Transparency Talk

Category: "Responsive Grantmaking" (2 posts)

Open Solutions: MacArthur Foundation Opens Up Knowledge from Its $100 Million Competition
December 22, 2017

MacArthur Foundation is opening up its work, its grantmaking process, and perhaps most importantly — its submissions — through the 100&Change competition.

The 100&Change Solutions competition funds a single proposal that “promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.” MacArthur welcomed proposals from any field or problem area.

Throughout this competition, MacArthur committed to be open and transparent about its grantmaking process. Examples of how this openness played out during the competition include:

100&Change LogoEarlier this week, these processes culminated with MacArthur Foundation’s announcement that Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are joint winners of the $100 million grant. The other three finalists each received a $15 million grant.

The two organizations will work collaboratively to implement an early childhood development intervention “designed to address the ‘toxic stress’ experienced by children in the Syrian response region—Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria,” the foundation said in a statement. “The project will improve children's learning outcomes today and their intellectual and emotional development over the long term.” 

The foundation felt compelled to support what will be the “largest early childhood prevention program ever created in a humanitarian setting.” Due to the scale of this project, there is potential for this project to improve and impact how refugee children are treated and cared for globally. Additionally, project leaders are hopeful this program will encourage a redirection of existing humanitarian aid and provide a working model for local government support.

In terms of scale, through the media component of customized educational content and a new local version of Sesame Street via television, mobile phones, digital platforms and direct services, an estimated 9.4 million young children will be reached. Home visits will be reinforced with digital content, and the project will connect trained local outreach and community health workers to reach 800,000 caregivers, and an estimated 1.5 million children will receive direct services in homes and child development centers.

The 100&Change competition also served as a force for innovation in MacArthur’s grantmaking practices and processes, and one MacArthur program officer said it helped the foundation evaluate and reflect on its own processes. For example, the foundation acknowledged that the eight semi-finalists and their proposals were atypical grant applications that would not normally be funded through its committed funding areas of: over-incarceration, global climate change, nuclear risk, increasing financial capital for the social sector; supporting journalism; and funding proposals in its headquarters city of Chicago.

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The competition, launched in 2016, marks another step in MacArthur’s commitment to opening up its work in the field of philanthropy. Through a partnership with Foundation Center, more than 1,900 grant applications for the 100&Change competition will be available through a portal, 100&Change Solutions Bank.

The solutions bank encourages opportunities for organizations and funders to learn from one another, and promotes the production and sharing of knowledge. Aware that the competition generated numerous and worthwhile solutions to global issues, MacArthur was hopeful that publicly sharing the solutions represented by the nearly 2,000 proposal submissions would benefit other funders interested in exploring and funding worthy proposals. This could potentially minimize applicants from spending more time cultivating new donors and tailoring proposals to prospective funders.

A common criticism of competition philanthropy is that it’s a lot of work for the vast majority of applicants when there are thousands of applicants and only one or a handful of prize winners. MacArthur’s solutions bank approach has the potential to make this effort worthwhile since many can learn from the proposed solutions, and potentially find new collaborative partners, funders and donors.

Similarly, MacArthur’s commitment to Glasspockets’ transparency principles, and more recently, joining the #OpenForGood campaign to affirm its ongoing commitment to openly sharing its knowledge are among the ways that the foundation is working to go beyond the transaction and maximize all of its assets.

--Melissa Moy

Open Yourself Up to New Solutions
April 5, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

(Christie George is the director of New Media Ventures, a mission-driven venture firm and donor collaborative supporting progressive startups.  New Media Ventures supports companies and organizations that – through the use of new media and technology – build advocacy movements, tell new stories and drive civic engagement.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation.  The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

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If you’ve been following the headlines since the 2016 election, you’ve probably thought about the growing polarization in our country. You may share my worry about filter bubbles and political echo chambers, or you might have recommitted to sparking conversations with friends across the aisle. At New Media Ventures (NMV), we see the same need in the funding world. From our perspective, most people fund people and organizations they already know, moving money through referrals and established networks. But if we’re going to solve the big problems facing our world, we need to move beyond our personal echo chambers.

As a mission-driven venture fund that invests in both for-profit and nonprofit startups, NMV stands with one foot in the venture capital world and one foot in philanthropy – driving change at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement. When we first got started, we found ourselves sourcing opportunities in all the traditional ways – using our personal networks and attending conferences – but we quickly realized that we needed to try something different to ensure that we were actually identifying new approaches to the problems we wanted to solve. In 2014, we launched the NMV Innovation Fund with two main goals: 1) increase the number of investable projects crossing our desks (our deal flow); and 2) break through the bias for “the usual suspects” to fund more diverse entrepreneurs.

In the simplest terms, the Innovation Fund is an open call for world-changing innovations. Twice a year, we ask our network, and our network’s network, and their networks (you get the idea: we cast a wide net) to send us the best opportunities they’ve seen for how technology can catalyze progressive change. This year, in response to our “Resist and Rebuild” Open Call, we received nearly 500 applications – a new record – and we are blown away by the creativity of the applicants.

“...If you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects.”

While it may sound overwhelming to sort through hundreds of applications, we have developed a methodology for doing this work efficiently.  This process includes recruiting a volunteer screening committee of funding peers, simplifying our application as much as possible, asking more detailed questions only to the applicants who rise to the top, and using a technology platform to easily manage all of the applications in one batch. Ultimately, New Media Ventures makes the final funding decision, but the screening committee is one of the most powerful aspects of the process – many heads are better than one – and working collaboratively with other funders allows us to leverage different domain expertise in evaluating opportunities. 

Here are two takeaways from our experience opening ourselves up to open calls, and the reasons why we hope other funders will consider similar approaches:

1) Big problems require new solutions (and diversity is not a “nice to have”). Funding exclusively through referrals can limit what funders see and increase the risk of confirmation bias – one of the reasons white men are so much more likely to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. By having an open and transparent application process, heavily marketed to ensure we’re getting outside our own bubbles, we’ve made a tremendous
impact on the diversity of our portfolio. Our website, blog, social media platforms, and partners broadcast details about the open call, allowing us to
reach new audiences who may be deterred by less transparent philanthropic opportunities. We’re proud that 65% of Innovation Fund applicants have New Media Ventures logoat least one female and/or trans founder, and 30% have at least one person of color on the founding team. We still have a long way to go, but by comparison 8% of venture capital goes to women founders and 13% to founders of color.

However, focusing on diversity is not a “nice to have” and it’s not just about the numbers – it’s a core part of our strategy. Our societies and systems are facing entrenched problems, and solving them will require new and bold solutions. We need all hands on deck. Women, trans people, and leaders of color have much-needed perspectives and expertise, but often lack access to capital, networks, and traditional philanthropy. For example, news platform Blavity, founded by a young black woman, has grown to reach 7 million readers by creatively combining pop culture content with thoughtful coverage of race and gender issues. We might never have identified this opportunity were it not for our open call.

2) Less control over outcomes leads to more welcome surprises. When funders issue a request for proposals (RFP), we essentially define the terms of the discussion: we’ve often developed a strategy, and we’re looking for organizations to execute that strategy. Unlike a traditional RFP, the Innovation Fund Open Call process has very broad parameters by design. We’ve found this requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and develop the humility to stay in a learning mindset. The approach isn’t without risks. What if you open the gates for a broad range of applicants, and don’t find anything you want to fund? What if you keep your parameters flexible and only get applications that aren’t in your wheelhouse? But with careful planning and a good process, we have developed strategies to mitigate the risks, and find we gain real value from being able to scan the field and identify gaps as well as opportunities. It has paid off in delightful and unexpected ways.

For many of our portfolio organizations, NMV is their first institutional funder, and our early investment gives our grantees the validation and runway they need to go on to great things: CoWorker.org hosted the Summit on Worker Voice with President Obama; Blavity went on to participate in 500 Startups; Vote.org got into Y Combinator and scaled up quickly to send SMS voting reminder messages to more than 1 million people in swing states leading up to the election. And that’s just a few examples.

To sum it up, if you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects. If boosting innovation is one of your goals, we recommend starting small and collaborating with others to share the work. Consider carving out a portion of your grantmaking budget to fund projects selected through an open process, and remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NMV and other similar groups have developed deep expertise around open calls and we’re excited to partner with other funders. In fact, we did just that when we worked with the Pluribus Project on a democracy-focused open call last year.

So go ahead, open up and let yourself be surprised. It worked for us.

--Christie George

 

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