Just got around to reading about the 13 organizations that recently won recognition (and $$) from the MacArthur Foundation for their creativity and effectiveness.

This awards program is the institutional version of the well-known ‘genius’ recognition that MacArthur awards to outstanding individuals. Here are the 13 winners for 2013.

  • American Documentary – Brooklyn, New York ($1 million) produces and broadcasts documentary films on the most important issues of our times that spark reflection, discussion, and civic engagement
  • Fundacion para la Sobrevivencia del Pueblo Cofan (Foundation for the Survival of the Cofan People) – Quito, Ecuador ($500,000) empowers indigenous people to protect priority tropical rainforests and their homelands
  • Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University  – Chicago, Illinois ($750,000) protects the rights and well-being of young people in the juvenile justice system and advocates for fairer laws and policies
  • Family Care International – New York, New York ($1 million) makes pregnancy and childbirth safer for mothers worldwide through research, advocacy, and partnerships
  • Housing Partnership Network – Boston, Massachusetts ($1.5 million) enables peer learning and collaboration among more than 100 affordable housing and community development leaders
  • International Rivers – Berkeley, California ($750,000) opposes destructive dams in critical conservation regions and offers feasible alternatives to meet energy and water needs
  • Sin Fronteras – Mexico City, Mexico ($500,000) protects the human rights of migrants in Mexico;
  • Socio Legal Information Centre – New Delhi, India ($750,000) provides free legal assistance to protect the rights of the marginalized in India
  • Southwest Organizing Project – Chicago, Illinois ($750,000) educates, mobilizes, and empowers communities in Chicago to help overcome foreclosures and violence
  • The Stimson Center – Washington, DC ($1 million) builds bipartisan support for pragmatic approaches to world security though analysis and outreach
  • StoryCorps – Brooklyn, New York ($1 million) captures, shares, and archives stories of a diverse range of Americans for future generations
  • The Tobin Project – Cambridge, Massachusetts ($750,000) links multidisciplinary scholars and policymakers to generate research addressing real-world problems
  • Ushahidi – Nairobi, Kenya ($750,000) pioneers free, open source software to collect and map information that advances human rights

As you see, when MacArthur talks about ‘creativity and effectiveness’ they’re focusing on program impact and success. MacArthur says organizations will use their prize money to “build cash reserves and endowments, develop strategic plans, and upgrade technology and physical infrastructure.” OK, that’s a small nod in the direction of capacity building.

However, I wish they had stipulated that winners needed to spend their windfall to grow.

Indeed, here’s my advice to the MacArthur Foundation …

Think bigger … and lasting.

How about a $100 million ‘Growth Investment Pool’? To be accessed on a competitive basis by nonprofits with the best growth plans, matched of course to a compelling mission and strategy. C’mon MacArthur, you can afford it. And it would replenish itself (and even grow itself) as the fundraising plans it seeded became successful.

Someone needs to inspire heavy hitters like MacArthur to get behind serious growth and scale in the sector. Just like Ted Turner kicked off serious giving amongst billionaires by challenging them to match his $1 billion gift to the UN.

I applaud each of MacArthur’s winners, and I’m sure MacArthur believes these groups have potential to leverage their strategic insights. But despite their programmatic creativity, MacArthur will scarcely make a dent on the problems these groups target by making these relatively small one-off grants … and moving on to another 13 next year.

Some funder — institutional or individual — needs to be a first mover in the step-up in scale the nonprofit sector needs.



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