Connecting the "Will" with the "Way" to Expedite Change

Linking vision and strategy, dreamers and doers, changemakers and problem solvers. That’s the key to solving the challenges that confront communities around the country – and one of the main goal of Upswell. It’s also the goal of the MacArthur Foundation’s new nonprofit affiliate, Lever for Change, intended to connect philanthropists and social change organizations. Throw in the fact that Lever for Change, like MacArthur, is based in Chicago – where Upswell is headed this November – and we knew the stars had aligned!

Imagine an organization solely committed to connecting nonprofits that are developing innovative solutions with philanthropists who seek and support them – truly a manifestation of Independent Sector Founder John W. Gardner’s vision for “the great shared task of improving life together.”

Of course we wanted to know more about this unique idea and the goals MacArthur hopes to achieve, so we turned to Cecilia Conrad, Ph.D., the foundation’s managing director of Awards and Fellows, and now the CEO of the new nonprofit affiliate.

Q: What was the genesis for Lever for Change, and what is its long-term goal?

CC: The idea for Lever for Change came out of the success of 100&Change, MacArthur’s signature $100 million competition for bold solutions to critical social challenges. In 2016, 100&Change attracted over 1,900 proposals from organizations in 55 countries. MacArthur sought to address problems and support solutions that are radically different in scale, scope, and complexity. Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee were awarded $100 million to educate young children displaced by conflict and persecution in the Syrian response region. In addition, over $250 million in funding from other donors and philanthropists has been committed to date to bold solutions submitted to 100&Change.

There is no question that some organizations have the right solutions, but they often do not have access to the funding needed to fully implement and scale them. And despite their ambitions, donors often do not have the time, expertise, or staffing to best leverage their dollars to achieve the results they seek. Lever for Change seeks to connect donors and nonprofits to deliver the impactful change they both dream of implementing. We founded Lever for Change to help philanthropists overcome the challenges that prevent them from achieving their philanthropic goals by providing the expertise, infrastructure, and logistical support needed to run large-scale competitions and to identify and vet strong proposals. Our long-term goal is creating a pipeline of high-impact projects that can effectively address challenges at scale.

Q: How does Lever for Change differ from the MacArthur Foundation’s Big Bets, which also strives to accelerate social change?

CC: MacArthur’s Big Bets work strives for transformative change in areas of profound concern, such as climate change and criminal justice reform. But we recognize that we do not know it all and there are other significant issues worth solving. 100&Change is a way to encourage and support the ambitions and ideas of others from any field, anywhere.

Creating Lever for Change as a separate nonprofit will offer a set of philanthropic tools to a wider audience of philanthropists who want to fulfill their social change ambitions to support causes they care about most. While Lever for Change will manage 100&Change on behalf of MacArthur, we will also run customized competitions for other foundations and philanthropists using the same transparency and openness throughout.

Q: What process will Lever for Change use to connect social change organizations with big ideas with philanthropists who have the capital to help them?

CC: Lever for Change offers two distinct, but related, paths for connecting philanthropists with social change organizations. We can help them create a customized competition or we can provide them with access to the most compelling proposals that such competitions yield. In the first path, philanthropists can sponsor customized competitions designed to identify the most effective and enduring solutions that address the issues that matter most to them. Competitions will employ a transparent and rigorous process to source, vet, and evaluate proposals.

The second path allows philanthropists to view the strongest proposals that surfaced through these competitions in the Lever for Change Solutions Bank. From this database, Lever for Change will curate philanthropic opportunities matched to donor interests. This option offers a faster approach to identifying powerful, high impact solutions aligned with a donor’s philanthropic goals.

Q: Lever for Change has a data component. Can you tell us about that?

CC: An open, fair, transparent process for proposal review is at the core of Lever for Change. In practice, this means sharing the information we collect for the benefit of applicants, funders, the philanthropic field, and the public. During the inaugural round of 100&Change we made data available to researchers at universities and organizations – like the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy, Charity Navigator, and the Foundation Center – that are devoted to improving the field and practice of philanthropy. You can get a good sense of proposal data we collected during 100&Change by going to

Q: What types of social change organizations are best suited for consideration for Lever for Change’s process?

CC: Lever for Change competitions can be designed to include a range of organizational structures, including but not limited to: nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations, for-profit corporations, benefit corporations, limited liability companies, joint ventures, and partnerships. We will also work with philanthropic advisors to help identify and support rigorously evaluated proposals from effective organizations in our online repository of top vetted proposals. That said, we are looking to work with people and organizations that are just as excited as we are about what we can achieve when we all think big; we want to work with organizations that propose the types of solutions that will have significant impact and lead to transformational change.

This piece was originally published in on April 16, 2019.

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