefits of social programs. We call it “The Power of Measuring Social Benefits.” The working hypothesis is that investments in individuals in trouble or at risk can provide long-term benefits to the society at large—long after the initial investment is complete. The effort is intended to increase the supply and rigor of economic analyses, and the demand for them among policymakers. Included in the work are more than 10 complex cost-benefit studies on issues like the impact of moving to low-poverty neighborhoods, letting children stay in the foster care system longer, addressing preschool behavioral issues, encouraging elderly citizens to mentor for young children, supporting ex-offenders as they return to their communities, and requiring community mental health treatment. The scholars, from many universities, are looking at a wide variety of benefits, many of which are not easy to measure or become apparent only over time, and accrue not only to the individual but to society at large.

The third and final research project that connects is a MacArthur Research Network on the Aging Society. This network is exploring how increased longevity affects the whole society. In the United States, a Baby Boomer turns 50 every 7.6 seconds. The Census Bureau assumes that life expectancy will rise to 81.2 for men and 86.7 for women by 2050 (from 75.2 and 80.4 respectively in 2004, and 65.6 and 71.1 in 1950) and predicts that the United States may have as many as 5.3 million people aged over 100 by 2100. This network is exploring how governments, markets, and institutions need to adapt to this demographic phenomenon.

One project in the network will feed back to the Fiscal Future Initiative: it will do a re-projection of life expectancy, a new base case and alternatives that consider future medical breakthroughs like the isolation and deployment of so-called “anti-aging genes,” a reversal of the decay within human cells, or the discovery of treatments that diminish the prevalence of Alzheimer’s. The effort also will consider the possible negative effects of obesity, diabetes or a pandemic of some kind, but the net effect is likely to further stretch out disability-free years toward the end of life. Imagine what adding 4 or 5 years to the U.S. government’s current life expectancy projections might do to estimating entitlements and their impact on the fiscal problem.

The third factor affecting our grantmaking strategy is geopolitical trends. MacArthur periodically takes a macro look at the world and re-balances its grantmaking to reflect changes. Naturally we have recognized the prominent role Asia is playing in global issues like nuclear disarmament, human rights, and climate change. All of MacArthur’s international programs are impacted by what Asian nations do. China’s influence, of course, is particularly important; think of blocking action in Darfur, over-developing natural resources in Africa, demonstrating insensitivity to the environmental effects of rapid growth, for example. We are planning to open an office in Beijing and expand our India office beyond its current focus on population.

Later this year we will announce a security initiative for Asia that will support a new generation of scholars from India, Indonesia, China, Japan, and elsewhere, who are searching for a new framework to resolve urgent security challenges like North Korea, Taiwan, and Sino-Japanese relations. Also important will be enhancing the capacity of the regional security system to respond to longer-term challenges, such as the rising demand for energy and the spread of nuclear technology. We will also strengthen university centers and independent think tanks and connect them to counterparts in the United States.

Similar to our expanding programs in Asia, we are deepening our investments in Africa. We believe that the developed world must make good on the promise of the Millennium Development Goals, including Goal 5: a 75 percent reduction in the ratio of maternal mortality by 2015. MacArthur believes that if women have access to good health care and counseling, they will make healthy reproductive choices. A good indicator of access to quality care is the rate of women who die in childbirth. More than half-a-million women die every year giving life, one woman every minute. One-third of them are in two countries, Nigeria and India, where MacArthur is working to strengthen women’s health programs.

The leading causes of maternal mortality are post-partum hemorrhage and eclampsia – accounting for 42 percent of maternal deaths. MacArthur is mounting a major initiative against both. The medical technology is available; we want to deploy it. For post-partum hemorrhage, an inexpensive drug, misoprostol, administered immediately after delivery, can cut incidents of hemorrhage by 50 percent. But if bleeding does occur, a simple anti-shock garment can stabilize a woman for up to 48 hours, enough time to go from a rural village to a health clinic. Research we have supported in Egypt, India and Nigeria shows this package of interventions can reduce maternal mortality from post-partum hemorrhage by 80 percent.

We are about to announce a major, four-year initiative to combat maternal mortality as part of our contribution to meeting the Millennium Development Goal 5.

So far, I have talked about refreshing existing fields, rebalancing our geographic emphasis, and responding to timely policy issues – all connected to the main body of our work. But what about the far out ideas, the trends, problems or opportunities perhaps dimly perceived, that hold great significance for human kind – for good or bad? Should not a foundation with our reputation for nurturing creativity and with our flexibility be open to new ideas?

We think so.

So a special committee of staff and trustees is on the lookout for new ideas. I have written 100 or so smart people and asked them to tell us something we do not know.

From their ideas, we select a few to pursue, based on these criteria:

  • The idea is important.
  • We believe we can make progress through tools available to the Foundation.
  • There is a clear point of entry where a reasonable amount of money can complete the project or bring it to a take off point for other funders.
  • There are good people available inside and outside the Foundation who are ready to take leadership and move the idea forward.

I conclude by describing three of the initiatives that have come from this process.

First, a project on the law and neuroscience. A letter from Stanford neurobiologist (and MacArthur fellow) Robert Sapolsky drew us to advances in neuroscience that are beginning to reveal the processes behind how we reason, plan, and regulate our social and emotional behaviors. He noted that the criminal justice system, in which responsibility, motivation, and culpability are crucial concepts, had not yet taken account of this research.

So we have established an initiative that will bring together neuroscientists, legal scholars and professionals, and even philosophers, to begin to bridge the gap between the fields—indeed to build a new field of neurolaw at the nexus of their interests. The group will explore new developments in neuroscience and how they may apply to important legal questions. The goal is to inform the next generation of criminal law and justice policy and, ultimately, through the careful application of new science, make the justice system more fair and effective.

As a starting point, the project is looking at the general area of criminal responsibility, where several specific issues stand out as particularly important. Thirty percent of state prisoners and 40 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated on drug-related charges. It has also been estimated that around 25 percent of violent criminals in prisons have psychopathy, a condition marked by diminished brain function. The remaining crimes are committed mostly by people who are medically normal. These statistics explain why the Project has chosen to support three research networks: one on Addiction and Antisocial Behavior; another on Differing Brains; and a third on Decision-making by people with medically normal brains.

Science is pointing us in the direction of a better understanding of addiction and possible neural treatments for it. With sophisticated imaging, we can now assess brain damage and consider the possibility of future violent behavior among soldiers returning from Iraq who appear fine but have suffered through explosions. Finally, studies about normal decision-making will look at both criminals and at court personnel themselves, which, in the latter case, may help reveal brain patterns associated with bias.

But much of the project will be more practical. It will craft a primer on neuroscience and the law for judges and practicing lawyers; course materials for law students; a go-to website; retreats for judges, lawyers, legislators; and, over time, preliminary recommendations for using brain scans and other neuroscientific evidence in a judicial context.

A second project, the Encyclopedia of Life, or EOL, was an idea brought to us by biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard. He had long been concerned that plants and animals were disappearing faster than scientists could find them; he told Time magazine twenty years ago, “It’s like having astronomy without knowing where the stars are.” But in his letter to us, he noted that recent advances in data management and computer technology have made it feasible to create an electronic inventory of all 1.8 million living species on the planet. With a consortium of five leading institutions, including the Smithsonian and the Field Museum, we launched EOL last year. The first pages are now available to the public.

EOL is destined to raise our sights and expand our view of life on Earth. It will serve as a macroscope (the opposite of a microscope) and enable us to see a broader picture, to discern patterns not yet discovered, identify gaps in our knowledge, and discover new avenues of inquiry. It will be helpful in tracking biodiversity. We hope it will become an essential tool for scientist, students, conservationists, policy makers, and passionate amateurs alike.

The third project is a commission pioneering a new curriculum for training professionals who work on development in poor countries. We received a letter from John McArthur – no relation to our founder – the Associate Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He wrote that “unfortunately, most development professionals understand only a small piece of the development picture and there are no institutions in place to provide integrated training across core substantive areas.”

So last year we gave a grant to the Earth Institute to form a new International Commission on Education of Development Professionals. We hope the Commission might have the transforming impact on development training that the Flexner Report had on medical education a century ago.

The Commission has brought together development practitioners and academic leaders from the U.S., Africa, Europe, Latin America, and Asia. They conducted an exhaustive review of current development studies programs, and held hearings around the world, and will release their report in September. The report will call for a curriculum that includes more science, engineering, and management coursework, the use of technology to create a global classroom on-line, and a deep clinical experience in the developing world.

So, there you have it – a broad sample of what’s new at MacArthur and an insight into how other new initiatives are developed.

We, like other foundations, strive to be clear and transparent in what we do and how we do it. We put a lot into our website, but also into monthly newsletters. Just e-mail me and I will see that you are added.

Let me close with one last piece of advice. Beware of conventional wisdom about trends in foundation giving. Advocacy is up this year, investment philanthropy next, and so on. The good foundations do not march in lock step. They have their own characteristics and values and processes for shaping and changing programs. One of the glories of American philanthropy is its pluralism.

That puts a premium on knowing what each is doing, a better use of your time than trying to follow the trends.

And remember, grants will not come if you do not ask.

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts with you.

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