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There *is* a better way to practice philanthropy

By Bradford K. Smith
June 23, 2020

This blog was originally published as part of MacArthur’s Perspectives on 100&Change blog series about the competition.

I repent. After many years working at the Inter-American, Ford, and Oak Foundations, I now realize that the way we went about finding proposals, analyzing them, writing recommendations, securing approval, disbursing funds, and monitoring implementation was too much about us and not enough about the world. Year after year, the “invisible hand” of thousands of foundations individually going about their business drowns grantees in paperwork and guarantees that the social sector consistently functions as less than the sum of its parts.

As the challenges facing the world arise, grow, and intersect, business as usual will no longer suffice. The Solutions Bank shows us that there is a better way to practice philanthropy. Why should nonprofits have to write individual proposals for each and every foundation they approach? In my current incarnation as a nonprofit executive, I am painfully aware of the effort involved in cramming a project into the endless online application formats used by foundations. It takes time for my organization to do and time for the multiple foundations to review my request and reject or approve it, but the world is not getting any better in the process.

At present, the Solutions Bank contains more than 450 proposals that were submitted as part of MacArthur’s 100&Change competition. Each project has been vetted to ensure that it meets the administrative requirements of the competition and is displayed together with links to the organization’s website, its Nonprofit Profile by GuideStar, and information on co-funders of the organization. This puts virtually all the information needed for basic due diligence online and in one place. Lever for Change, a MacArthur affiliate, is managing 100&Change, in addition to several competitions for other donors, and plans to add more proposals to the site. The Solutions Bank—a collaboration by Lever for Change and Candid—is poised to become an online marketplace for nonprofits to display their proposals and donors to source them.

In a world wracked by a pandemic, economic instability, and racism, the Solutions Bank is more relevant than ever. Information is fully searchable. I did a few searches before writing this Perspectives piece. Suppose I were a foundation president or program officer anxious to do something in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. By searching for “systemic racism,” I instantly found “Catalyzing peaceful and stable communities through Community Action Hubs” and “Disrupting the Cycle of Incarcerations in the United States”; both are proposals directly relevant to the national debate about public safety. Searching for “pandemic,” I found “Beginning the End of the Pandemic Era.” In searching for solutions related to the economic impact of COVID-19, I found “Cash Plus Change: More Impactful Cash Transfers Using Behavioral Science.” What could have taken weeks or months of talking to other foundations, contacting trusted advisors, or doing research took only a few minutes and moved me that much closer to impact in a world where urgency is imperative.

The Solutions Bank demonstrates how a proposal marketplace could work. Imagine what could be possible if a similar mode for sharing proposals were done at scale. Doing so would take significant behavior change. For foundations, sourcing more of their proposals in this way would mean giving up a bit of the sovereignty they exercise in crafting elaborate strategies and application procedures. They would also need to shift internal incentives so program staff are rewarded for their speed in identifying new opportunities, and their ability to take advantage of existing proposals, rather than slowly fielding new and unique ones. For nonprofits, open proposal marketplaces could diminish the advantage enjoyed by larger, better-resourced organizations that are able to capitalize on their established relationships with foundations.

As this website prototypes, and as our Nonprofit Profiles have shown for years, it is possible to share information at scale to reduce paperwork and more quickly match ideas with resources to bring them to life. Faster, open, efficient, democratic are all words that come to mind as I use the Solutions Bank. It also reminds me that the world is filled with inspiring ideas waiting to be found. Let’s spend less time talking and writing about how we are going to change world and more time doing it.

Tags: Foundations and grantmaking