MacArthur Foundation Makes Sharp Grantmaking Pivot

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August 14, 2015; Chicago Reader

We would love to invite comment on the MacArthur Foundation’s new direction.

It’s become a feature of the philanthropic and nonprofit landscape to see a major foundation narrow or change course significantly on its grantmaking under new leadership, and the latest to do so is the MacArthur Foundation, where Julia Stasch has been the permanent president for six months, although she had been the interim for the eight months prior and Vice President for U.S. Programs for 13 years before that.

Last week, Stasch declared her intentions towards the foundation’s grantmaking in an essay in the foundation’s annual report. Her overriding point is that the foundation intends to narrow its focus to a few fields where it believes it can make an impact. It plans to spend big, but in doing so it will cut grantmaking to some fields altogether, albeit with some bridge funding.

The two fields in which it intends to make large investments are criminal justice—specifically, the effort to reverse over-incarceration…

The high rate of incarceration and the dysfunctional relationship between police and minority communities are symptoms of a deep pathology that takes a terrible toll on families, communities, and the legitimacy of government itself.

Criminal justice has received recent, widespread attention from the media, scholars, and advocates, and progress has been made at the state level in reducing prison populations through sentencing reform and other means. Much less attention has been paid to local justice systems, through which most people experience the administration of justice in this country, and where mass incarceration begins.

With an initial $75 million investment, we are supporting a national effort to spearhead broad reform in local jurisdictions, with a goal of changing how America thinks about and uses jails in a fairer, more effective justice system. The effort is off to a promising start. More than 190 jurisdictions competed for 20 grants to help create local reform plans; by the end of the year, ten will be selected for major implementation support. We will help the others pursue change on their own.

…and climate change, where its intention is to support global leadership on the issue and “organizations that aim to continue and accelerate U.S. greenhouse gas reductions, to increase and sustain political consensus for climate action, and to provide incentives for transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Our goal is to add significant, distinctive value to the many important and substantial efforts already underway. All of this and more is urgently required if the world is to avoid the worst outcomes of global climate disruption.

The other “possibilities” for large investments mentioned in this essay are program-related investments “for organizations whose missions, markets, or business models require capital that is very patient, risk-tolerant, and flexible” and what they are calling “special bets,” where the foundation will invest $100 million in one initiative intended to mitigate a major problem or take advantage of a compelling opportunity every three years.

“Finally,” reads the statement, “we will dedicate a small amount of human and financial resources each year to asking and exploring key ‘what if?’ questions in one or two areas of critical importance. We could ask questions such as: What if there is not enough, or any at all, rewarding work for millions of people around the globe?  What if the pace of technological change outstrips the ability to ensure that it provides a public benefit? The goal will not be to generate or implement a specific solution. Instead, we will support research and other knowledge-generating activity that, in turn, informs the search for solutions—for us and for others.”

MacArthur will, over the next few years, phase out its investments in juvenile justice, population and reproductive health, young people’s use of digital media, global migration and U.S. immigration, girls’ secondary education in developing countries, aspects of international peace and security, strengthening American democracy…and housing, the significance of which we’ll cover in a separate newswire tomorrow.—Ruth McCambridge