$100 Million Competition, equity or fakequity?

8755593_orig$100-million is an impressive number. It gets attention, has lots of zeroes and the imagination starts rolling when asked how to spend that amount of money. The MacArthur Foundation (the same people who give us an impressive list of Geniuses every year, a.k.a. the list that makes us feel like slackers) is hosting a competition asking people how they would spend that much to solve a social problem. It is great to see the foundation using their funds and not hoarding them. Now the question is will the this project embed the principles of equity into the project or are they going for sensationalism and a media splash?

What is $100-million and Change?
$100-million is a lot of money, like a lot. To give some perspective $100,000,000 could buy:

  • 177 houses at $560,000 (the median house price in Seattle)
  • 5,376 Honda Fit (sticker price is $18,600, I would know since I’m sitting at a Honda shop waiting for my car to be fixed) maybe a few less when you add in taxes, fees, and a few car floor mats
  • Fund a small organization ($200,000) for 500 years, maybe 400 years if we account for inflation

Does anyone really need 177 houses, 5,376 cars, or to be funded for 500 years? Guessing no so can we make sure the money is put to better equitable use. According to the MacArthur Foundation’s 100andchange.org website they want proposals to be bold in looking at social problems and what is needed to create social change. They are also opening it to any problem versus sticking to the fields they normally fund, one news article said this is to help expose them to new ideas from different fields. And they are clear this is a competition, they will hold another competition in three years. It is all very ambitious, news worthy, and I wonder can we get an equitable outcome out of a project proposal and design like this?

My organization probably won’t be competing for and as a result we won’t win anyway, so let’s start dissecting it for fakequity.

Who will apply or compete? We don’t know what to do with $100,000,000.
After the announcement came out I shared it with a few colleagues, if I’m not competing I might as well try to convince others to do so in the chance they win and I can be rich by proximity. Sadly, I doubt anyone I know will apply, and here is why.

We don’t know what to do with $100,000,000. Seriously, when I heard about the amount I couldn’t figure out what to do with that much money. I like money, my organization needs money to keep going and when I worked in philanthropy I liked to give out money. That said I know my organization can’t ethically or responsibly handle an influx of $100,000,000 in the near future. Small organizations who are doing important work and are scraping by would benefit from some transformative funding, but really this amount is so big many small organizations working in communities couldn’t handle a grant of that size.

Several of us on the Fakequity team are taking bets on who will compete and win. Top of the list are large universities and colleges, non-profits that operate more like consulting firms or think tanks, or medical research organizations. I’m not saying larger organizations aren’t racially equitable, I am saying often times organizations working closer to communities most impacted by disparities often understand problems differently and they are often smaller and closer to communities.

Several smaller size grants would be more inclusive of organizations who are doing important work, but not ready to take on $100-million. Right sizing a grant for community’s size and growth is an important way of acknowledging where communities are starting from and need different resources. As Heidi asked for who’s comfort is the $100-million (or really any grant) chosen? Is it for the comfort of the foundation who has to administer the grant or for the recipient? In this case it is for the comfort of the MacArthur Foundation who is trying to be bold and encourage others to be bold with them. One can argue boldness can be found in something as little as $500 or less.

Also thinking about the amount will make the winner a target for criticism. Many will start to question how they re using the funds and if it will be used for good or to perpetuate tired old systems. People will also start showing up with open hands asking for funding.

The list of judges is impressive, like unicorns but nicer and real. I hope they are working in small teams in different parts of the country and using technology to score applications since I don’t want them all in the same place, too many smart equity minds can’t be together in case there is an earthquake.

That said the judges panel is missing age and possibly sexual identity diversity. It is obvious the organizers paid attention to diversity of experience/professions and sectors, race, and gender balance. However, the average age of those listed has to be at least 45-50ish. Often times there is at least a token youth on panels; tokenizing is a whole different problem for a different blog post.

Heidi and I were talking about how cool it would be to have a beer with the judges since they are all distinguished and have long lists of accomplishments behind their names. As we were talking I mentioned I am fine with panels looking a certain way as long as it is called out. If the organizers were purposefully stacking the judging deck for expertise call it for what it is – “Panel of Elders,” (someone will hate I just called them an elder, but let’s face it you earned the right to be an elder), “Judges of Distinction and Accomplishment,” or “Grandeur Jury of Distinction.”

Language Matters
Language in these types of competitions and request for proposals matters. CiKeithia noted the 100andchange.org website is English only, which automatically screens out a huge portion of potential applicants and by virtue ideas from limited or non-English speaking people.

I understand how much harder it is to make information accessible in additional languages. The process slows down and more people are involved because you need translators and editors to ensure the translations are correct. But what you gain is access to a different community that may have the winning idea to ‘fix’ a problem. Using translators and editors also help to ensure the cultural nuances of a project are correctly identified.

Savior Complex
This grant is dripping with a savior complex, people swooping in to solve a problem, maybe not even their problem. Part of racial equity work is acknowledging that communities and people of color often know the solutions to our problems, but need resources, access, and allies or accomplices to support the cause. Communities of color don’t need people to swoop in with money to fix something only to leave after a few months to years. We need partners, allies, and accomplices who will be with us for the long haul and use their positions to influence systems changes.

I hope the $100-million scorers will place a priority and award points to applicants who work withcommunities to solve problems, not do things to them to solve a problem.

Quick Tips and a Re-Cap– Many of these are applicable to anyone running a selection process
Right size your grants and expectations – Yes to being bold and fully funding proposals, but also recognize some of the best solutions may not need an unrealistic infusion of cash.

Diversity comes in many forms—Racial diversity is important because race is a proxy for acknowledging different people have different experiences. When we only pay attention to racial diversity we may miss other forms of diversity such as age, sector, geographic, etc.

Language—Translation and interpretation services open up projects to people with limited- to no -English language skills. Language also includes using cultural brokers to help explain a project and create buy-in.

Savior Complex—Put away the ‘We can solve your problem mentality.” Let’s solve problems together.

Posted by Erin Okuno