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What Can We Learn from MacKenzie Scott’s Pivot to an ‘Open Call’ Giving Approach?

Date: April 26, 2023

Bob Hughes

Former president and CEO, Missouri Foundation for Health

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The scale, speed, and innovative approach of Mackenzie Scott’s giving is unprecedented. It should energize dialog and actions among givers of all sorts, ideally moving the field toward learning and improvement. In a previous post, I highlighted the potential impact of Scott’s approach on the social sector overall. With the recent announcement of her pivot from “quiet research” to an “open call,” we have the opportunity to assess what has changed (or not) in her way of giving. We also can learn from the design of her open call. And finally, we can learn from the circumstances that foster Scott’s ability to make a significant pivot in her giving, and gain insight into why making such a pivot is so challenging for the vast majority of organized philanthropy.

What changed?

Relationships between funders and recipients can be divided into two stages: the application, review and selection process in the first place and, once a gift is made, reporting and monitoring. Scott describes alternative ways to conduct the first stage as “two pathways for information about organizations to reach us”: “quiet research” and “open call.” They are quite different. The second stage remains the same in both of Scott’s approaches, giving recipients maximum flexibility in how a gift is used and minimal reporting responsibilities.

The two pathways assign different roles and responsibilities to Scott’s advisors and to recipient organizations. In quiet research there is no application — Scott’s team conducts the entire review and selection process, minimizing work of the organizational recipients, and often coming as a surprise to the recipient organization when they find out they are receiving a grant from Scott. In the open call, Scott’s team designs the process, but the work — completing the application, following the rules, reviewing the applications — is primarily the responsibility of the organizations themselves.

The latter represents a more traditional approach to grantmaking, but Scott’s values and aims are consistent throughout both approaches. In each approach she brings a perspective that respects the recipients, though this respect is conveyed differently in the quiet versus open process. One is to minimize the work applicants must do to receive a gift by using available information and eschewing applications altogether. The other is to deeply involve the leaders of organizations in the process, structuring it so that the applicants and people with deep field knowledge and experience have crucial roles in decision-making. The two pathways reflect these alternatives, implicitly acknowledging they are incompatible approaches.

Scott calls the recipients of the open call “community changemakers,” and she wants these actors to be the focus of the second approach, as both participants in decisions and the beneficiaries of the gifts. In effect, the pivot to the open call shifted the responsibility for the selection process from her team (staff, consultants, etc.) to community changemakers. The open call gives the involved organizations and communities extensive influence in the selection process, it also provides much more transparency than quiet research.

Notes on the Design of the “Open Call”

Scott’s new approach has similarities with many calls-for-proposals (CFPs), so it also holds more salient lessons for organized philanthropy than her “quiet giving” approach. Foundation staff responsible for CFP designs, learning staff seeking to improve effectiveness of their organizations, and social sector leaders involved in giving processes may find useful nuggets in Scott’s design elements. Among the design features that caught my eye was the requirement for a 90 second video, a nice complement to the written content that dominates most applications. Another is the peer review — literally the requirement that each applicant review five other applications — built into the timeline. And the four elements of the scoring rubric — equity- focused, track record, community leadership, and team capacity (each accompanied by a 5-point ordinal scale with descriptions) — are clear and easy to understand. For those interested in diving into the details of the application design, it’s worth going to the Lever for Change website, the MacArthur Foundation spin-off that is administering the process.

The open call design may have important effects on the relationships among the community changemakers and reviewers involved in the process. The use of peer review, an experienced evaluation panel, and an administrative entity that is encouraging long-term relationships via multiple competitions all foster collective learning and lay the groundwork for establishing future relationships. Reviewing peer applications provides an opportunity for an organization to assess and compare its own submission with others, prompting new insights and ideas. While not explicit, the open call establishes the conditions for informal networks to emerge; at the least, completing the application process is likely to stimulate organizational learning. This helps strengthen the sector. Overall, the open call illustrates how a funder can embed values in the design of the selection process to reinforce philanthropic aims.

Nevertheless, for potential recipients the open call has disadvantages when compared with quiet research. The application process takes time and resources. A quick glance at the Lever for Change site shows the process — from application through the three-stage review process — will last about nine months and entails a lengthy and detailed set of requirements. This is implicitly acknowledged in the $500 given to every organization that completes the application process, which includes the review of five peers. The burdens of the application process are especially important for the community changemakers that the open call targets.

Another disadvantage of the open call is that, for the first time, Scott will be saying no to unsuccessful applicants. The process is strongly influenced by peers, but it still results in judgments that some community changemakers deserve funding more than others. This dynamic is likely to put more of a critical spotlight on Scott’s next act of giving.

Is Scott’s quick pivot possible for other funders?

Scott used quiet research to make 1604 gifts totaling over $14 billion in three years. Now she’s using an open call to give 250 $1 million gifts by the end of the year. This pivot is a remarkable shift in giving practice. Her wealth allows her much flexibility, but other factors contribute to her ability to fundamentally change the way she gives.

The infrastructure she’s built appears to be designed for change. Rather than start a new foundation, her team is a mix of existing organizations, from a donor advised fund to Bridgespan and Lever for Change. She’s using an array of available organizational tools that allow flexibility in tactics and duration. This is one of the most interesting and innovative aspects of Scott’s giving. Not only has she pledged to give “until the safe is empty,” but the ways she has given have minimal constraints on future giving. This includes the practice (so far) of large, one-time, unrestricted gifts. Her shift to the open call was enabled by a lack of the kinds of constraints that most funders have, such as full-time staff, complex governance structures, collective decision- making processes, and current grantees who may prefer stable funding practices and priorities.

Those constraints help explain why we are unlikely to see similar big changes by established funders. Most operate in institutional structures that were not designed for change, and most are embedded in communities where ongoing relationships influence the pace and direction of shifts in giving practices, typically resulting in more incremental changes. Community-based foundations, for example, must continually manage issues of conflict of interest and fairness. Such issues become much more complicated when the donors, process designers, reviewers, applicants, and the recipient organizations’ staff and clientele are in the same community. (Note: even in Scott’s national “open call” process, detailed rules for addressing potential conflicts of interest among reviewers and applicants are necessary.) Another important factor that may influence the ability to make a big pivot is the decision-making structure. All else being equal, it’s easier for one person to make a final decision.

While Scott’s pivot is unlikely to inspire big changes in other funders, what about Scott’s next act? The future of Scott’s philanthropy is a blank slate, and she is private about her giving. What we can know are the values reflected in the giving she has done and the perspectives she has shared in her Yield Giving essays. Because Scott’s giving is designed for change, she is far less encumbered by her previous and current work in whatever future work she may decide to do. She has many options, perhaps even another significant pivot. In the meantime, it is in the details of Scott’s open call that other funders may find specific ideas to consider adapting to their own situations.

Bob Hughes is former vice president and chief learning officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and, most recently, was president and CEO of the Missouri Foundation for Health. He is now on the Community Advisory Board at United Way Rhode Island. Find him on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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