Community Solutions was selected as the winner of MacArthur’s second 100&Change competition.
Community Solutions was selected as the winner of MacArthur’s second 100&Change competition.

Contests and prizes are plentiful in philanthropy, but perhaps no competition better represents the genre than 100&Change. Announced to much fanfare back in 2016, the first round of the MacArthur Foundation’s big $100 million grant contest came to a close at the end of 2017 when Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee got the nod. But that wasn’t the end. MacArthur had come to envision 100&Change as a recurring initiative, running roughly every three years. The second round of 100&Change began in 2019 and has spanned a period of far greater domestic tumult than the first.

Now, at long last, we have a winner. Out of six finalists, Community Solutions will receive the grant for its anti-homelessness work in the United States. Specifically, the nonprofit plans to scale up Built for Zero, its data-driven, public-health-informed bid to end homelessness in 75 U.S. communities. In addition to MacArthur’s commitment, the Ballmer Group announced that it will renew its $5.8 million grant to Community Solutions for five years.

“It’s an issue that’s both of the moment and timeless,” said Cecilia Conrad, who oversees 100&Change at MacArthur. Conrad praised Community Solutions for its “experienced and cohesive team with a track record of working with communities to reach functional zero,” which the nonprofit characterizes as an end state in which homelessness, when it does crop up, is both rare and brief.

While MacArthur’s board made the final determination, Conrad has been a central figure in the aftermath of 100&Change’s inaugural round and the contest’s evolution. In addition to her direct role at MacArthur, she heads Lever for Change, a MacArthur affiliate nonprofit that now hosts 100&Change and has spent the past couple years partnering with outside funders to roll out a variety of separate grant competitions. Conrad and Lever for Change have also emerged as key proponents of the grant competition model, which has its share of detractors.

100&Change 2.0

At the outset of 100&Change’s second iteration, Community Solutions was just one of 755 organizations or collaborations that threw their hats in the ring. Just like the first time around, the competition cast a wide net in its effort to fund a “single proposal that promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.” After an initial administrative review narrowed the field down to 475 proposals, applicants participated in a peer-to-peer review process, a new step this time. Each proposal got five reads from fellow applicants.

“This was the first stage of evaluation,” Conrad said. “[Outside] perspective on the projects provided a sense of pragmatism as people engaged in implementation. Peer reviewers were qualitatively focused on a different set of issues than our panel of wise heads.” That, by the way, is MacArthur’s name for the diverse panel of experts who conducted the next stage of evaluation. After that came a technical review—also formalized during the contest’s second round—which MacArthur conducted for all of its top 100 applicants, who were announced in February of last year.

Tweaks to the evaluation and scoring process emerged from a review MacArthur conducted after the first competition. “In the first iteration, we were concerned that many applicants weren’t a good fit,” Conrad said. Applicants in the second round used an organizational readiness tool to assess their suitability, and a much smaller percentage were ruled ineligible this time around. MacArthur also sought ways “to help the application process itself be formative,” Conrad said, the peer-to-peer review process being one example.

MacArthur’s board of directors narrowed the top 100 applicants down to six finalists, announced in July of 2020 following a timeline extension borne of COVID-19. Unlike the first round’s finalists—four organizations working in global health and development—finalists this time included two U.S.-focused nonprofits, Community Solutions as well as Report for America, for its work to eliminate “news deserts.” There was also one finalist in the global environmental space, National Geographic Pristine Seas, as well as three in the global health field—Project ECHO, the World Mosquito Program, and a joint project from the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

MacArthur’s announcement of the winner coincided with grants from other funders. They include $2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the World Mosquito Program and up to $20 million over two years to scale its techniques, and a $5 million commitment from the Facebook Journalism Project and other philanthropists to Report for America. The ELMA Foundation also signaled its interest in forming a funder collaborative to support Project ECHO as well as the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

While Conrad stressed that she can’t speak for the board, it seems likely that MacArthur’s final pick reflected, at least in part, “the issues we’re seeing outside our doors.” According to Conrad, “the board made a real effort to take this pandemic into account and what it portends for the future—including possible future pandemics—and to understand its impact and consider it as we assessed the proposals. This was designed as a way to think about the whole group of problems that plague us.”

Counting down, not up

Although philanthropy has traditionally viewed homelessness and housing security in more siloed terms, a growing chorus of funders is acknowledging homelessness as an outgrowth of the systemic problems plaguing U.S. society. “Homelessness is not just a public health issue; it’s also an issue that yields to a public health approach,” said Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions. “This is not a problem of broken people, but of broken systems—fragmented responses to a number of problems that have allowed people to crash through the floor of our safety net.”

Haggerty’s history in the homelessness space is a storied one. Back in the early 1990s, Common Ground Community, which she founded in New York City, served as an early demonstration of permanent supportive housing, an approach that has become de rigueur for many anti-homelessness advocates. She’s also no stranger to MacArthur. In 2001, the foundation bestowed upon her one of its coveted fellowships.

Haggerty went on to found Community Solutions in 2011, which took on the task of managing the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national, four-year effort that successfully placed over 100,000 people in permanent supportive housing. But as Haggerty herself acknowledged, “None of the communities involved got to an end to homelessness.” In fact, homelessness increased in many places.

Rather than counting up to some arbitrary number like 100,000, Built for Zero (launched in 2015) is all about counting down to “functional zero.” Community Solutions defines that state as “a dynamic milestone that indicates a community has solved homelessness for a population.” Functional zero is one place where Community Solutions’ public health lens can be clearly seen—it’s not so much about “solving” or eliminating homelessness for all time, but about constantly attending to the risk factors that let it grow chronic or widespread. For readers in a COVID frame of mind, think of it as getting to a place where contact tracing can actually work.

Community Solutions provides support to 84 communities currently participating in Built for Zero. They include some pretty major metros (San Diego, Phoenix, Detroit and others) as well as plenty of smaller jurisdictions. According to Haggerty, part of what distinguishes Built for Zero is that “it’s about ending homelessness at the population level across a community as opposed to providing a program for people experiencing homelessness.”

For example, Community Solutions reports that 12 Built for Zero communities have succeeded in getting to functional zero for veteran homelessness—including Mississippi’s Gulf Coast region; Arlington, VA and Lake County, IL—while five have functionally ended chronic homelessness—including Lancaster, PA and Bakersfield, CA. Three, it says, have ended both—Rockford, IL; Bergen County, NJ and Abilene, TX. As of right now, Built for Zero has focused on chronic and veteran homelessness. But Haggerty believes the approach can work for all the problem’s forms, including more temporary experiences of homelessness, which are more common.

“Everyone needs to be looking at reality in the same way”

Built for Zero’s methodology involves tackling several related challenges in each locale, beginning with the overall aim of evaluating homelessness across an entire population (say, veterans, or everyone living in a community) rather than measuring what individual programs have achieved in isolation. That itself is a deviation from the philanthropic norm, including among many funders of permanent supportive housing.

Accountability is another sticking point that Built for Zero targets. In many places, Haggerty told me, local and regional entities tasked with tackling homelessness—including entities receiving funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—operate in isolation from each other. That could include mayors, county executives, associations of nonprofits, local housing authorities and local Veterans Affairs offices.

“Everyone needs to be looking at reality in the same way,” Haggerty said. Communities seeking to participate in Built for Zero come to Community Solutions with “at least the outlines of a team” willing and able to collaborate closely on homelessness. “We’ll help that team become a strong unit with respect to setting a collective aim and beginning to work on data collection in a new way,” Haggerty said.

That brings us to what is perhaps the linchpin of Built for Zero’s approach: data. In addition to identifying a community lead to liaise with Community Solutions, participating communities name a data lead, receive training in data analytics and radically restructure how they collect and handle local data on homelessness.

“It’s about moving from atomized programs to a single structure [collecting] quality data, month over month. [We ask] what the data is showing us in terms of the most significant opportunities to gain ground,” Haggerty said. In many cases, the approach involves creating and updating real-time lists of people experiencing homelessness, a far cry from annual point-in-time counts mandated by HUD’s Continuum of Care program. Haggerty stressed the iterative, continuously improving state this data infrastructure should aim for, not at all dissimilar to approaches from software development or advanced manufacturing. She also sought to allay potential privacy concerns, citing the government’s HIPAA rules as a model.

Built for Zero’s similarities to successful public health initiatives of the past are no accident. Its emphasis on shared metrics, coordinated data and a “command center” mentality call to mind campaigns to eradicate deadly diseases, both in the U.S. and abroad. In that sense, Built for Zero marks something of a departure from the “housing first” model widely adopted by practitioners and funders in recent years.

And yet the program doesn’t abandon a housing-forward agenda. Rather, the idea is to integrate housing development and supportive services into a broader public health approach. Toward that end, Community Solutions plans to launch a $100 million acquisition fund (with a portion of the MacArthur grant supplementing private and philanthropic money) to secure properties in large cities to house veterans.

The majority of MacArthur’s $100 million will go toward scaling Built for Zero’s local implementation in 75 communities over five years, a roster Haggerty hopes to eventually grow to 110 communities. In addition, the MacArthur money will help Community Solutions build out a nascent policy, communications and education infrastructure. The timing there is fortuitous. “Unprecedented federal resources through the American Recovery Plan could eliminate homelessness in communities that are prepared to do so. Built for Zero communities have created the map and shown what it will take,” Haggerty wrote.

Deploying policy and education tools to influence federal incentives is one of several revisions to Community Solutions’ initial 100&Change proposal. The other big revision, no doubt informed by ongoing events, was to embed racial equity more strongly into plans to scale Built for Zero. As with most systemic challenges, homelessness rates are vastly disproportionate by race. Black people, for instance, make up over 40% of the population experiencing homelessness despite comprising only about 13% of the overall populace. Native people are also disproportionately affected.

A bet on the safety net

As an approach to housing insecurity rooted in a public health mindset, Built for Zero echoes other philanthropy-backed work to target the upstream drivers of social problems. Haggerty believes Community Solutions’ clarity around ambitious, measurable goals gave her organization a leg up in 100&Change, which is probably the case. But a truer measure of Built for Zero’s impact may lie in something less quantifiable: its success in changing norms around how homelessness is perceived and addressed, especially among those with the power to direct a response.

“Homelessness should be seen as an outcome measure of the success of other systems,” Haggerty said. “There’s a fundamental problem in the way homelessness is thought about: that if we just add up a bunch of technical processes, homelessness will be dealt with. It’s a complex problem, and the muscles need to be in place to constantly solve the problem.”

Over at MacArthur, Conrad praised Built for Zero on the basis that it’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy. “There exist a lot of ways of approaching homelessness,” she said. “They’re bringing to the table a combination of being data-driven, but also very much focused on individual needs.”

Despite the merits and promise of this work, it’s all in the execution. Community Solutions is by no means a tiny nonprofit, but it’s not a particularly massive one, either. Total expenses for Built for Zero stood at around $6.5 million in 2019; MacArthur’s grant will provide an infusion of $20 million a year. Community Solutions is also mostly white-led and resourced by a variety of big players, including lots of corporate funders.

MacArthur’s big bet is essentially that an established group, offering implementation guidance and headed by one of its fellows, will exert enough community-by-community influence to change entrenched paradigms. It’s also betting that funding change on the local and municipal level will pay off, despite the tendency of unpredictable national developments (say a pandemic, a recession or a new president) to throw local progress off course.

Then again, experiences like the pandemic also have a way of redefining how we think about society’s wealth and who deserves a piece. That applies to philanthropy as much as it does to a White House now embracing social spending in a way we haven’t seen for a half-century. As Conrad put it, “Given the economic insecurity that a large portion of our population confronts, this experience has really called that out and made all of us want to create a stronger safety net.”