Jun. 20, 2016 2:41 pm

The shift from several small grants to a few big ones could make failure easier to accept

Funders such as the MacArthur Foundation are experimenting with making large grants to a single organization. NPR explores how that strategy increases the visibility of failure.

Mayor Jim Kenney announces Philadelphia's $3.5M MacArthur Foundation grant.

(Photo by Flickr user Philadelphia City Council)

If funders want to make a big impact, they need to make big bets. MacArthur Foundation is putting $100 million on the table.

A single table.

Earlier this month, the foundation announced a competition that will award $100 million to one big idea looking to solve a “critical problem.” Traditionally, foundations and donors have split big sums amongst a number of grantees.

Take the $8.5 million grant Pew made toward 45 Philadelphia organizations fighting childhood poverty earlier this year, or the Knight Cities Challenge, which awarded $5 million to 37 organizations.

That funding paradigm — making several small investments over a few large investments — is beginning to shift. That could lead to more acceptance around the concept of failure in philanthropy, according to a recent report from NPR.

“If you make hundreds of small gifts, they’re all good. Everyone appreciates it. And it’s very hard to see success from failure,” William Foster, a partner at The Bridgespan Group, recently told NPR. “But going out and doing big things with a goal of change, of solving things, you expose yourself to failure.”

Read the full transcript

In Philadelphia, we’re beginning to see more players in the social impact space accept the idea of failure as a positive and productive learning experience. This trend of funding fewer organizations at larger amounts begs the question: What would the failure of a single big grant project mean for those who rely on services from organizations left unfunded?

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