MacArthur Fellow Awards Announced: Unique Foundation Support Strategy

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September 22, 2016; Washington Post

They’re commonly referred to as the “genius awards,” but you don’t have to be a genius to get one. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has announced its awards to 23 people selected for being “extraordinary individuals.” The award is twofold, and it’s difficult to say which aspect is more important. Being recognized as a MacArthur Fellow is a lifelong distinction, carrying with it the cachet of being someone who is industrious, innovative, successful, and generally exemplary. The award also takes the form of a five-year, $625,000 grant, paid quarterly, that comes with no strings attached. It may be used for any purpose, with no reporting, evaluation, recordkeeping, or other accountability required of recipients. The award is based on past accomplishments, and the foundation simply has faith that the cash will help liberate MacArthur Fellows from financial worries and assist them in achieving even more in the future that they did in the past to qualify for the prize.

So, how do you apply, and what are the requirements? Well, you can’t apply—you need to be selected using the foundation’s process, which relies on selected external experts and leaders to nominate, evaluate, and select the recipients. Between 20 and 30 MacArthur Fellows are named each year. About 950 MacArthur Fellows have been awarded since the program’s inception in 1981. Unsolicited applications and nominations are not accepted. The external experts involved in the process change from time to time, and their names are kept confidential.

New MacArthur Fellows are always surprised by the telephone call informing them of their award. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins believed at first that he was about to be harangued by a telemarketer. He describes his shock this way:

“I thought I was having a psychotic break for a moment—well, for many moments, actually,” Jacobs­-Jenkins recalled this week, laughing. The 31-year-old D.C. native wandered outside in a daze; when he ran into his college roommate, he asked his friend to examine his phone and confirm that the call had actually happened. He still couldn’t believe it was true.

The 2016 MacArthur Fellows are a diverse group, based on reviewing their names, photos, and short bios on the foundation’s website. The unifying characteristics of the list’s members are creativity and energy, with the potential to improve society. Poets and writers, bioengineers and journalists, computer scientists and financial services innovators are included. A human rights lawyer and a sculptor can both change their communities or more, based on the 2016 awards list.

We encourage readers to review the list of recipients and read their biographies for a glimpse of genuine inspiration. Individuals can make a difference in many ways, and each MacArthur Fellow story is a window to a person’s creativity.—Michael Wyland