What would you do with $100 million? The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation would love to know—and if they like your answer, they’ll give you the cash!
The Foundation’s plan, known as 100&Change, is the latest entrant into a increasingly-crowded philanthropic space that can basically be summed up as “give money to people and trust them to spend it wisely”.
When applied to the poorest of the poor, this is known as unconditional cash transfers, and works extremely well. When applied to everybody, it’s known as a universal basic income—an idea that is also catching on. When applied to exceptional individuals, it’s known as the MacArthur Fellows Program, better known as the “genius awards”. The Fellows Program announces out 24 new grants of $625,000 each every year, for a total of $15 million a year. It’s been going on now for some 35 years, with great success.
Now, the same people who brought you the genius awards have upped the ante. 100&Change will give out just one single grant, of $100 million, once every three years; the first will be awarded next year. (Technically, the award is given to an institution, not an individual, so make sure you have some kind of institutional affiliation before you apply.)
As befits such a large award, winning it will not be easy. The MacArthur Foundation is looking for organizations that have identified a major problem in society; that have a realistic solution to that problem; and that can enact that solution for $100 million. “Competitive proposals,” they say, “will be meaningful, verifiable, durable, and feasible.”
This is not how philanthropy normally works. Even the seemingly obvious requirement of having both a problem and a solution is far from universal: it’s quite easy to think of philanthropic uses of $100 million that have only one of the two. The $130 million that the ALS Society received as a result of the Ice Bucket Challenge, for instance, is money going after a problem even when there is no visible solution. Conversely, the next time you see some billionaire donating $100 million to expand yet another overstuffed business school on an Ivy League campus, what you’re looking at is a solution in desperate need of a problem.
But if you have a problem and a solution, and a way of enacting the latter with $100 million, then you have between now and October 3 to submit your application. The MacArthur Foundation is pretty much agnostic as to the nature of the problem you're trying to solve: while in recent years they’ve narrowed the scope of what they focus on, this program in part exists to fund projects that aren’t part of their natural sphere of expertise.
What’s more, if you make the finals (there will be up to five finalists), then you could end up getting funded even if you don’t win. Alongside the MacArthur Foundation’s judges will be hand-selected representatives from foundations specifically interested in the kind of things that the finalists are proposing. They might end up funding your idea, honed as it will have been by a team of MacArthur professionals. (All semifinalists will get assistance from MacArthur in putting their final presentations together.)
There’s almost no limit on what the $100 million can be spent on. It could just be to buy stuff, and then the stuff solves the problem. Or it could be to catalyze a business of some description which, after getting that initial $100 million, will become self-sustaining. Or it could be as some kind of first-loss risk tranche which will underwrite a much bigger fund-raise. Whatever it is, $100 million is all you’re getting.
“Under this program we are not looking for people who are going to come back three years from now for another $100 million,” says Cecilia Conrad, MacArthur’s managing director leading the competition.
In other words, 100&Change doesn’t start from the problem; neither does it start from the solution. Instead, it just starts from a single sum of money: $100 million. Money, we all know, can change the world.
So: what could you do with that much money? If you have a good idea, the MacArthur Foundation is all ears. Tell them what it is!