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April 2020 Update from our CEO

April 29, 2020

Like nearly everyone else on Planet Earth, we have been grappling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic both on a personal level and with respect to our work.

Cecilia Conrad

We are working from our homes through the end of June, but that hasn’t diminished our ability to launch new competitions, including today’s launch of the 2030 Climate Challenge, and manage the five competitions that are already in progress, or to deliver supportive services and technical assistance opportunities for teams in the Bold Solutions Network, our collection of the top-ranked solutions from the competitions we manage.

But it isn’t business as usual. We have spent the past few months evaluating and adjusting to the effects of the pandemic on our work and on the competitions we manage—from its impacts on the organizations who apply, to the judges who evaluate them, and the competition sponsors and other partners who provide critical support.

According to a recent survey of 400 nonprofits by Catchafire, nonprofits face increased financial stress along with increased needs from the vulnerable populations they serve. Restrictions on congregating are limiting programmatic activities and many organizations may not be equipped to work from home. A recent survey about the impact of COVID-19 on the Top 100, the highest scoring submissions from MacArthur’s 100&Change competition, found similar evidence of work disruptions. These factors make it challenging for organizations to prepare and submit proposals to competitions. We are carefully monitoring the timing of application deadlines for each competition to see if adjustments are required.

We are undeniably living in uncertain times, but we know what problems need to be solved and the pandemic, if anything, has helped us see them more clearly. While we must respond to the immediate needs created by the pandemic, we should also rethink the broken systems that have made this crisis so much worse for some.

With competition judges, we are confronting the challenges of evaluating proposals in the time of a pandemic. This challenge is exacerbated when the applicants submitted proposals before the pandemic began, as happened with 100&Change and the Economic Opportunity Challenge, a national competition to expand economic mobility in the U.S. In the case of 100&Change, the applications were submitted in October 2019 and the judging process concluded in February 2020. The selection committee began its deliberations in March. The Economic Opportunity Challenge proposals were submitted in December 2019, and the judging began in February. Both the 100&Change selection committee (the MacArthur Board of Directors) and the judges for the Economic Opportunity Challenge have worked to maintain the integrity of the evaluation process while remaining cognizant of the unavoidable uncertainty about their assessments of the viability of proposed solutions. The competitions’ processes build in opportunities in the second stage for finalists to revise and adapt their projects to changed circumstances, a critical step in today’s quickly changing environment.

The pandemic also affects our interactions with donors. We are working closely with competition sponsors to review timelines and make adjustments to accommodate their philanthropic priorities and to acknowledge the needs of applicants. The current competitions address compelling social problems and systemic issues that predated the pandemic. In some cases these problems have been accentuated by the pandemic and will continue to worsen post-pandemic if action is not taken. For example, the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award seeks solutions to secure a brighter, more durable future for refugees. The pandemic has accentuated the precarious nature of those futures without innovation and creative ideas. Submissions to the Lone Star Prize will inevitably address the impact of COVID-19 as they propose initiatives to improve the quality of life for Texans.

Lever for Change competitions adhere to the principles of openness, transparency and a level playing field and typically take a minimum of one year from the launch of the design process to the selection of a grantee. For donors who wish to move quickly to deploy significant resources into an immediate response to control and contain the disease, our competitions may not be the right fit. However, there are other ways for philanthropy to respond. In a recent white paper, Sonali Madia Patel, Alexandra Hughes Smith, and Katie Bollbach of The Bridgespan Group outline opportunities for philanthropic responses that go beyond public health efforts to contain, control and treat disease and respond to the immediate socio-economic impact on families and communities. These include investments in post-pandemic recovery in the intermediate term and investments in building a more resilient society long-term.

The Bold Solutions Network (BSN) is an excellent resource for discovery of pre-vetted, top-ranked projects that provide opportunities for these intermediate-term and long-term investments. The “Explore Solutions” feature in the BSN allows you to find projects by searching a key word, or by filtering results based on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), subject, priority population, or location of work. For example, the pandemic has made obvious that the prevention and containment of infectious diseases in the future requires greater access to clean water and sanitation globally. Filtering the search to SDG 6, clean water and sanitation, yields 14 results. Additionally, there is a growing consensus that the pandemic could result in long-term disruptions to food supply chains and increase the threat to food security; 15 proposals in the Bold Solutions Network address the goal of SDG 2, zero hunger. We considered creating a booklet of “COVID Responsive” projects in the Bold Solutions Network but realized that the PDF would be too large to easily share. These projects involve teams that have the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Donors who are concerned about risk could hedge their bets and invest in more than one!

I recently had the privilege of participating on a virtual panel with Jacob Park, a futurist and director of the Sustainable Futures Lab at Business for Social Responsibility. In his presentation, Jacob observes that paralysis is a frequent human response to uncertainty. We postpone action and opt to wait and see because we can’t plan for everything. We are undeniably living in uncertain times, but we know what problems need to be solved and the pandemic, if anything, has helped us see them more clearly. While we must respond to the immediate needs created by the pandemic, we should also rethink the broken systems that have made this crisis so much worse for some. To that end, as we continue to work from our homes, let’s commit to solving these problems – both the immediate and the longer-term, intractable social challenges that predate the pandemic – so we can rebuild toward a better, more just and equitable future. We have a moral imperative to do so.

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