With all the discussion in philanthropy about “Big Bets” for social change, the biggest “Big Bet” of them all just may be the initiative of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This competition, announced in June, will award a single $100 million grant to a nonprofit or for-profit entity that comes up with the best proposal and plan to solve one of the world’s biggest problems.


Cecilia Conrad, Managing Director of the MacArthur Foundation

This interview has been edited for clarity.

In this transcript  from The Business of Giving, Dr. Cecelia Conrad, Managing Director of The MacArthur Foundation, traces the history of this idea and outlines the process for the competition. She also offers us a behind-the-scenes look at the MacArthur Fellows Program and shares her mixed feelings about it being dubbed the “Genius Grants.”
Denver: There is a foundation out in Chicago that shook up the world of philanthropy and beyond by announcing recently that they would award a single $100 million grant to a nonprofit or for profit entity that could come up with a proposal and plan to solve one of the world’s biggest problems. That foundation, also known for a program that has been coined by the media as the”genius grants,” is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. And with us this evening is their Managing Director, Dr. Cecilia Conrad. Good evening, Cecilia, and welcome to the Business of Giving.

Cecilia: Good evening, and thank you for including me.

Denver: Before we delve into the two programs I just mentioned, tell us who were John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur. How did they make their money? And tell us a little bit about the history of the foundation.

Cecilia: Well, the MacArthurs made their money in real estate and in insurance. Actually, they did quite a bit of work in Florida real estate. When they passed away, they decided to set aside their estate as the MacArthur Foundation. And what’s unusual about them is that they did not give specific directions about how the money should be spent or on what issues. They basically said, “Here’s our gift. Go and make the world a better place.”

Denver: Right, I think John actually said that, “I made the money; you guys figure out how to give it away…” Or something along those lines.

Cecilia: Right.

Denver: So, let’s take a look at the two programs I just talked about. We’re going to start with the MacArthur Fellowship program which has been dubbed the “genius grants.” Tell us what it is and what you’re looking to accomplish with it.

Cecilia: Yes, now this is actually one of the original programs that was started at the foundation. At the time, it was incredibly innovative, and it still remains unusual in philanthropy. The fellowship is trying to recognize exceptionally creative individuals… and to give them the resources… to free them up to take new risks or to expand their creative endeavors, without necessarily having to worry immediately about paying the rent or putting food on the table. The idea behind it is to provide the resources and let those individuals decide what the best use of those funds might be.

Denver: When did this program start, and how many fellows have been named since its inception?

Cecilia: The program is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.

Denver: Congratulations!

Cecilia: We have roughly 950 fellows that have been awarded over that time period.

Denver: What’s the process you go through to identify and then select these fellows? I noted that you have quite an eclectic mix. These are just not scientists and innovators, but you have blacksmiths, cartoonists and puppet makers… Quite a broad spectrum. How do you go through the process of selecting who will become a fellow?

Cecilia: Well, in fact, what we want to do is to recognize the depth and breadth of American creativity. So, you’re right. We look at all fields of endeavor, all domains. That means we have to reach far and wide for informants or what we call nominators. So every month, we invite a large number of people to nominate… We then take in those nominations, review them, consider them, develop the files in greater depth– either by soliciting external evaluations or by secretly sneaking into the back of performances and talks to hear people and to see people. We bring those candidates forward to a selection committee that makes a recommendation to the foundation. One of the things that sets the program apart is that the entire process is done in secret. You cannot apply to be a MacArthur Fellow.

Denver: Oh wow.

Cecilia: And in the best of circumstances, you don’t know that we’re even looking at you to be a MacArthur Fellow. We ask people to maintain confidence about our research process, and people do. It’s one of the surprising things to me [laughter]. Most of the time when I call someone and tell them that they have been named a MacArthur Fellow, it is the first that they have heard it.

Denver: That must be some kind of phone call. In fact, Cecilia, it kind of reminds me of that show from the late 1950s called “The Millionaire.”

Cecilia: “The Millionaire”, yes. We’re dating ourselves because we know about that show. [laughter]

Denver: Yes, we are. I think it was like 1955 or 1960. I believe the guy’s name was Michael Anthony who would deliver the cashier’s check and it was John Beresford Tipton that put up the money[laughter]. This must be the same kind of thing when you get somebody on the other end of the phone. And this is not an insignificant award. It is $625,000 over five years. You mentioned before that there are no strings attached.

Cecilia: No strings attached…

Denver: In other words, they can do what they want with the money. Tell us the advantages of not having strings attached, and what some of the people do with that money.

Cecilia. Yes, the original idea behind the program… One of the sources that’s sometimes cited of where the idea for the program began, was a paper that was written about what they called “venture research.”  The paper argued that there needed to be a space to support research activity that wasn’t necessarily leading immediately to a commercial application or to development of some product…

Denver: Interesting.

Cecilia: …and we didn’t want people to have to define, “I’m going to take the money and do x.” We wanted to say to the individuals, “We’ve been watching you. We see that you have exhibited exceptional creativity and the potential for more.” So this fellowship is really a statement of trust — that you’re in the best position to figure out how to use these funds to enable you to continue to be creative in the future.

Denver: And a pretty big responsibility, I would think, for the winners and probably a little bit of pressure as well. Correct?

Cecilia: Well, in fact, winners tell us that they feel more pressure from this fellowship and the no strings aspect of it than they would if they had done a research project, a proposal, and they had to give us a report. Because they really do take to heart this notion that we have placed trust in them.

Denver: Aside from the freedom that it affords these individuals to go down creative paths in an unfettered way, what are some of the indirect benefits that accrue to an individual who’s been named a MacArthur Fellow?

Cecilia: Well, besides the money– which fellows tell us they do appreciate… [laughter] The fellowship conveys some credibility to the individuals that sometimes opens doors for those individuals that might not have been opened otherwise. Recently, I had a conversation with one of the MacArthur Fellows, Marc Edwards, who is a professor at Virginia Tech. You may have heard of him because he’s been prominent in talking about the issues of lead and the lead water issue with Flint, Michigan. He contrasted the attention that was given to him in the context of the Flint issue to another lead issue that had happened 10 years before he got the fellowship. He noted that he thought that he was able to be much more effective in talking about Flint because he had MacArthur Fellow behind his name. So there’s the credibility aspect. The other thing the fellowship does, it sometimes can elevate a field, an area of work that people weren’t aware of, and bring broader attention to the field itself. That’s a benefit not just to the fellow, but to others who might be working in the same field and doing that same line of work. And this is the part that really excites me. We did a study a few years ago and discovered that the fellowship and the announcement of the fellowship has an impact on the general public — on the people who learn about the fellows. What we learned is that people who have learned or heard about the fellows say that it inspires them to think more about how they can contribute to society, and to think more about taking some risks and being creative.  

Denver: That is very, very true. Everybody I talk to who knows about it says that’s exactly the takeaway they’ve had. But probably it’s not as well-known as you would like it to be. So what are you trying to do to get the MacArthur Fellowship better known aside from appearing on shows like The Business of Giving? [laughs]

Cecilia: [laughs] Well, I have particularly been trying to focus on broadening the audience. I would love for that inspirational impact to be felt by younger audiences. So, we are investigating some routes to get into classrooms and to teachers. I had the experience of talking at a school district outside of Chicago and was a bit stunned at how few of the staff members had ever heard of the Fellows program. This was right in our hometown. When I started to show them the videos that we have of Fellows, and to point out to the teachers that they could go and use those videos in class…and that we didn’t charge….they were very excited. So we’re working hard to try and reach that younger audience through the educational system.

Denver: You know, some of your fellows have gone on to become quite notable leaders and innovators in their chosen field. Some have even switched fields. Why don’t you give us a couple of names of people that our listeners might recognize?

Cecilia: Well, in our most recently class of Fellows, we had Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is known for his work on the musical, Hamilton.

Denver: Yes, he is.

Cecilia: So that is a name that all over the world when I mention it, people know him. Another name– I just came back from a trip to Africa, and there’s a Nigerian-American author, Chimamanda Adichie. That’s another name that if I said that to almost any of the people I met in South Africa, they recognized it, and they go, “Oh, she’s a Fellow!” So those are both individuals from the Arts. We have also had some scientists. I mentioned Mac Edwards earlier. We’ve had former surgeon-general of the U.S., Regina Benjamin, was a MacArthur Fellow. We’ve had people in the public issues realm, Cecilia Muñoz, who is in the Obama Administration…she was a MacArthur Fellow… Just to name a few.

Denver: Yeah, and we’ve had  few guests, Bill Drayton of Ashoka, was one of my first guests on the show. And I have Rosanne Haggerty from Community Solutions coming up very soon. I said at the beginning that the press, the media, have dubbed these awards, perhaps mistakenly, as “genius grants.” How do you feel about that moniker?

Cecilia: Well, I have sort of a love-hate relationship with it because I do recognize that “genius grants” is a wonderful shorthand, and it’s the kind of thing you might pay a branding firm to come up with after a lot money and years of research, and we earned it without doing that. But it also was a little misleading because the fellowship is looking for exceptional creativity. And there’s a relationship between creativity and genius, but they’re not necessarily the same thing. People tend to think of genius in very narrow terms…

Denver: Right.

Cecilia: You took the test, and what score did you get? Creativity, I think, is a much broader concept. There can be creativity in a range of fields we might not necessarily associate with genius. You mentioned earlier, the blacksmith. I guess you can be a genius blacksmith, but people don’t always think that way. I also think that creativity is very much focused on producing something that’s beneficial. It’s having the great idea and then taking it to a step further so that it translates into something that can have an impact on a field, or enable the next round of innovations to take place, or may directly improve people’s lives.

Denver: Yeah, and I think “genius” also probably conveys that somebody’s already made it and are a “certified genius.” You’re actually looking to people who are right on the precipice of a great discovery.

Cecilia: That’s right. We’re looking for people with the potential for more. So, ideally we get them just right before they hit the top, hit the market.

Denver: Well, let’s move on to your recent competition that was just announced in June. It’s called 100&Change. Tell us what it is, and how it’s going to work.

Cecilia: 100&Change is a new program at the MacArthur Foundation. It is our intent that once every three years, we’re going to make a single grant of $100 million to a single project that solves a problem, takes a big slice of a problem, or unlocks the potential for other resources that are required to solve the problem. What sets this apart from our other grantmaking at the foundation is that it is completely open as to what the problem and solution might be. We’ve done this in part as an expression of our humility. Many times foundations define a strategy. They identify a problem and say: “This is what we’re going to work on, and this is how we’re going to work on it.” And we want to recognize that we may not know everything…

Denver: That can be unusual for a lot of foundations, you know? [laughter]

Cecilia: Yes. And so we have opened this up to any problem or any solution. It’s open to nonprofits or for profit organizations. It’s also open to the world. We have set this up to be something that we hope will have the impact of generating a conversation about solving problems, as opposed to just talking about problems.

Denver: Cecilia, what was the genesis of this idea? I mean, this is a huge initiative. I guess to use a current parlance, a big, big, big bet. And it’s something unlike any other foundation, or for that matter, any other institution, has ever done. How did you arrive at this decision?

Cecilia: We have a new president at the foundation, President Julia Stasch. At the start of her presidency, we were looking at reshaping the work of the foundation. We were really narrowing our focus from having a large number of smaller programs, to having a smaller number of focused programs… what we have called “big bets”– to use that term you just used. And this would be in addition to our enduring commitments to Chicago, our hometown, and our enduring commitment to American democracy– which we’ve expressed largely through support of journalism and media. As we narrow that focus though, she came up with the idea that we should have a space where we haven’t pre-defined what we’re going to do. So that was the beginning of the idea. She had this conversation with our board, and they thought it was a great idea. Then she came back, and she said to a small group of us, “How are we going to do this?” [laughs] So, that’s the start of the idea.

We made some choices about how to structure it. We could’ve set it up where we asked people what problems we should work on and made it open that way. We decided to really focus in on having the problem and solution paired because we thought we wanted something that the scale of $100 million would actually be able to do something. It’s easier to find those if you pair the two together.

Denver: What’s the timetable on all of this? When do people have to apply? When will the field be narrowed?  And ultimately, when will the winner will be announced?

Cecilia: Well, we opened on June 2nd… Opened our website and registration. The registrations are due in September 2nd, and applications are due on October 3rd. After we have this first set of applications, there will be a judging process, a judging panel.  And applications will get rated. We hope to have identified semi-finalists by early 2017.

We’re hoping to name up to 10 semi-finalists. Those 10 semi-finalists will then have some time  working with technical assistance provided by the foundation– to really develop their plan, to dot their i’s and cross their t’s..To think about how you actually implement the solution, maybe design a scaling up plan, what the needs are based on the needs of the specific proposal. We will be narrowing that pool of semi-finalists to a group of finalists sometime in the late summer of 2017. The finalists, up to five, will participate in a public presentation in the Fall of 2017. We hope to have the winner named and the funds going out the door in early 2018.

Denver: It’s got a little bit of a short tank feel to it, doesn’t it? [laughter]

Cecilia: I think I’ve heard that analogy before. I think maybe that last one. Rather than thinking of it, there’s a little bit of me that would be very excited if in the public presentation… One of the things we plan to do is to invite other funders.

Denver: I think that’s a fabulous idea.

Cecilia: And I’m really hopeful and think we’ll have success if more than one good idea is there, and more than one funder wants to help fund it. And maybe we even get competitive with each other.

Denver: Yeah.

Cecilia: No, it’s mine!

Denver: It’s a brilliant idea. It really is. I mean this whole thing is so open. I believe about 70% of foundations will not accept outside proposals unsolicited. So the idea that you’re opening this up to everybody is great. The idea that you are inviting other entities and other foundations to come in to listen…the whole openness and the whole transparency of it all… is really a tremendous breath of fresh air. And I think it will have some other benefits over and beyond the actual competition itself. Can any of this $100 million grant be used for overhead or building infrastructure by the winning organization?

Cecilia: Yes, we have not defined or restricted the categories of expenses, but it will be up to the organization to document and persuade us that the expenses make sense for the solution that they’ve proposed. One of the other things the organizations will have to do–I think that it’s important to note– is that they will need to provide some evidence that their solution will work. We’re looking for solutions that have some evidentiary base behind them.

Denver: You kind of alluded to this before, but could you talk about it a little bit more– does this solution have to solve a problem? Does a problem have to be able to be solved with an infusion of a $100 million? Or can it just be leading to the next step? Just go into a little bit more detail on that, if you would.

Cecilia: Yes! It can be… It would be wonderful if  $100 million did it, and we were done…this problem was gone forever. But we are also looking potentially for situations where $100 million takes us a slice of the problem and sets it up in a place where we can unlock… other resources might be unlocked..to help continue with the solution. Or $100 million might set up the problem so that there’s an identifiable revenue stream that will help to sustain the solution over the long time.

Denver: Very smart. Knowing the importance of collaboration and building coalitions to solve really, really tough problems, do the rules allow for joint proposals from multiple groups?

Cecilia: Yes! There can be multiple groups who come together, but we are going to make the award to a single organization, a single lead entity. So, they’re going to oneed to organize themselves ahead of time..

Denver: I got you. Beyond the winning entry and the awarding of $100 million to hopefully a great and transformative idea and solution, what are the other indirect benefits that you’re hoping will come out of this initiative?

Cecilia: Well, one, and I think we are already starting to see some of that,  is generating a conversation about solutions. What problems are there that we potentially have the solutions for? What are the range of problems in terms of scale? I think sometimes we get overwhelmed because we think problems require a HUGE amount of money. $100 million  is a lot of money, but it’s not a HUUUGE amount of money! [laugher] And so, the idea that people can start to talk about the scale of problems and actually trying to focus our attention on solving them is one of the things that we hope will lead to a benefit beyond the immediate aspect of this award.

Denver: And you said at the beginning this is not going to be a one-off, right?

Cecilia: That’s our plan. Our plan is to do this once every three years. This is, of course, the first time we’ve done it, and we may have to tweak things.

Denver: Oh sure.

Cecilia: So we’ll see. This is a learning process.

Denver: Let me get you out on this, Cecilia. What has been the impact of this announcement of 100&Change, that of  a single $100 million award, been on the MacArthur Foundation itself– how you view yourself as an organization, the morale of the staff and the trustees, the culture and vibe of the place?

Cecilia: Yes. One of the gratifying aspects of having the opportunity to lead this program is that it has drawn people from all parts of the foundation to work together as a team. A whole design process. We had people who had typically worked in different programs. Some of them had worked in the US-based program. Some are international-based. We had people from the legal staff. We have people from the communication staff. We had a range of people who got together to think through and brainstorm and design this initiative. And they all remain very engaged in the process. So, that was exciting just to run that kind of team together. The other aspect that I am excited about is that we have engaged people in the foundation to help us with thinking about who the judges might be. They will be helping us with some of the review process, and there’s been a quite a bit of eagerness and enthusiasm.

Denver: I bet there has been. If people want to learn more about 100&Change or the MacArthur Fellowship Program, or the other great initiatives of the MacArthur Foundation, where do they need to go?

Cecilia: Well, for 100&Change, they should go to our website which is 100andchange.org. And you’ll find a wonderful video that outlines the program there. For the MacArthur Fellows Program, you should come to the MacArthur Foundation’s website which is www.macfound.org.  And on that website, if you go to the MacArthur Fellows Program, you can see bios of all the Fellows, and for the more recent classes, we have videos where each one of them talks about their work.

Denver: They are excellent! I watched them. Dr. Cecilia Conrad, Managing Director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation… I believe you once said that you had the coolest job in the world, and now we all know why. I can’t wait to see how 100&Change unfolds. If you can, I hope you can come back in a year or so after the winner has been announced, to share your reflections on the entire process.

Cecilia: I would love to do that. Thank you.

Denver: It was a real pleasure to have you on the show, Cecilia.

Cecilia: Thank you.


Cecilia Conrad, Managing Director of the MacArthur Foundation, and Denver Frederick, host of the Business of Giving

*The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 PM and 7:00 PM Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @BizofGiv on Twitter and at Facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving.

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