Here’s What You Need to Know About MacArthur’s Latest 0 Million Competition

Here’s What You Need to Know About MacArthur’s Latest $100 Million Competition

In 2016, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched its 100&Change philanthropic competition guided by the belief that sometimes, bigger is better. The prize awards a winning proposal $100 million, allowing nonprofit leaders to take break from the annual grant application treadmill, roll up their sleeves and implement a project “that promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.” 

Unlike other philanthropic competitions, MacArthur doesn’t ask applicants to address a particular challenge, positioning the 100&Change approach as a “counterbalance” to its time-limited Big Bets strategy, which has channeled support to organizations in fields defined by the foundation, such as criminal justice and climate change. In 2017, 100&Change announced its inaugural winners, Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee, which collaboratively launched an early-childhood education program for refugees of the Syrian crisis. Four years later, Community Solutions won the second-round prize for its project, “Build for Zero,” seeking to end homelessness in five years within 75 American communities.

In late May, MacArthur announced the launch of the third round of 100&Change. Like the previous iteration, the competition will be managed by the foundation’s nonprofit affiliate, Lever for Change. Launched in 2019, Lever for Change holds open grant competitions bankrolled and conceived by outside funders, with prizes ranging from $10 million to $100 million. 

100&Change’s third round comes two months after Lever for Change and MacKenzie Scott’s Yield Giving announced the winners of the first Yield Giving Open Call, which awarded a total of $640 million to 361 organizations. “That was a big task,” said Chris Cardona, MacArthur’s managing director for discovery, exploration and programs. “It was a real stamp of approval in the sector around Lever for Change’s ability to manage large-scale competitions.” 

Indeed, the decision of the philanthropist Forbes once hailed as the world’s most powerful woman to partner with Lever for Change suggests that its model, which also undergirds the 100&Change prize, is successfully tapping into high-net-worth donors’ desire to move enormous sums of money through a scalable, transparent and open prize infrastructure. This approach has also resonated with nonprofits applicants frustrated with funders’ proclivity for invitation-only grantmaking. 

“There’s demand for this type of ambition in philanthropy,” Cardona said. “It’s reflected in the number of applications we’ve received over the years, the strength of the finalists and the interest from other donors.”  

How the 100&Change evaluation process works

In 100&Change’s third installment, Lever for Change is taking on a role similar to the one it plays for the other competitions it administers. That includes developing program materials, application forms and the scoring rubric, vetting submissions to ensure eligibility, and identifying and recruiting the prize’s external panel of subject matter experts, known in 100&Change jargon as “Wise Heads.” Here’s how the evaluation process will play out. 

100&Change is asking nonprofit leaders to check out the prize’s organizational readiness tool to determine if their project is a good fit. Once vetted by Lever for Change staff, applicants participate in a bias training session in which they’re asked to consider how unconscious biases may hinder their ability to equitably assess projects and how to mitigate them. Next, leaders from applicant organizations evaluate five randomly selected projects using 100&Change’s scoring rubric. By giving applicants a voice in the process and an opportunity to network with each other, the peer-to-panel model, which was introduced in 100&Change’s second round, attempts to mitigate concerns that improperly constructed philanthropic competitions perpetuate an adversarial zero-sum dynamic that pits applicants against each other.

In the second stage of 100&Change’s evaluation process, Wise Heads evaluate up to 500 randomly assigned projects using the same scoring rubric. Wise Heads will be asked to “evaluate each proposal holistically rather than through a technical lens,” Cardona said. “So someone whose technical expertise is in climate change might be asked to review proposals targeting other issue areas.” 

Next, the Wise Heads forward a set of projects to MacArthur’s board, which whittles the list down to five finalists. Each finalist receives a planning grant, kicking off what Cardona calls a “process of accompaniment over several months, with coaching and access to experts to help them prepare their final pitch.” After the final pitches are made, the board selects the winning project.

Balancing “participation and expertise”

MacArthur’s approach with 100&Change — outsourcing submission vetting to applicant leaders and external experts — stands in contrast to funders’ prevailing adherence to in-house grantmaking. Under the latter model, funding leaders, sometimes in partnership with consultants, assess projects based on what they think will most effectively meet their strategic goals. 

Lever for Change has positioned its contests as a way to shift that status quo. The concern is that the in-house approach may “force grantees to fit the donor’s vision, rather than trusting people close to the issue to know how to best tackle the problem,” wrote Lever for Change CEO Cecilia Conrad in a 2021 IP guest post. “Lever for Change transfers the power to define strategy from the funder to nonprofits that are engaged in the work.”

Conrad’s perspective gestures at the benefits of participatory grantmaking, and while that practice hasn’t reached critical mass across the funding ecosystem, 100&Change’s hybrid evaluation model — outsourcing application vetting while empowering the foundation’s board to select five finalists and the winning project — sends a message to the field that “it’s possible to balance participation and expertise in a harmonious way,” Cardona said. 

While 100&Change’s process mostly resembles that of the Yield Giving Open Call, there are a couple of big differences. First, the Yield Giving process did not include a finalist stage and corresponding planning grants. And then there’s the fact that 100&Change will select one winning project, while Scott and her team awarded money to a full 361. Yield Giving’s awardees, meanwhile, got either $1 million or $2 million, while 100&Change’s single winner gets $100 million. So while the competitions are procedurally similar, the ways they impact the field as nonprofit funding strategies are quite distinct.

Changes to 100&Change’s project criteria

Lever for Change’s 100&Change webpage notes that “competitive proposals will address a significant problem and provide a solution that is impactful, evidence-based, feasible, durable and just.”

The “just” criteria is a new addition to this year’s round, incorporating what MacArthur calls “a sharper focus on how projects advance diversity, equity and inclusion.” The move channels the ethos of its “Just Imperative,” articulating how the foundation approaches its commitment to justice. 

Cardona said 100&Change’s evaluation criteria has been evolving since 2017, which was also around the time that MacArthur began developing its Just Imperative. “DEI was part of the criteria from the beginning, and there’s been attention to fairness and equity in the methodology of the reviews,” he said, pointing to the prize’s stipulation that peer reviewers participate in bias training. “Adding ‘just’ is part of the continued evolution, to make it a little more explicit and to hopefully allow a wider range of projects to see themselves in that criteria.”

Another alteration involves how MacArthur and Lever for Change define the prize’s “impactful” criteria. Applicants from earlier rounds reported that the previous definition, which had emphasized scale and numbers, didn’t effectively capture the impact of long-term system-change efforts that can’t be easily plugged into a spreadsheet. As a result, the prize’s updated definition of impactful asks if the project’s solution has an “intensity of impact on a small but vulnerable population or geography,” among other qualifiers. 

“We feel it [the definition] provides a greater level of nuance, and it helps systems change organizations to engage in the competition,” Cardona said.

Gauging demand

Cardona’s assertion that there’s demand for 100&Change and Lever for Change’s competitions is backed up by a growing body of anecdotal evidence and data. Let’s start by getting a sense of demand among donors.

In 2016, MacArthur, a large foundation with extensive in-house expertise, was something of a voice in the wilderness when it committed a whopping $100 million to its inaugural 100&Change prize. But Lever for Change has smoothed the path for big-ticket prizes by enabling donors willing to commit a minimum of $10 million to run their own philanthropic competitions.

Backed by operational support from MacArthur, the Gates Foundation and billionaire LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, Lever for Change has played a role in the movement of over $1.7 billion in grants to more than 175 organizations through competitions conceived by donors like Scott, billionaires Chris Larsen and Lyna Lam, and oil heiress Lydia Hill, plus the LEGO, W.K. Kellogg and Pritzker Traubert foundations. Except for Scott’s open call, each of these competitions centered on donor-defined issues, such as racial equity, economic opportunity and maternal and infant health. 

Another data point suggesting growing funder demand is how Lever for Change launched a new service last May enabling donors to award a minimum of $1 million in general operating support to a cohort of organizations within a particular field. The service, which requires donors to commit to disbursing a minimum of $20 million, defines “field” as “a specific geography, topic, or type of organization.”

100&Change projects that do not receive a grant are entered into Lever for Change’s Bold Solutions Network. Introduced in the competition’s second round, the platform “presents prospective donors with projects that have been vetted and have a lot of potential,” Cardona said. MacArthur’s press release announcing the third round of 100&Change notes that the prize “has leveraged an additional $511 million in funding” in quantifiable demand from donors supporting projects in the network. 

And what about demand from nonprofit leaders stymied by foundations’ invite-only grant application processes? At first glance, applying for grants ranging from $10 to $100 million is a no-brainer. But overworked leaders must also consider the opportunity cost of filling out 100&Change’s extensive application and participating in a peer-to-peer evaluation panel.

It turns out these requirements weren’t a huge deterrent in previous competitions. MacArthur received roughly 750 applications for the 2021 100&Change prize and Lever for Change fielded 6,353 applications for the Yield Giving Open Call

In March, I reached out to a handful of leaders who received grants through Scott’s open call, and while they uniformly said the nine-month process was abnormally time consuming, they also appreciated its organized structure, transparency and how it enabled them to connect with individuals through the peer evaluation panel. Nonprofit leaders talk to each other, and if, as I suspect, word spreads that Lever for Change’s process was a rewarding one, we shouldn’t be shocked if 100&Change receives more than 750 applications in round three.

Speaking of which, applicants must register to apply for 100&Change before 5 pm U.S. Central time on August 15, 2024. Complete applications are due before 5 pm on September 5, 2024. MacArthur will announce the winner in Q4 2025. 

Cardona, for one, is eagerly awaiting the deluge of applications. “It’s a global thematic competition,” he told me. “We’re looking for ideas that match the full set of criteria, and we’re really excited to see what people propose.”

Read More