The Capacity to Aspire to Change the World

At IMAGO Global Grassroots, we work with organizations that want to scale up their impact, including helping them get investment-ready. Like thousands of others, many of our partners were inspired by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition. They imagined what could be possible with $100 million, formed alliances and sent in their applications.
Isabel Guerrero headshot

None of our partner organizations made it to the finals, but the inspiration lingered. This year we have been working with several of them to understand what it would take to get this $100 million grant.

What was different about this competition? Why is it making a difference even when the odds are low? Some of the answers to these questions have to do with the design of the competition. First, both the challenges and solutions are identified by the organizations rather than by the donor. Second, it invites bold ambition to solve a critical problem of our time. Third, $100 million is enough to tackle a large problem at scale. And even if an organization doesn’t get the top award, being amongst the finalists helps access other funds, especially now as MacArthur's affiliate organization, Lever For Change, launches the Bold Solutions Network focused on helping top-performing proposals match with donors.

But there is a deeper reason why this has been a game-changer. In several of the organizations we work with, we have seen how it has given them the capacity to aspire to change the world. Some of these organizations are owned by the poor, like SEWA in India. The $100 million award would liberate one binding constraint to change the lives of their two million members. Other organizations struggle to scale because of a mindset that looks for year-to-year survival, with their best people focused on fundraising with only incremental goals for impact. MacArthur’s 100&Change helps them to think outside that box.

This work has had me thinking about the meaning of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s work on the capacity to aspire where he describes how this capacity “is not evenly distributed in any society.”

It is a sort of meta-capacity, and the relatively rich and powerful invariably have a more fully developed capacity to aspire…The more privileged in any society simply have used the map of its norms to explore the future more frequently and more realistically, and to share this knowledge with one another more routinely than their poorer and weaker neighbors.

Arjun Appadurai

I think this is the deeper reason 100&Change has been impactful and where Lever For Change can be. By donors giving organizations the opportunity to think outside the box it gives organizations an opportunity to practice the use of a new navigational capacity and to imagine what they could accomplish if they truly had funding that matched the level of the problem they are trying to solve.

But the question remains: Are organizations ready for large amounts of capital? Our work with Poverty Stoplight clarified some tangible things that organizations should focus on to help them get ready for a large grant. Their leadership has been inspired by 100&Change, and they are using the competition as a goal for their scaling-up strategy development that focuses on the poor as central change agents rather than passive recipients of aid.

So, for organizations looking to aspire and deploy larger amounts of capital we recommend focusing on:

  • building the organizational capacity to address a sizable critical problem;
  • growing the evidence of impact (this takes time and resources);
  • showing the solution works technically and is operationally feasible;
  • providing clarity that the nuts and bolts for substantial scaling are ready; and
  • ensuring the stakeholders involved are on board to make sure the solution will be sustainable beyond the life of the grant.

These tasks are the core of scaling up, including getting ready for the organizational transformation needed when moving from a successful intervention to solving one of the critical problems of our times. Many organizations have ideas that aspire to change the world; coupling that aspiration alongside a robust strategy for implementation and the funds to execute could be game-changing for the nonprofit sector.

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