In an age of heightened public scrutiny of philanthropy, competitions are often singled out as inherently inequitable, forcing people and organizations to compete for funding. Yet, every grantmaking process requires a choice—among ideas, organizations or proposals—and it is incumbent upon funders to assure that the process does not pose an outsized burden relative to expected benefits. Our team launched Lever for Change two years ago to unlock philanthropic capital that might otherwise remain on the sidelines. We believe that competitions can be equitable and fair if they are designed with that goal in mind.
Born of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s bold 100&Change competition for a single $100 million grant, we urge philanthropists to make larger grants than are typical in philanthropy—$10 million or more. Our model was designed to remove some of the traditional barriers that lead to inequity. We encourage donors to broaden access to those grants by shifting away from an invitation-only model—one of the biggest barriers to equitable funding—to an open and transparent mechanism for sourcing potential grantees.
An open secret in our sector is that knowing someone on the inside increases the likelihood of funding. Those who know the gatekeepers tend to look like them and move in the same circles. Another obstacle is that most foundations do not accept unsolicited proposals. Bradford K. Smith, president of Candid, a leading information service reporting on U.S. nonprofits and foundations, has cited two reasons for this: lack of infrastructure and emphasis on strategic philanthropy.
Funders indeed often lack the infrastructure to review the potentially large number of proposals that might be submitted through an open call. Staffing a private foundation is expensive and labor-intensive, and sometimes it is just easier to fund what and who you know.
The competitions that we host at Lever for Change reduce the need for infrastructure. We rely on external evaluators, including the entire pool of applicants themselves, to assist in the review process and provide thoughtful, constructive feedback on every valid submission. In so doing, we encourage donors to rely on expertise beyond their immediate networks. Our competitions allow for the responsible review of large numbers of proposals, creating pathways for diverse, often unexpected, and transformative ideas.
Another barrier to accessing grants is the philanthropic sector’s emphasis on strategic giving, which has drawn some backlash in recent years but remains a common approach to making funding decisions. Foundations often design their own theories of change in consultation with inner circles of staff and consultants, then handpick organizations to execute their strategies. This can force grantees to fit the donor’s vision, rather than trusting people close to the issues to know how best to tackle the problem.
Lever for Change transfers the power to define strategy from the funder to nonprofits that are engaged in the work. We encourage our donor partners to define their goals broadly—for instance, to increase economic mobility in the United States—and then ask deeply engaged organizations and teams to propose their own solutions to accomplish these goals. Our competitions allow organizations to submit proposals that might not fit more prescriptive grant processes.
Our application can be laborious. We are mindful of the burden that our process places on applicant teams. From the outset, we are transparent about the evaluation criteria and scoring rubrics. We offer a readiness tool for applicants to determine whether their submission is a fit—before they expend time and effort. Every valid applicant receives constructive feedback; for those that become finalists, we provide ongoing support even if they are not selected to receive a competition grant. Through our Bold Solutions Network, we help to strengthen their work, raise their visibility, increase their potential to secure funding, and market them directly to potential donors.
Our process is detailed because, in the absence of information, evaluators and decision makers might substitute brand name for substance—which works against grassroots, Black, Indigenous, or Latinx-led organizations. However, we also recognize that the time required for participation might disadvantage organizations led by people of color, as they may have fewer resources than white-led organizations. We try to mitigate this harm by building support into each step of the application, allowing applicants to strengthen their proposal through the process itself. Post-competition surveys indicate that we are on the right track and that organizations are undeterred.
In fact, most teams welcome the opportunity to tell their story and report that the level of effort is appropriate, given the scale of the grant. They also value the feedback from peers and the evaluation panel. In a third-party survey of applicants from our recent competitions, a majority indicated a preference for the competition over traditional grant processes, citing the quality of the feedback and the clarity of the funding process, the requirements, and the decision-making criteria.
Competitions are sometimes perceived as a zero-sum game, pitting organizations against each other to secure scarce resources—a game with one winner and a trail of losers. We share this concern; however, competitions can be designed to foster the kinds of partnerships required for change at scale. We have found that our insistence on large, multi-year grants incentivizes organizations to partner with each other for scale. And feedback from applicants suggests that reviews of each other’s projects—an innovative practice introduced by our strategic partner Carrot—appear to stimulate an interest in collaboration. However, we recognize that we need to do more to provide the space and potentially the resources to help those partnerships form.
As our first series of competitions enters its final stages, we are closely monitoring whether we are opening doors to organizations that might lack proximity to power and capital, and we will look for ways to do more. We are encouraged by the diversity in our first cohort of finalists, but recognize, with humility, that we still have a lot to learn.
By moving away from the invitation-only, closed-door model of philanthropy, we believe that we provide a rare opportunity for organizations, particularly those with proximate or BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, and people of color—leadership, to compete based on their potential for impact, rather than their access to a funder’s network. By creating a bigger tent, we believe that we are more likely to find the bold, creative solutions required to address the world’s greatest challenges. We hope you will join us.
Cecilia Conrad is the CEO of Lever for Change, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, that helps donors find and fund solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.