Photo: Pasuwan/shutterstock
Photo: Pasuwan/shutterstock

What does the future look like for prize philanthropy? Critics might argue that grant competitions have little use at a time when quick and efficient support for nonprofits is at a premium—and when isn’t it? But to their proponents, competitions can grow the donor field and incubate shovel-ready ideas. So even as COVID-19 obliges grantmakers to ease restrictions and respond rapidly, one organization in particular is continuing its dogged pursuit of impact through grant competitions.

When we wrote about Lever for Change last year, the MacArthur Foundation affiliate had already debuted several new grant competitions. In a sense, they’re the descendants of 100&Change, the foundation’s widely discussed, $100 million grant competition. Lever for Change partners with outside donors to implement smaller competitions across a range of issue areas, with funds for its own operations coming from MacArthur, the Gates Foundation and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

In many ways, Lever for Change serves as a response to those who viewed 100&Change as an inefficient mechanism with few collateral benefits for the sector. The platform now manages the 100&Change competition itself (the second round of that contest is currently underway), but its main purpose is twofold: to cultivate and carry out new competitions backed by donors besides MacArthur, and to ensure that promising proposals remain useful even when they don’t win. Here’s what’s been happening at Lever for Change since we last explored its work.

New Prizes Every Few Months

Lever for Change has partnered with several outside donors to launch three new competitions in 2020. It has also had to contend with heightened uncertainty around COVID-19, conditions that are hardly favorable for competition cycles spanning months. Nevertheless, Lever for Change CEO Cecilia Conrad remains upbeat about the model’s potential. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright spotlight on many of the problems that our competitions address,” she said.

The first of 2020’s new competitions, the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award, launched in January and is now closed for registration. Named after Chris Larsen and Lyna Lam, the billionaire couple who put up its $12 million prize, the competition seeks solutions that support refugees. The winning idea may involve safe and dignified repatriation, settlement and integration into a host country, or the safe relocation of a group of refugees from asylum in one country to settlement in another. This is a personal cause for the family. Lam spent three years in refugee camps following the Vietnam War and the Cambodian genocide before eventually becoming a business owner and nonprofit founder in the United States.

Larsen and Lam are definitely donors to watch. Larsen co-founded the blockchain startup Ripple and currently serves as executive chairman, with a net worth estimated at a cool $2.6 billion. The couple’s giving has been on the rise. Besides the award, a $25 million gift last year to Larsen’s alma mater San Francisco State is notable. Larsen has also backed The Bail Project, a prominent criminal justice reform outfit that operates a national revolving bail fund.

The second 2020 competition from Lever for Change is the $10 million Lone Star Prize, launched at the tail end of March. As the name suggests, this is a Texas-focused competition. Its sponsor is Lyda Hill Philanthropies, the giving vehicle of an oil heiress who supports scientific and environmental causes in Texas and Colorado. The Lone Star Prize reflects those priorities, but also broadens the scope a bit. It’s looking for solutions that boost Texas’ environmental sustainability, improve the state’s health outcomes, and/or “boost the employability of workers, build promising career pathways, and spur job creation.” Its application window is open through June 23.

Lever for Change’s most recent competition has a solely environmental focus. The 2030 Climate Challenge opened for applicants at the end of April and draws on $10 million from an anonymous donor. It’s looking for emissions reduction solutions, specifically in transportation, buildings or industry. As is the case with most Lever for Change competitions, the 2030 Climate Challenge wants evidence-based solutions with some degree of track record. Lead applicants must be nonprofits, but the competition welcomes submissions involving universities, for-profit companies or other entities as secondary applicants. The deadline is July 23.

The new competitions join Lever for Change’s existing contests—MacArthur’s second round of 100&Change, the Pritzker Traubert Foundation’s Chicago Prize and the Economic Opportunity Challenge, funded by an anonymous donor. Applications are currently under review for all three. There’s one more competition on the immediate horizon: a $10 million prize “to increase gender equality in the U.S.” planned for a launch in June. Lever for Change has yet to make any announcement about that donor’s identity.

According to Conrad, Lever for Change intends to launch a total of three more competitions in 2020, including the gender equality one. Expect to see a challenge focused on strengthening American democracy this fall, as well as another competition with details forthcoming.

Intermediary Ambitions

Although its grant competitions may seem like the highlight of Lever for Change’s work, the organization has a broader agenda in mind. It centers on the expanding bank of proposals its competitions generate. Earlier this year, Lever for Change officially rolled out its Bold Solutions Network, an online home for the most promising proposals.

In a January 2020 post written in response to criticism of prize philanthropy, Conrad indicates just how important the organization views this resource. “Indeed, we see the Bold Solutions Network, more so than the customized competitions, as essential to our goal of unlocking significant philanthropic capital for social change.”

One goal of the Bold Solutions Network is to grow the field, engaging new donors who want to make “big bets” but lack the expertise or staff to identify the best prospects. Conrad sees her organization as a kind of intermediary, working with donors directly and partnering with other philanthropy-serving organizations.

“We are in discussions with dozens of philanthropists—some are beginning their journey, others are more established,” she said. “We are currently working with donors in the U.S. and in Asia, directly and also through the wealth and philanthropic advisors who work with them.”

One of those advisory firms is ICONIQ Impact, the social investment arm of wealth management firm ICONIQ Capital. The Larsen Lam award is the first of several competitions Lever for Change expects to facilitate alongside ICONIQ, the next being the U.S. democracy competition planned for this fall. Lever for Change also collaborates with Asia Philanthropy Circle and AVPN, two networks focused on expanding philanthropic impact across the Pacific.

Lever for Change is pursuing several more projects to deliver on the Bold Solutions Network’s potential. In April, the organization initiated a joint venture with Charity Navigator called Charities with Bold Solutions to better promote the top charities that emerged from 100&Change. It’s also working with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Columbia Business School to match top proposals to the interests of RPA’s donor collaboratives. A similar effort is underway in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania to analyze top proposals and make them available to the Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s donor base.

COVID and the Competitions

Of course, it’s hard to get around the havoc COVID-19 has played with funders’ intentions this spring. Lever for Change is no exception. In a recent post, Conrad discusses the difficulties of holding grant competitions amid a pandemic. Work disruptions, she writes, have impeded organizations’ ability to prepare applications just as financial stress on the nonprofit sector rises and a recession looms.

For judges and selection committees, the challenge is to maintain and adapt the evaluation process given “unavoidable uncertainty” around the viability of proposals submitted pre-pandemic. Both the Economic Opportunity Challenge and the second round of 100&Change fall into that category. Conrad says Lever for Change is “working closely with competition sponsors to review timelines and make adjustments to accommodate their philanthropic priorities and to acknowledge the needs of applicants.”

Conrad indicates that competitions generally take a year or more from design process through the announcement of a winner. Ultimately, she writes, “for donors who wish to move quickly to deploy significant resources into an immediate response to control and contain the disease, our competitions may not be the right fit.”

That’s a frank acknowledgment of a tough situation. For the time being, Conrad seems to be arguing that while competitions aren’t suitable for emergency response, they can inject greater energy into long-term systemic change.

A Work in Progress

Yet, even that isn’t guaranteed. Working systemic change into these competitions will involve more than just assessing proposals well. It’ll mean ensuring that implementation actually follows innovation, and that the prizes attract ideas from outside a given issue area’s typical menu of nonprofits. “We are still in the early stages of testing whether our approach to unlocking significant philanthropic capital will work,” Conrad wrote in January.

On the positive side, having Lever for Change act as a central administrator for these challenges probably minimizes missteps and waste. Conrad and team can incorporate the lessons of past cycles into new competitions in a way that would be impossible if all these donors held independent contests.

There’s also the potential for field-building among donors. If grant competitions are an on-ramp to philanthropy for ultra-wealthy people (Lever for Change competitions require a $10 million minimum award), that’s a point in their favor, right? Larsen and Lam are one possible example: donors with significant resources whose giving may very well expand in volume and sophistication. The various anonymous donors Lever for Change is working with might also fit that bill.

As for COVID-19, it’s unlikely big-donor philanthropy will take much of a hit in the long run. Billionaires are here to stay, like it or not, and the sector should be insisting they give more, and give better—and calling them out when they don’t. At Lever for Change, Conrad said, “we are seeing increased donor interest in doing something about the breadth and depth of the historic social disparities laid bare and exacerbated by COVID-19 (racial, economic, health inequalities, etc.).” Those conversations led to a decision to focus on resilience in 2021. We’ll check back later this year with more on what that might look like, as well as an update on new competitions, and hopefully, a few prize winners.

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