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Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change and Managing Director at MacArthur Foundation

A must-listen episode for anyone who seeks truly innovative and collaborative thinking in philanthropy. Cecilia Conrad, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss multi-million dollar competitions, philanthropy markets and funder collaboratives.

About Cecilia A. Conrad, Ph.D

CEO, Lever for Change

Managing Director, MacArthur Fellows and 100&Change, MacArthur Foundation

Cecilia Conrad is CEO of Lever for Change, a new nonprofit affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, created to accelerate large-scale social change around the world. The organization develops and manages customized, open and transparent competitions that connect donors with bold solutions to global challenges, while strengthening the most highly rated ideas emerging from these competitions and catalyzing big investments through its Bold Solutions Network. In addition to her role at Lever for Change, Dr. Conrad oversees the MacArthur Fellows and 100&Change, MacArthur’s competition for a $100 million grant to help solve a critical problem of our time. Before joining the Foundation in 2013, Conrad had a distinguished career as both a professor and an administrator at Pomona College in Claremont, CA and is currently Professor of Economics, Emerita at Pomona. She served as Associate Dean of the College (2004-2007), as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College (2009-2012), and as Acting President (Fall 2012). From 2007-2009, she was interim Vice President and Dean of the Faculty at Scripps College. Dr. Conrad received her B.A. degree from Wellesley College and her Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University. 

Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of the conversation between Alberto Lidji, host of The Do One Better! Podcast, and Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change and Managing Director at MacArthur Foundation.

Alberto Lidji: Cecilia a heartfelt welcome onto The Do One Better! Podcast today.

Cecilia Conrad: Welcome, and thank you. And I am honored to be part of this.

Alberto Lidji: Well, it's such a pleasure. I know we spoke the other day and we're getting acquainted and learning a little bit about each other's work and you're doing some remarkable stuff.

Why don't we start by finding out a little bit about Lever for Change, what is Lever for Change all about?

Cecilia Conrad: So Lever for Change, this is a relatively new affiliative MacArthur. We are two years old and our focus is unlocking philanthropic capital for social change. Our goal is to address what we call the aspiration gap.

This is the gap between what ultra high net worth individuals want to give for social change and what they're actually managing to do. And what we do is offer our services. We customise, design and manage competitions for individual donors, for small family foundations and for a few institutional funders. Then every competition is going to generate more good ideas than that individual or single donor is going to want to fund. So we are in the business of collecting those and sharing those with other donors. We also work to strengthen those organizations to help them build out their compelling case for funding and when we promote them. And so the goal is to really create a kind of secondary market for great ideas.

Alberto Lidji: Excellent. You're speaking as though you might be an economist.

Cecilia Conrad: I am an economist by training. I have the market language. I spent much of my career as an economics professor and only came to philanthropy eight years ago now to run the MacArthur Fellows Program. And it struck me that there was a kind of missing piece to the philanthropic sector.

Each funder, particularly institutional funders, sort of, they go out, they get these ideas. They decide what they're going to fund. There's not a lot of sharing. There is a growing space for collaboration, but historically it's almost as if they were protecting it. Like it was, this is mine and that's yours.

And yet these organizations need more funding. We need to think bigger if we're really going to make substantial the progress on some of the problems that we face.

Alberto Lidji: Yeah. And so how did it all come about? I mean, so we're a group of you at MacArthur sitting around a table thinking what can we do that's really going to be bold and audacious, or... give us a little bit of an overview of the thinking process.

Cecilia Conrad: So this goes back... the creation of Lever for Change really goes back to the development of 100&Change . So back in 2014, 2015, the foundation was undergoing a transition. We had a new president, Julia Stasch at the time. We were also rethinking our strategy of having a large number of program areas. Each of which was relatively small amount of funding. And there was a decision to narrow our focus to a few big bets and enduring commitments. And so the foundation has big bets in criminal justice, mainly focused on the US , nuclear security, the climate change, and place-based big bet in Nigeria. And then we have enduring commitments to the city of Chicago, our hometown, and also to journalism under the context broadly of supporting democracy.

When we made those decisions, it became crystal clear that we had made those decisions that our board and our staff had decided what would be important for us to focus our attention on. And this was really kind of early where there was a beginning to question how much control over the decision about what problems we would work on and which ones we weren't within the control of a small number of individuals who were embedded in these institutional funders.

Not necessarily the most diverse group of people... in recognition of that, and in recognition that we weren't the smartest people in the room, julia said what if we set aside a pot of funds kind of equivalent to what we might do in a big bet, but we don't decide how to spend it. Let's get external voices to the table.

Let's bring the outside in to help us decide how to spend these funds. So she posed this problem to us and a small working group. So it really was a working group around the table. Like you said, had to figure out, well, how do we actually make this happen? How do we implement this? So we came up with the idea for a 100&Change.

At the time was really kind of unusual. We did a big global open call. We opened it to for-profits, nonprofits. We said, tell us what you would do with a hundred million dollars. And, we then had to figure out, okay, if you do a big global open call, you're going to get a lot of submissions. How do you go about managing that? And we ended up emerging with the idea of the competition, an open and transparent competition. We empaneled a group of really smart people drawn from around the world in every sector and asked them to help us evaluate those projects. We committed ourselves to giving feedback to the applicants so that it wouldn't sort of be a complete waste for those who didn't advance through the project. And so we, we launched this to, as to see how it would go, and we were really excited with the outcome.

Alberto Lidji: And tell me about running competitions. I mean, It's probably, it might sound easier than it actually is. I mean, one thing is our competition. You get a bunch of people who have ideas and you just put them around the table and we judged them and that's that, but it's not just any idea that gets to be judged and to give us... and it's also about the funders who come in and who might be involved as well. What's involved in running some of these competitions that we're talking about, where it's, multi-million, where your partners that are involved also, there's some of the biggest foundations and philanthropic outfits out there, and the ideas themselves really, really audacious, ambitious. And I think also a lot of organizations learn from you. I know you and I spoke that a lot of foundations are sort of picking up on what you guys have been doing. Give us a little bit of an overview of what's involved in getting such a massive sort of competition up and running.

Cecilia Conrad: So it really begins with a discussion about what the donor would like to see as the outcome of the competition.

In the case of MacArthur, in some ways it was relatively easy because we were agnostic, but many of the funders that we're working with have a particular area that they're interested in. We encourage and push a nudge for them to leave open what the type of solution might be to be open-minded. So don't come and say, we want to fix early childhood, and we think you do that by having a free breakfast program.

Instead you want to start with a kind of bigger question of, we want to address and enhance the early childhood experience. And then you ask what are your ideas for how to do that? So there's a bit of advising and support for the donor to help get them to that stage. And then they have to make decisions about how important is evidence for you. Are you, are you more interested in a very early stage idea that you can take some risks? Is this something that you want to have a big global or do you want it to be place-based or local? That helps to inform a set of criteria. And we have a discipline. You can only pick four, four criteria. Partly because of past knowledge is that this is what judges are capable of really assessing, but it also does force you to focus on what's the most... what are the most important things for you? So for example, for 100&Change , our four criteria were impactful, evidence-based, feasible and durable. Durable, meaning that it had legs beyond our a hundred million dollar grant. We have had other competitions that have focused on wanting to have community-based leadership. Or who wants to focus on how will it enhance equity? You can define the criteria to match up, align with what your ideas are. The next step is to go out and find the right people to be part of the judging process. And that's really been just inspiring to know how many people, when they hear about this opportunity or really the step up. Our judges thus far have been volunteers and they volunteered their time. Not only to score, but judging involves more than scoring. We ask every judge to write constructive comments. And then there's the application. We have a template we now use. So that has gotten simpler along the way.

The process itself, we use an electronic platform for applicants to submit and for judges to score... that has to be developed. And then there's the whole process. And you always think, I mean, it depends a lot on how many people apply, but we run webinars to inform we're constantly answering questions.

And then we also respond to each application with feedback about that individual application as it moves through the process itself. So there is actually a kind of elaborate apparatus, particularly if you want to do a competition that is open and transparent and has a level playing field. So one of the things we do is we have an organizational readiness tool for potential applicants to assess, do I want to invest the time in this application? Am I a good fit? So we ask a series of questions and it gives you feedback and says, well, you know, maybe you could get this or maybe not. And then we're constantly doing evaluation to assess both the applicant's experience. Did they think it was worthwhile? What are some tweaks we could use to reduce the amount of time that they have to commit? Have we really aligned with whatever the donor's interest? Once we get to the finalist... so the judges do their work and we get the topped ranked and then the donor helps go through and decide which ones are going to be the finalist.

We have found that very few organizations have had an opportunity to think as big as we're talking about. So we get the finalist and they usually have this great idea and it can be evidence-based and it met all of our criteria, but frequently they don't have a tactical plan about how they're going to scale it.

And if the grants we're talking about... our competitions have a minimum award size of $10 million. This is about scale, right? So we bring in a support to help them really build out that last... those last steps, the tactical strategy to help them fine tune their messaging, they revised their proposals, and our goal is to make the donor's decision as hard as possible. And we have succeeded. I think in that regard.

Alberto Lidji: I really like the fact that you nurture those conversations and those applicants, you sort of help them through the processes. It's not just a lonely endeavor with, you know, win or lose, but it's a constructive exercise. Even if you don't win, you still win somehow by walking away more enriched. What about the market itself? So I knew Lever for Change... and you touched on the marketplace before, but you guys seem to be a sort of matchmaker, helping those philanthropists, those philanthropic advisors with really great, vetted evidence-based causes. Give us a little bit of a flavor for the market. What does that look like? How efficient is it? Where are the opportunities or the bottlenecks?

Cecilia Conrad: Yes. Yes. We're still learning. I'm going to preface everything I say. I'm not sure we've got the secret sauce yet. With the first 100&Change, we had an event to introduce the organizations and we invited other funders and we thought, oh great they'll see how great these are. And that will solve the problem and indeed there are funders who stepped up based on just the information we provided as part of our announcement of the finalists. But what we have learned since then is that it really helps to be a little bit more of an active convener.

So in the first 100&Change, we took all the projects. We made available through a search engine that we housed at candid. And we've done that again this time. So every submission to 100&Change is available to the public, to other funders, to anyone. But if you build it it doesn't mean they're going to come.

And one of the things we learned is that... Donors told us that the amount of information on that site was a bit overwhelming. So we then tried something else. We have what we've called the Bold Solutions Network. This is a resource that's on the Lever for Change site and you can access it there. Again, it's a public facing resource. We did some testing of what information should be provided about each project, but this is limited to the top scoring applicants from each one of the competitions we've run.

So it's more highly curated. You can search it using sustainable development goals. You can search by geography and there's a keyword search as well. So that's a resource that's available for anyone. And I just talked to somebody yesterday who was telling me that they had been perusing the list just to see what we had in it, and they found it inspiring and we call it hope scrolling, particularly over the past year. I'll just confess that sometimes when I was feeling really down, I'd just go through because it's just wonderful to see how many good ideas people have about how to solve some of the problems that are out there. All right, but again, that's kind of passive. We also do another step and that is that we, we try to track what philanthropists say that they are interested in and we've produced curated lists... packages of projects that we have uncovered through our competitions and provide them to their philanthropic advisors or to the individuals. If we know how to reach the individual. That is a first stage. We're also willing to do even more to share more of our due diligence and more information about each project. Should a philanthropist be interested in that. And now we've also started to experiment with sort of small events that we invite donors around a particular competition, or eventually we're also thinking about doing some around themes that cross cut competitions.

So all of those are steps we have taken. In addition, the work we do with the applicants in the Bold Solutions Network we give them access to pro bono services that are available out there platforms. We have workshops, we run for them. And the idea is that they themselves are also developing their expertise on how to reach donors and to how they make their pitch.

So far all of that is yielding some results. We have just more than tripled what we've had in award commitments, since our inception. And we have this goal this year of taking... of the awards that we're making this year, at least doubling the amount of the award in terms of additional funding for organizations.

We have this year, we have 150 in award commitments, we're it's 78 million right now in extra funding, the funding that goes above and beyond what was the initial commitment. So it's slowly starting to gain some traction, but I do feel like there's just so much more opportunity out there.

There's so much wealth sitting on the sidelines where we know that individuals are committed to trying to use that wealth, to help advance the social good and we haven't quite capped into it fully yet.

Alberto Lidji: How do we get some of that wealth that's sitting on the sidelines, as you say, and on the high net worth side... and you know, if we're looking at the performance of the stock market, the NASDAQ, there's a lot of money out there. A lot of people who are, who have a great deal of resources, but perhaps don't quite know where to start, or how to start or how to do their philanthropy well. Give us a little bit of a flavor for what are you doing to engage with these folks?

Cecilia Conrad: So there are barriers. I will say one of the things that's been exciting though during the pandemic is that we did see quite a bit of mobilization of funds to respond directly. A kind of push on, uh, the emergency response and then beginning to recognize that what COVID laid bare are many of the social problems that existed before COVID, that were exacerbated by COVID and are going to persist beyond it.

So we're starting to see funders step up and recognize that all right, we, we addressed health inequities in the context of COVID. But those aren't going away just because we managed to get vaccines out or other sorts of tests done so forth. So I think there really is some energy that we can help to address.

What we see are several barriers and we're trying to address them in different ways. The first barrier is actually risk aversion. It's interesting because many of the high net wealth individuals we're talking about were entrepreneurs. So you think, okay, these are risk takers, but when it comes to philanthropy, they feel a little at sea. And they're worried about making a mistake.

They're worried about giving money to something that doesn't yield an impact or to an organization that really can't deliver. And they're worried about it because it does tend to be a public act and there is public commentary that may respond to that. So the risk aversion is one issue. And what we try to do is first of all, we've created a very rigorous process, which we hope will help to reduce the concept that there is some risk here.

That rigorous process is also a source of information. So it helps them become more informed about what the fields are and what their options are. We have an affiliation with the MacArthur Foundation we have this track record. So there's a way in which well... some of the risks or some of the reputational issue is laid off to us instead of to the individual donor because they can point to us and say, they made us do this and that, that could help along the way. Another barrier is the fact that many of these individuals are still in bald, in the, in their own businesses and their enterprises. A few have started to devote their time a hundred percent to philanthropy, but many have not. So there's a time element. And what we do at Lever for Change is that we can be kind of the back office, the infrastructure, particularly for donors who don't want to set up their own formal foundations or build out a huge staff.

We have worked with a father and son who just starting their philanthropy and literally there was a foundation staff of one. We've worked with foundations that have four people, which have 10, really just getting started and our process can also do a landscape review to help inform what they're going to do down the road.

So we're finding that that's appealing. There are also people who want to do the competition to kind of say, I am here and this is the start of my philanthropy, because you can, if you want, make some noise with it.

Alberto Lidji: And what about on the opposite side? So you can make some noise. Some people are actually adamant that they don't want to make any noise at all.

And sometimes it's difficult to not make any noise when you were giving away millions. How do you, how do you handle that?

Cecilia Conrad: It is, we do have two competitions right now where the donors are anonymous. And it's precisely this. There's a certain humility. In one case, this is a donor who's been engaged in a long time and very quietly supporting a field.

And in another case it's a very new startup and they're a little worried about being inundated until they they're ready to go. And in both cases, we're able to set a brand for the competition. We, when we get to the finalist, we let the finalists quietly know who the donors are because we want the organizations to be able to decide that they do or do not want to accept funds from that donor.

But that process has worked well. So it does give donors away to, to be a little more stealth if they would like. Then another piece, I'll just mention, another piece that I find kind of really it's... because this is starting to happen more and more. And that is that it's also a vehicle for donors who want to collaborate with each other or not.

So you can have a donor who I want to just be complete control and make all the decisions. And I want to customize this competition and I don't want to have to get anyone else to agree with me and reach consensus. Or you can have a group of donors who come together. As we have with our Equality Can't wait challenge where three donors have come together to fund the initiative and will be giving out multiple awards. So it's also a vehicle for collaboration.

Alberto Lidji: That is such a good point. I know a lot of the philanthropists I advise have that sort of aspiration for collaboration, which perhaps in the early years wasn't so robust or so, so clearly evident. But now it is, and you do see a lot of collaboratives out there coming to the fore.

Tell me a little bit about that piece specifically. So the collaboration, if you have some philanthropists who are involved in... Who have alignment in terms of the thematic area that they want to back, they want to collaborate. Do they then delegate everything to you in terms of the, the actual grant, the actual evaluation, the whole administrative side, if you will, of how this exercise works?

Cecilia Conrad: Well, so far, we haven't had anyone delegate the grant administration to us. That's a capacity that we are developing and have available, but we have worked, for example, we have a group of philanthropists who are collaborating together on our Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award that's focused on durable futures for refugees.

And they have actually used the vehicle of a donor advised fund. () Housed at Community Foundation. So the donors are putting their funds there and the grant will ultimately come out of that fund. But, what we do is advise all the way up to that selection process. So the competition does a lot of the early work. The judges do the evaluation, we can narrow the field, but once we get to the finalist, we're sort of deeply engaged in the due diligence work, and the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal. And in working with the donor to see which one of the grants may best align with their interests.

I said earlier though, that our goal is to make those finalists as strong as possible. And what we have found is when you get to the finalists, it really is the individual donor kind of picking something that best aligns with their tastes. And then we have taken those other four and started to present them to other donors who maybe find something about the other four more aligned with their tastes. So that, that part is kind of exciting.

Alberto Lidji: What can other people learn from you? And I remember I was speaking with John Goodwin at the LEGO Foundation in a podcasts that we did maybe now over a year ago. And and I remember they'd granted a a hundred million here, a hundred million there.

And I remember he'd specifically mentioned, if I recall correctly, MacArthur's 100&Change. What can other people learn from from you guys?

Cecilia Conrad: So, you know, Lego is a great example because they deserve some of the credit for Lever for Change I think if they hadn't made those additional grants, it wouldn't have really hit us that this was possible.

And what others can learn is that we have vetted these projects, we have a transparent process. We can tell you what criteria we use. So there is an opportunity as opposed to reinventing a space, to take a look and to share. And I think that's also a mutually beneficial exchange. We mentioned earlier, the existence of some other big collaboratives out there, like Blue Meridian, Co-Impact, Audacious. We all talk, we share, we say, look, you know, here's an exciting idea that may align with what you're looking for. And that I think is a culture that could really enhance philanthropy. And particularly for those who are relatively new, who are coming in, you know, you have these legacy institutional funders.

Take a look at their portfolios, if you're trying to figure out how to start. And sometimes when I talk to people, they say it's just so overwhelming. I don't know where to begin. If you're trying to figure out how to start, look at some of the existing portfolios, talk to those program officers, and think about that as an opportunity to piggyback on the knowledge that's already out there.

Alberto Lidji: I was thinking about Co-Impact when I was thinking about collaboratives and I've had Olivia Leland on the podcast before and they doing some amazing work. Now, a quick question, I just wanted to drill into a little bit more on the collaborative side is, and you mentioned risk.. The appetite for risk. What's your approach to segmenting these a little bit?

Cecilia Conrad: We have a number of in-depth conversations about their appetite. And one of the things not surprising you'll find is that if we're talking a hundred million dollars, there's less appetite for the untold untried idea. But, for example, some of the competitions we've run around 10 million. There is an expectation that there is some evidence that this idea will work and that you want the team to have... the right expertise on the team, but a little more tolerance for the possibility that this grant will let you run a really significant pilot to be more persuasive, particularly to government agencies and some of the big international agencies that this is an idea worth developing and disseminating more widely.

So you'll find that there are some funders who are willing to kind of hit it at that edge. We haven't yet, but we hope that we have a funder who really wants to go even more early stage and puts all of the weight on something that is truly innovative but requires scale to demonstrate its feasibility. We're still looking, but if there's a funder out there who wants to do that I'm here.

Alberto Lidji: Now you've been around for two years. If we're looking at eight years down the line or nine years down the line, that'll take us straight into 2030 for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What would success look like to you for the next 10 years for, for Lever for Change?

Cecilia Conrad: Well, our aspiration is that by 2023, we've unlocked 1 billion for social change.

Alberto Lidji: So you're thinking small?

Cecilia Conrad: I think it's small for the first I am, because I think 1 billion is not enough. What we're hoping is that if we've managed to do that in our first three or four years, that we will start to gain some momentum that we will have really built out this possibility for leverage the multiplier effect of each competition that we run and that we will be able to multiply that 1 billion into five, 10 billion over the next eight years.

Alberto Lidji: A key takeaway for our listeners, anything in particular you'd love for them to keep in mind after they finish listening to today's episode?

Cecilia Conrad: I'd say first that solutions are possible. It's sometimes hard to kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. And because we tend to work sometimes in very incremental ways.

And that what we're trying to argue is that we need some philanthropy that is committed to scale, to really moving out large amounts of money over multiple years, to give the NGOs who have these great ideas, the space, the opportunity to focus on doing the work, as opposed to where the next traunch of funding is going to come from... to make big plans. To really play out and scale that idea and for that you need large multi-year commitments and that's something that we're trying to promote.

Alberto Lidji: I love it. I absolutely love it. Well, here's to your continued success.

Cecilia Conrad: Thank you!


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