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Building the Expertise of the Next Generation of Philanthropic Leaders Through Competitive Evaluation

May 29, 2020

In philanthropy, more often than not, those seeking funding are engaged in a competition — even when the process is not explicitly categorized that way. A well-designed, well-run philanthropic competition creates value for all parties, from the clear benefit of additional funding for the "winners" to the learning opportunity presented to those who do not win to hone their story, articulate their impact, and possibly even improve their programs for the next go-round. What rarely gets discussed is the benefit of the competition for the proposal reviewers — the evaluators and decision makers — who also should be changed by and grow from the process.


This spring, we had the opportunity to test this proposition firsthand. Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors partnered with MacArthur Foundation-affiliate Lever for Change and the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School to bring a funding competition to MBA students. The students, enrolled in a course on Global Philanthropy for which Melissa Berman was the professor, were called on to review some of the top hundred contenders from MacArthur's 100&Change competition, ultimately selecting one proposed initiative to receive a $100,000 award.

The Project and Process

The students were separated into twelve teams, and each team chose an area of focus from among the world's most urgent challenges (as defined by the United Nations). Within its focus area, each team selected three projects, researched the issue area, defined the challenge, and reviewed potential solutions offered by the project proposals. The students evaluated their projects based on two sets of criteria. Berman developed one set for the Global Philanthropy course, which included:

  • the project's capacity for driving systems change (as distinct from scalability);
  • the level of authentic engagement with the communities served; and
  • the use of bottom-up approaches.

The other criteria for selecting a top contender were established by MacArthur, which had the students consider the degree to which the projects were impactful, evidence-based, feasible, and sustainable.

In conducting their evaluations, the students relied solely on the materials provided by the projects as part of their  100&Change competition entry. Given the quality, scope, and range of the projects, it was not an easy choice, and the students were called on to examine their values and assumptions. Students also found themselves reviewing the proposals through a new lens — their hope that the projects would still be relevant in a post-pandemic world. While the applications were submitted pre-pandemic, students soon realized that most projects were responsive to both the current situation and long-term systems change.

Students were further asked to assess "hard" and "soft" systems-change factors — a great model for philanthropy generally and for participating students specifically as they advance in their careers. Each team then developed a presentation, based on their own analysis of the criteria, aimed at convincing their peers that the project they selected was worthy of the $100,000 award.

The $100,000 Project Award

The first round of voting was inconclusive, with four projects within a vote of one another. (Students were prohibited from voting for their own team's project). The second round of voting, a four-way run-off among the highest-scoring projects, resulted in a clear winner: Mercy Corps' AgriFin initiative on Transforming Small-Scale Farming in the Face of Climate Change, which hopes to create a seamless network of 25 million small-scale farmers and help them adapt to a changing climate by using mobile-phone-accessible satellite technology in partnership with NASA and online, locally translated and contextualized education in collaboration with Digital Green. AgriFin received the $100,000 award because it effectively tackled inequity, poverty, and the impact of climate change through an innovative approach that directly involved those in the community.

Key Takeaways

Judging by their thorough, analytical presentations, the students — as decision makers — clearly benefited from this exercise. The in-depth process gave them a better understanding of the considerations that go into strategic grantmaking and helped them develop a sense of the rigor, complexity, and values-based leadership needed to create thoughtful and effective social change.

The process also serves as an example of how submissions for one program can fulfill criteria for other donors, thereby lessening the burden on high-impact organizations that might not apply for funding due to time, staff, or other resource constraints. That is an approach that builds on the mission of the Bold Solutions Network, which has collected all the top hundred proposals submitted to the 100&Change competition in a searchable online database.

Although the course lasted a mere six weeks, the future business and social sector leaders who participated learned some of the critical skills necessary for tackling the complex systems challenges facing society and the planet today. It also was a wonderful opening act for the $100 million award that will be announced in the spring of 2021. We have been thrilled with the collaboration between our two organizations and are delighted by how it stimulated thinking and enhanced conversations around systems change in both organizations, resulting in grant funding to Mercy Corps for its AgriFin project.

(Photo credit: Ezra Millstein)

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