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turgaygundogdu/shutterstock

When the MacArthur Foundation’s much-hyped 100&Change competition wrapped up in late 2017, it provoked a range of reactions. On one hand, the award winner, Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee, operates in the global health and development space, where an infusion of $100 million can arguably make the clearest measurable impact. 

At the same time, the sheer rigamarole that accompanied 100&Change may have underscored the impression that making big bets must be an involved, elaborate enterprise. And let’s not even get into the innumerable staff hours expended on an effort that only materially benefited one winner and a few runners-up out of nearly 2,000 applicants.

Except that’s not entirely true. As we noted at the time, one praiseworthy outgrowth of the global contest was the 100&Change Solutions Bank, a compendium of the many shovel-ready ideas that did not get funded. In the same vein was a guide compiled by UPenn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy of 81 promising proposals and 11 best bets emerging from the competition. According to Cecilia Conrad, a Managing Director at MacArthur whose portfolio included 100&Change, the competition helped galvanize up to $319 million in combined fundraising by what MacArthur calls the “top 200” applicants. That’s over and above what the foundation put in.

This year, as it moves forward with a second round of 100&Change, MacArthur also debuted Lever for Change, a separate “affiliate” nonprofit with a board appointed by the parent foundation. Its mission: build on 100&Change by holding customized competitions—lots of them—designed to help philanthropists identify the best solutions to fund. Lever for Change is managing the second round of 100&Change, and it’s also rolling out smaller challenges at a decent clip. Its latest, the Economic Opportunity Challenge, is a good window into how this new outfit operates. 

“Just About Anything” 

Rather than drawing on MacArthur’s own funds, Lever for Change hosts grant competitions funded and conceived by outside donors. There is a $10 million minimum to the potential award size, but the sky’s the limit beyond that. Lever for Change has the capacity to design and run the competitions on its own or with a level of donor engagement “tailored to preference and capacity.” So far, none of the competitions in the pipeline exceed $20 million besides Mac’s second iteration of 100&Change itself. But with the richest families in America sitting on $4 trillion—and many of them claiming they’d like to give at a greater level—Lever of Change is a well-timed initiative. It takes a place alongside other recent efforts, like the Audacious Project, to shake loose more philanthropic capital from the ultra-wealthy.

The Economic Opportunity Challenge offers $10 million for a proven, data-driven solution to improve the economic prospects of low-income families in the United States. Conrad, who also serves as Lever for Change’s CEO, said the challenge is “open to just about any possible way of removing barriers to opportunity, across health, education, workforce development, housing—just about anything.” 

The funder behind the Economic Opportunity Challenge is anonymous—for now. What we know is that it’s a new family foundation that’s been working with Lever for Change from the start. The foundation sees the challenge as a means of prospect research. “They see the competition as a way to develop a landscape and define a way to identify potential grantees into the future,” Conrad said. 

It’s not clear when the donor will come forward, but a reveal is likely at some point down the road. Meanwhile, Lever for Change is accepting applications through January 28, 2020. Following review by a volunteer panel of judges assembled for funding expertise, policy knowledge, and geographic diversity, the challenge will announce its finalists around the summer of next year. The winning grantee will be announced in November of 2020. 

The donor may be agnostic as to how applicants approach the problem of economic opportunity, but they’re looking for something more fleshed out than a mere idea. According to Conrad, the funder wants to scale up a proven concept that’s already been tested on a modest level. Applicants must have an operating budget of at least $1 million. Projects centered on a specific locale are eligible, as is work with a nationwide focus.

Cultivating Bold Solutions

For MacArthur, one takeaway from the first 100&Change competition was that great value can be derived from casting a wide net for ideas on how to solve a problem. “We realized that this could be a service more broadly to the field of philanthropy, especially to people interested in making big grants but who don’t have the infrastructure to carry out the sourcing and vetting required,” Conrad said. 

The long-term aim of Lever for Change is to compile and curate an ever-expanding idea bank of “top performers” from its competitions—whether they won or not. These “Bold Solutions” will be available for anyone to peruse. Conrad sees Lever for Change advising interested donors as they narrow down the field and move toward grant commitments.

In that sense, Lever for Change is positioning itself as an intermediary similar to other advisory organizations that bridge the gap between new or lean donors and a sea of potential grantees. In fact, Lever for Change has already begun cultivating partnerships with donor collaboratives and advisors including ICONIQ Impact, Asia Philanthropy Circle, and AVPN. 

While the Economic Opportunity Challenge has a domestic focus, Lever for Change is open to competitions of global scope. Several more of those are on its docket for 2020 in addition to 100&Change itself. ICONIC Impact will fund two global awards, with one focused on refugees, while Earth’s Call Fund will launch a $20 million challenge in May for climate solutions.

On the U.S. front, there’s the Pritzker Traubert Foundation’s ongoing Chicago Prize competition to strengthen civic infrastructure on Chicago’s South or West Side. Next year will see at least three more U.S.-based competitions join that list, including a bid to “increase women’s power and influence,” a broad competition in Texas sponsored by Lyda Hill Philanthropies, and another anonymous award to spur emissions reductions. 

Broadening the Anti-Poverty Ecosystem

As an affiliate nonprofit to MacArthur, Lever for Change derives much of its own funding from its parent. But Mac isn’t its only backer. LinkedIn co-founder and Giving Pledge signatory Reid Hoffman has also come on board, building on a range of funding interests like micro-lending, entrepreneurship, and artificial intelligence. And Lever for Change’s most recent grant comes from none other than the Gates Foundation. According to Conrad, Gates’ aim involves helping people who’ve signed the Giving Pledge locate promising initiatives to fund. 

It’s worth noting that the world’s largest foundation is currently accepting applications for an economy-focused funding competition of its own. Voices for Economic Opportunity is the first of Gates’ Grand Challenges centered solely on the United States. With additional support from Raikes, Kellogg, and Robert Wood Johnson, Voices for Economic Opportunity is tackling preconceptions and faulty narratives about poverty. Unlike Lever for Change’s effort, Gates’ Grand Challenges typically focus on very early-stage ideas rather than proven concepts. The two challenges’ applicant pools shouldn’t overlap too much.

In any event, what’s clear is that from top funders like Gates to the newcomers behind the Economic Opportunity Challenge, more and more wealthy philanthropists are tuning into the public outcry over economic inequality. And while we often critique individual approaches—i.e. local workforce development isolated from systemic action—more attention to that problem can only be a good thing in the long run. Of course, a big unanswered question is to what degree America’s richest families will ultimately step up to give more—whatever their stated desire to do so and however much initiatives like Lever for Change help reduce the risks involved. As we recently explored, looking at Bridgespan’s dogged efforts to promote bolder and bigger giving, the record so far is not encouraging.

Finally, Lever for Change showcases another trend we’re seeing lately: heightened collaboration between legacy funders like MacArthur and lean newcomers. It’s a good example of how older, amply-staffed funders can lend infrastructural heft to new funders with lots of capital but relatively little philanthropic know-how. Definitely an interesting space to watch.

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