Behind the Scenes of MacKenzie Scott’s Open Call — and a New Service that Emulates Her Approach

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Back in March, MacKenzie Scott once again set the philanthrosphere abuzz when her groundbreaking project Yield Giving announced its first open call for applications. Working with MacArthur Foundation affiliate Lever for Change, the effort will award 250 unrestricted grants of $1 million apiece to organizations “working with people and in places experiencing the greatest need in the United States: communities, individuals and families with access to the fewest foundational resources and opportunities.”

As my colleague Philip Rojc noted at the time, the open call was a radical departure for Scott, who had previously awarded grants after identifying candidates in collaboration with the Bridgespan Group and other consultancies, nonprofit leaders and other donors. The announcement meant that at long last, nonprofit leaders could get on her radar. Registration closed on May 5 and final applications are due on June 12.

As one would suspect, it’s been an incredibly busy and illuminating two months for Lever for Change CEO Dr. Cecilia Conrad. “We’re really excited about the interest,” she said during a recent chat, noting that Lever for Change has received applications from organizations in all 50 states and four U.S. territories. “We’re hoping to take what we learned from this work and set it up as part of our practice.”

A few days after we spoke, Conrad’s hope became a reality. Today, Lever for Change announced the launch of a new service that will offer funders “an opportunity to help grow or strengthen a field of their choosing through an open call challenge,” noting that a “field” could be a “specific geography, topic or type of organization.” The service differs from Lever for Change’s approach thus far, which has directed funds to individual solutions to specific problems, and instead replicates Scott’s open call by spreading general operating support across a cohort of groups. The service requires a minimum of $20 million in awards, with each awardee receiving $1 million in general operating support payable in a lump sum or over up to three years.

Yield Giving’s partnership with Lever for Change, and the new service that’s emerged, are the latest examples of Scott’s complicated relationship with the philanthropic establishment, as she tosses aside some of its standard practices, embraces others, and relies in part on the sector’s expertise to guide her. At the same time, Scott’s radical approach to high-dollar giving is also returning the favor by influencing conventional philanthropy. 

Scott’s consequential decision to partner with Lever for Change, for example, suggested that for all of her norm-shattering, she recognized the value in turning to a prominent, mainstream philanthropic entity with a resource-intensive open call infrastructure. But as we’ll see, Conrad and her team still had to throw out a few pages from the rulebook. This is MacKenzie Scott, after all.

A shift in thinking

In 2017, MacArthur launched 100&Change, a competition awarding $100 million to a single proposal that “promises real and measurable progress in solving a critical problem of our time.” Two years later, it rolled out Lever for Change, a nonprofit that holds open competitions funded and conceived by outside donors, with prizes ranging from $10 million to $100 million.

The platform quickly drew new megadonor supporters. In 2020, Scott, Melinda French Gates, and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies funded Lever for Change’s $30 million gender equity challenge Equality Can’t Wait. On May 11, it announced five finalists for a Maternal & Infant Health Award. Sponsored by the Patchwork Collective, ICONIQ Impact and Lever for Change, the $10 million competition supports “innovative solutions to improve maternal and infant health outcomes across the globe.” Scott has also backed Lever for Change directly to the tune of $8 million.

Readers may notice a pattern in Lever for Change’s competitions. In each case, funders launch a challenge centered on a specific issue and award a ton of money to a handful of organizations. The organization has added unique twists and works in large sums, but it’s a somewhat old-school grant competition. In contrast, the Yield Giving competition provides 250 organizations with $1 million each, meaning Lever for Change needed to adapt its approach.

The competition also required Conrad and her team to shift from a project-based to an organization-based mindset. “It’s very different,” Conrad said. “What was exciting for us was to test the proposition that we could create an openness where there aren’t specific projects being proposed, but instead, we let organizations tell their story.”

Yield Giving’s open call sought out “community-led, community-focused organizations whose explicit purpose is to advance the voices and opportunities of individuals and families of meager or modest means, and groups who have met with discrimination and other systemic obstacles.” In what has become a hallmark of Scott’s “seeding by ceding” philosophy, rather than prioritizing specific issues, she seeks to strengthen undercapitalized and highly impactful organizations by providing leaders with unrestricted funding to “enable individuals and families to achieve substantive improvement in their wellbeing.”

Beginning in July, Yield Giving applications will be scored during the participatory review stage. Conrad said that Lever for Change may announce the next 100&Change competition around this time. After that, up to 1,000 top-scoring applicants will advance to an Evaluation Panel Review, where they will be scored by five reviewers. Scott and Lever for Change will announce the awardees in early 2024. Check out the full timeline here.

Getting the word out

The Yield Giving open call is designed to reach organizations with “access to the fewest foundational resources and opportunities.” This suggests that some organizations may never hear about the open call in the first place and explains why Lever for Change spent a considerable amount of effort on outreach.

In addition to paying for media placements, “we identified different paths for information to flow, including putting together a comprehensive list of local funders using our existing databases,” Conrad said. “We told them, ‘You have been providing small grants to organizations, and this is an opportunity for them.’” The open call closes the circle by including leaders from small funders on the evaluation panel.

Conrad said it was too soon to say how many applications Lever for Change has received so far or whether nonprofits that focus on certain issues are disproportionately represented, noting her team will “get the hard numbers in June” after the application window closes. That said, the fact that the open call has generated interest from all across the fruited plain (and beyond) suggests that “we’ve communicated this opportunity in a way that creates possibilities for organizations who may not have been on the radar to be seen.”

Conrad and her team have also been busy responding to a flurry of applicant inquiries. “We set up systems for people to ask questions, and we sometimes have peak loads, so we’re trying to rapidly get answers out,” she said. Fortunately, Lever for Change isn’t starting with a blank slate, as Conrad noted that its 100&Change competition usually generates a large number of questions from organizational leaders.

“We’re trying to provide that infrastructure”

The Lever for Change team has been working with Scott’s advisors throughout the process, collaborating on the competition’s application criteria and the scoring rubric. Scott and her reps will also be looped into the final selection stage, which “will be guided by the scores of the judges and the additional due diligence we’ve done,” Conrad said.

Conrad stressed Yield Giving’s efforts to cultivates greater equity across the philanthrosphere by providing organizations with critical and alarmingly rare general operating support. In addition, awardees and finalists that don’t walk away with Scott’s support may be entered into Lever for Change’s Bold Solutions Network, which can lead to follow-on funding. A donor “can come to us and say, ‘I’m interested in what you have on early childhood intervention in the U.S.,’ so we go through our database,” Conrad told me earlier this year.

Finally, Lever for Change’s open call gives nonprofits a foothold into the opaque and seemingly impenetrable world of institutional giving so that “it doesn’t matter who you know as much as it might in the past, or how well connected you are to a network,” Conrad said.

A week before I spoke with Conrad, I worked on a piece looking at how major donors like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and the Buffetts do their giving through their private foundations, and was struck — although not entirely surprised — that so few of them have open calls or accept unsolicited proposals. I asked Conrad what she would say to megadonors who are reluctant to roll out an open call because it would require a ton of work. “I would have them talk to us,” she said. “We’re trying to provide that infrastructure, and it doesn’t make sense to replicate it everywhere.” 

That infrastructure now includes the new Scott-like service where donor-conceived competitions provide several organizations with $1 million in general operating support. “We have what I call the ‘classic model,’ which are challenges that seek to scale a solution and have a $10 million minimum,” Conrad said. “And then there’s another model where we are open to donors who want to commit substantial amounts of money, but it’s more for strengthening an ecosystem or building a field.”