Last week, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the country’s largest philanthropic funders, launched 100&Change, a public competition with a $100 million prize for whoever can save humanity from some looming disaster. Exactly what we’ll need salvation from, however, is to be decided.
That’s because unlike classic XPRIZE moonshots, MacArthur didn’t entirely define what challenge it expects contestants to address, or what it will technically take for them to earn the money. The 100&Change guidelines are fairly loose. Saviors must “solve a critical problem affecting people, places or the planet” in a way that’s “meaningful, verifiable, durable, and feasible” reads the competition website.
For MacArthur, there’s a bigger win: They’re covering institutional blindspots. The $6.5 billion juggernaut authorized roughly $203.5 million in grants in 2014. The agency maintains a targeted scope to magnify impact. They invest in only a few major causes—criminal justice, nuclear security, climate change, and social service organizations. “We wanted to use this as an example that we don’t know everything,” says Cecilia Conrad, the managing director in charge of the competition. “While we are narrowing our focus in some ways, we also want to be open to what ideas we might work on.”
MacArthur plans to re-stage the competition once every three years. Their endowment is obviously gratis—the foundation doesn’t expect a direct financial return or equity from the winning proposition. They are however creating a new standard for how much homework should go into major donations. As it turns out, lots of people have $100 million lying around these days, and they don’t always donate it wisely. So far this year, groups and individuals have awarded at least 10 donations of that size or larger to various causes. (That’s on pace to match the 19 expenditures of equal or greater value doled out in each of the last two years.) It’s what Mark Zuckerberg donated to help save Newark’s schools, only to see it “partially squandered.”
In this case, the field is open for both nonprofits and traditional companies with a social change component to go head-to-head. That’s an especially intriguing setup because the rules (or lack there of) allow for two approaches to problem solving: Spend everything outright to nix a problem, or generate a business plan that’s sustainable, to chip away at your compassion project. Still, this isn’t a venture capital round. With MacArthur as the funder, the socially good returns will definitely outweigh profiteering. “Long term you could generate revenue but the revenue would have to then be plowed back into the social purpose,” Conrad says. “Ultimately, the grant recipient is going to have to identify very specific milestones allowing us to assess whether their solution to the problem is working.”
The application process itself is pretty straightforward. Contestants have until September 2 to register, then a month to submit a lengthy treatise including a proposed budget and video pitch. To score each submission, MacArthur has currently assembled 31 judges, experts in the various fields that solutions may combine. That includes policy researchers, economists, even tech and biophysics savants. (Alphabetically, at least, the list ranges from Nancy Adler, director of the Center For Health And Community at University of California, San Fransisco to Andrew Zolli, head of social, humanitarian, and eco-programs at Earth-imaging company Planet Labs.)
A panel of five judges will score each offering. By December, the foundation will pick up to 10 semi-finalists and shift to incubator mode: Each entrant will receive support to help refine their proposal, including an extensive study around whether their plan will actually impact the community in the way they predict.
Basically, that’s a hedge against what could be loosely referred to as a PlayPump problem. As William MacAskill explains in Doing Good Better, his book about achieving effective altruism, the PlayPump was a village water pump originally designed to work like a merry-go-round. As children in rural Africa pushed it, they would help bring fresh water to once-desolate areas. Only after it was widely adopted did aide groups realize that the contraption was difficult to repair and essentially a money pit. Once kids lost excitement, it took a lot of effort to keep the thing spinning and generate water.
Semi-finalists will have until mid-summer 2017 to prove their concept can work. After a reassessment, a handful of finalists will be chosen and given two months to polish their ideas for a live presentation in front of MacArthur’s Board of Directors, which will choose the ultimate victor. Technically, Conrad insists the goal is to vet one winner. But the foundation plans to invite additional funders to the finals round. And proposals will likely tackle separate charitable cruxes, each with a unique philanthropic patch.
In that sense, not winning isn’t losing. Finalists will walk with a honed idea, perhaps even a trail of investors. As Conrad puts it: “One of the intentions is to focus on solutions not just problems.”
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