In 2019, we launched Lever for Change with the goal of unlocking significant philanthropic capital for transformative social change. We hoped our services would address the gap between wealthy donors' aspirations and their actual grantmaking.
According to Bridgespan research, three factors have constrained wealthy donors from making large grants for social change: 1) finding the right funding opportunities can be challenging without staff; 2) giving to social change can feel risky; and 3) the sector generally lacks market-making institutions to match funding to opportunities. We designed Lever for Change to address these barriers.
Our customized competitions help donors identify compelling funding opportunities without investing in extensive staff or infrastructure. Our rigorous evaluation process and activities to strengthen eligible organizations in our competition pipeline mitigate the risk of giving to social change. Finally, we match funders to vetted proposals through our curatorial services and Bold Solutions Network—providing a pipeline of nonprofits and social enterprises whose project ideas were highly ranked by our expert networks—and by creating opportunities for donors to partner with each other for greater impact.
Last year, we officially hung our shingle and, normally, this would be a good time to ask, “How’s it going?” but, as everyone knows, this has not been a normal year. COVID-19 required shifts in competition schedules and limited our ability to engage with existing and prospective donors. Despite these challenges, Lever for Change is off to a great start: we have launched nine competitions (including Racial Equity 2030—more exciting news on that below). Two of the competitions have named finalists, and one, the Chicago Prize, awarded a $10 million grant to its recipient. In the process, we have learned a lot:
- Our advisory support helps donors in the early stages to define their philanthropic goals. The sponsor of the Economic Opportunity Challenge is a newly launched family foundation. We worked with the principals to refine their philanthropic goals and translate them into competition parameters. Through the competition, this new foundation now has a landscape review of over 50 ambitious projects that will inform its future grant making. The five finalists include organizations engaged in workforce development, criminal justice reform, and asset building; three are led by people of color. Stay tuned for the recipient announcement later this fall.
- Our competition services help established institutions expand their philanthropic profiles and networks. For Lyda Hill Philanthropies, the Lone Star Prize was an opportunity to expand their grantmaking beyond their historical program areas and to issue an open call without overtaxing their staff. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation hopes that the findings of Racial Equity 2030 will define their grantmaking over the next ten years. Even experienced philanthropists can benefit from our expertise running open competitions for big grants. Funders appreciate the potential of an open call to inform their strategic grant making, but do not always have the in-house resources to manage the volume and complexity of rigorously reviewing hundreds of submissions. Our transparent process, with feedback provided to all eligible participants, provides an attractive solution.
- A competition can expand opportunities for organizations. The Chicago Prize helped raise the public profiles of the five community-led collaborations that were selected as finalists. Our competitions provided a pathway for organizations with proximate leadership to become finalists for the Economic Opportunity Challenge, and for refugee-led organizations to emerge as finalists for the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award (stay tuned for announcements about both competitions in the next few weeks). We are excited to see how the design of Racial Equity 2030 further expands opportunities for organizations that are led by people of color or community-led. Racial Equity 2030 offers additional time and a $1 million planning grant to each finalist to further develop their projects and revise strong initial proposals into compelling cases for funding.
- Competitions can inspire others to act. In the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100&Change competition, the Lego Foundation matched MacArthur’s initial $100 million award with two additional awards of $100 million each, to address the needs of very young children in humanitarian settings. Leveraging the Chicago Prize, the City of Chicago made grants to two of the finalists through its INVEST South/West initiative and the State’s Rebuild Illinois program awarded additional funding to the Chicago Prize recipient.
- Competitions are good vehicles for donor collaborations. Three donors are co-funding the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact award. The Equality Can’t Wait challenge launched as a $10 million competition with one donor and is now a $40 million competition with three donors who will select at least three awardees.
- The Bold Solutions Network attracts donor interest. Over the last six months, Lever for Change has received requests for curated lists, proposal suggestions, and due diligence information from many donors, including institutional donors, donor collaboratives, individual donors, corporate philanthropies, and financial intermediaries.
Like most of us, even the most generous of wealthy donors are distracted these days. What with the pandemic, economic downturn, virtual schooling, working from home, racial justice protests and contentious election campaigns, it’s no wonder. Many donors are focused on meeting the immediate humanitarian needs of their neighbors, and caring for their families and businesses.
However, we are starting to see a shift. While continuing to meet the increased and urgent demand for financial support, housing and food, donors are also beginning to return to (and increase) their earlier grantmaking—whether it was focused on climate change, economic mobility, conservation or human rights. Discussions that had been postponed are now being scheduled. For many, the impact of gender and racial inequality on health care, livelihoods and education has become ever more clear. We look forward to working with donors to address these and other pressing social challenges—many of which have been exposed and exacerbated by the confluence of crises we have all been facing.
Philanthropy is needed now more than ever. For donors who want to put their dollars to work now rather than wait for the future; for donors who want to solve problems and are willing to trust organizations on the ground to solve them; for donors who want to be guided by the expertise of the thinkers and doers who serve on our evaluation panels: we are here to help. We still have a few slots open for 2021 competitions. Join us.