In June 2016, the MacArthur Foundation put $100 million up for grabs in a high-stakes philanthropy competition called 100&Change. Instead of dividing its money among a bunch of grantees, the contest gave the whole amount to just one organization, in order to make the biggest impact on one specific solution.
Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee ultimately won the grand prize for its plan to support refugee children living in Middle Eastern conflict zones. That proposal hinged on creating a TV show and other educational materials aimed at improving both the education and emotional resilience of displaced children.
After the success of the first iteration, the foundation is kicking off a second round of the competition, offering up another $100 million prize. It’s doing that through a new nonprofit called Lever for Change, which will also create other customized competitions for funders looking to place so-called “big bets”–the philanthropy world term for giving millions all at once to one particular cause.
All told, the first competition drew more than 1,900 proposals; MacArthur highlighted the best at intervals during the competition, and then cataloged them in a searchable database called the 100&Change Solutions Bank, so that other funders could have an easy way to find good projects that needed investments. Since then, other philanthropists have given $254 million to several of these concepts. That includes another $100 million from the Lego Foundation to support Sesame’s work in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, and expanding the program to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The finalist Catholic Relief Services earned $9 million from USAID and GHR Foundation for its plan to shift developing world orphanages toward a family support and services model.
“Lever for Change is really the product of the convergence of two things,” says MacArthur president Julia Stasch. First, “the lessons and insights that we had from 100&Change, where it became apparent that there was significant interest in our pipeline and the solutions that were proposed.” And second, the fact that many would-be big bettors face what nonprofit consultancy Bridgespan (which worked on the creation of Lever for Change) has called an aspiration gap between the radical goals that those with money want to achieve and traditional ways they end up spending it. “That capital is in the hands of philanthropists and individuals and families who aspire to put their money to use solving social problems, but really lack the apparatus to do so,” Stasch says.
Backed by $20 million from MacArthur and $5 million from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, the new group has four years to pilot how its competition model can be effective. “One of the values of Lever for Change, which was the value of 100&Change, is the openness and transparency,” says Cecilia Conrad, the CEO of Lever for Change, who is also a managing director at MacArthur.
What MacArthur has really created is a competition consultancy that can quickly generate and circulate interesting proposals. Several funders are already signing up to participate: The Chicago-focused economic opportunity nonprofit Pritzker Traubert Foundation will kick off its own contest in April, and Earth’s Call, a nonprofit focused on climate change, has already committed $50 million to invest in ideas that are discovered by Lever of Change. Two other philanthropic funding groups–the family management operation ICONIQ Capital, and Asian Venture Philanthropy Network–plan to connect their contributors to Lever’s growing list of vetted concepts.
The next round of 100&Change starts in April, with the $100 million prizewinner to be announced in the fall of 2020. But it’s really the start of Lever for Change’s quest to unlock potentially billions in untapped capital from those watching each new contest more closely. “We’re going to be identifying more promising projects than what a single grant would support,” says Conrad. “And so we will be actively working to strengthen those projects, to help those organizations refine their messaging and their implementation plans to make stronger proposals, which we will then make available to other philanthropists.”