The moonshot language is emblematic of the scarcity thinking that pervades philanthropy and related corporate do-gooder efforts. Heroic efforts, large resource mobilizations celebrating the novelty of approaches, 9-figure prize challenges — it all makes sense when you believe that breakthrough solutions are rare and hard to find.
Almost the exact opposite is true. We are surrounded by an abundance of solutions, creativity and capital. People everywhere are solving problems they are facing in ingenious ways because exactly no one on this planet likes living in poverty, deprivation, food insecurity, ravaged environments, unsafe neighborhoods, or without access to safe water and sanitation. We “just” don’t set ourselves up to see and foster these solutions at scale. At the same time, there are $218 Trillion in private capital, a small fraction of which would suffice to solve all the systemic problems humanity faces. We just have a wee bit of a matching problem, but that’s surmountable with better design.
For example, the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition created a pipeline of over $65 Billion in 9-figure social impact deals. 3 of the 10 proposals that I reviewed were immediately fundable through outcome based mechanisms like Social Impact Bonds, other had potential with some tweaking. But the process was entirely set up around whittling down to The One solution that would be rewarded. If the design was oriented instead around the (predictable) abundance of solutions that would be attracted to the $100 Million prize purse, the Challenge could serve as a hub for an ecosystem of institutional investors, experts and innovators, who could go on to make deals far and beyond the arbitrary budget constraint of one foundation.
Similarly, self-declared “impatient optimists” (to Jeffrey Bradach’s point about new metaphors) Bill and Melinda Gates may wonder what they could be doing with the 97% of applications they don’t fund in the Grand Challenges program. This rate again is not a function of the merit of the ideas that apply, but a simple, and arbitrary, outcome of the budget constraints of foundations. They just can’t fund everything that comes across their transom. But they sure can be more deliberate about what they do with the people and ideas that show up! A foundation head in the UK told me she is exploring ways to create community around the topics they are funding, with the view to facilitating the flow of ideas and capital beyond her organization’s annual spending capacity.
That sort of a pivot to abundance may be a great step for philanthropy.