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Inside the MacArthur Foundation

By JESSICA CURRY
Philanthropy

Mentioned on the radio, attached to exhibitions, tied to countless programs and known for its no-strings-attached "genius" grants, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is omnipresent in Chicago. But what exists behind the name? A private, independent grantmaking foundation with assets of more that $6.4 billion. Supporting 180 local arts and cultural institutions and with community and economic development focused on 16 Chicago neighborhoods, MacArthur spends roughly 20 percent of its resources here. One prominent local program aims to increase the supply of affordable housing, especially focusing on preservation and rental housing. A subset of that program strives to help the city with its transition in the Chicago Housing Authority from high-rise public housing to mixed-income communities.
    With work in 60 countries and offices in the United States, Mexico, Russia, India, Nigeria and soon China, the foundation focuses on biodiversity preservation, population and reproductive health, international peace and security, principally reducing dangers of weapons of mass destruction, migration and mobility, global perspective and human rights and international justice.
    MacArthur is also about to debut a free advisory service for people or smaller foundations interested in making contributions to its fields. "We know thousands of organizations here in Chicago, across the country, around the world that are doing good work," says Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation. "We would be very happy, free of charge, to give advice to people who are interested in those fields and would like to see their money invested in good organizations. We also have a very good legal department that knows how to advise on tax issues and all the rest."
In an interview with Chicago Life, Fanton, president since 1999, discusses the breadth of the MacArthur Foundation.

What in the foundation's mission unites all the projects?
The MacArthur Foundation seeks to build a more just, sustainable, peaceful world with opportunity for all.

How has the MacArthur Foundation evolved in its near 30 years?
When John MacArthur set up the foundation, he gave the trustees very wide latitude. He is reported to have said, "I made the money. You fellows need to figure out how to spend it." So the trustees have had a lot of freedom to figure out how to most usefully employ his vast resource. Our current endowment is closing in on $7 billion. Next year we will give away $260 million and make low-interest, program-related loans probably of another $40 million. So we will be a $300 million philanthropy. In the beginning, the foundation didn't have a clear program, but over time, it picked up a real focus and began to work outside the United States. Over the years, the foundation went from domestic-only to international. It went from a handful of grants that weren't particularly strategic to now a very clear set of objectives in different fields, but all with tangible goals and measurable outcomes that we seek to achieve. I think we're also enjoying a certain cross-fertilization among our fields. The theme of justice, for example, crosscuts almost everything we do. It's not just our human rights work, but you find it in our juvenile justice work, our population work [and] our conservation work.

How does MacArthur stand apart from other grantmaking foundations?
MacArthur is unusual among the big foundations—we're in the top 10—because we have a very deep commitment to our hometown. We believe we're a better foundation because we're part of the fabric of this great city. We gain insights about our work because we are in contact with terrific people in Chicago. What we do in far away places might be a little abstract, but we can make judgments about how it's going in Russia or Bhutan or Peru because we are grounded in the reality of how hard it is to work on these issues, how hard it is to make progress, but also buoyed by the fact that progress is made and we can see up close what elements must come together to advance human rights, advance neighborhood and community development.

How would you describe the philanthropy community in Chicago?
There's a wonderful spirit of partnership among foundations in Chicago. We talk all the time. We do things together. I've been in other places where there's a sense of competition, but that's not the case here. We work together in a mutual admiration society.

How does your new $11 million initiative aim to reduce maternal deaths in India and Nigeria?
Maternal mortality can be prevented, and we know how to do it. About a third of maternal deaths come from postpartum hemorrhage, and we have put together a set of interventions, which we believe can reduce the death rate by postpartum hemorrhage by 80 percent. We are going to pilot these interventions on some scale in Nigeria and India, and those two countries together account for about a third of maternal deaths worldwide. The intervention has two principle parts to it. One is the use of a drug called misoprostol, which if given at the point of birth, cuts down bleeding by about 50 percent. The second intervention, more dramatic, is the application of an anti- shock garment, which is a simple garment, made of neoprene, fastened with Velcro. It comes in pieces and is attached to the lower extremities, essentially forcing the blood up to the vital organs and can stabilize a woman in a rural village in Nigeria for up to two days, enough time to get her to a clinic, where the situation can be diagnosed and handled in a competent way. We're working with Pathfinder International, a wonderful group, and they're doing the demonstration at scale in these two countries. I met with the health minister, and she has committed to moving this intervention all through [Nigeria] once we are convinced we know how to use it and it is as effective as we believe it will be.

How did you find out about the gament?
There's a professor at University of California-San Francisco named Suellen Miller, who brought it to our attention.

Do ideas for interventions often come from the outside or are they conceived internally?
The foundation tries to be transparent about what we do, so on our website you will see all the fields that we're in, and more, you will see what the strategy is. So when people are looking for money for ideas, they will go to the website or the annual report, and they will see what we do and who the staff are that they should contact. We get 6,000 proposals a year—not all right-on points. Some are not what we do, and they get a pretty quick rejection, but we consider thousands of proposals a year and make between 400 and 500 grants a year. Some of those are generated inside, where the staff will go out and look for an organization, and some will just come to us.

MacArthur seems to make substantial, long-term commitments to work in a few areas. How do you take on new ideas?
It's a good thing for us to put at least a portion of our money aside to take on some new things that might be risky. Risk for us means it might not work, and it would turn out to be a waste of money. I wrote, a little over a year ago, 150 very smart people—some of them MacArthur Fellows—and I said, tell us something we don't know. [I asked if there was] a trend, a pattern, maybe dimly perceived, just over the horizon that's going to be very consequential, either a problem or an opportunity for progress, where we could make a modest investment and bring an issue to the fore or pioneer an intervention, do a piece of research that would inform policy. And we got lots of answers. We have a little, special committee on what we call "New Ideas," chaired by John Sealy Brown, who used to be the chief scientist at Xerox. They looked at eight very carefully and picked four that we're developing. Let me give you an example.
    One idea, brought to us by Harvard professor E.O. Wilson, proposed creating an encyclopedia of life, a webpage for every one of the 1.8 million species that have been identified. By February or March of next year, this will go live with 30,000 to 50,000 webpages. This will be living organism so to speak, inviting people all over the world, including you and me, to contribute possible new species, new sightings. We know the 1.8 is only a fraction of the species on Earth, most of which are unidentified. There will obviously be a scientific panel to review submissions, but this will be a project not just for the pros. 
    Another [idea] came in a letter from a professor at Stanford named Robert Sapolsky, who had kind of a provocative title, "Abolish the Criminal Justice System." Caught our attention, but as we read on, it was a serious proposal, basically saying the following: the field of neuroscience, imaging the brain, studying the brain, has advanced tremendously in recent years, and we know a lot that could and should be applied to the legal system and could, by the way, also be misused. Sapolsky said there really is a need to bring lawyers and neuroscientists together, and here's the opportunity to create a whole new field, called "law and neuroscience."
    We gathered the best neuroscientists and very smart lawyers and judges together, and they liked the idea, and gradually a project has emerged, which is based at the University of California-Santa Barbara, to develop this field and develop a  primer for lawyers and judges on how to use this sophisticated imaging and how not to use it. We know that the frontal lobe is connected to the ability to suppress violent behavior and are beginning to understand what part of the frontal lobe is connected more precisely. So now it's theoretically possible in imaging the brain to make a judgment about somebody's propensity to commit a violent act. The imaging of the brain is a much better device than the old-fashioned lie detector to tell who's telling the truth. There are parts of the brain that connect to prejudice and bias, and those can be imaged. So there's a whole new world out there. The potential is major.

There's been so much debate and attention around legality of torture. How can torture actually be prevented?
In Nigeria, we are working on what sounds like a very simple intervention, trying to develop an electronic record from point of first arrest all the way through disposition of the case. I think 60 to 70 percent of the people in jail [in Nigeria] are awaiting trial. The reason they're there is that records get lost. Somebody gets arrested. It could be on a relatively minor crime. It's a paper record. It gets lost. The policeman gets transferred to a different precinct. The person simply sits in jail. The intervention is to develop a computer record of every prisoner who gets arrested and not lose that record, so that prosecutors can move cases along.

How is the quest for justice a pervasive theme for MacArthur?
Our international justice program focuses on building and strengthening the new International Criminal Court, which is a court of last resort for the worst crimes—genocide, crimes against humanity. We're also concerned with regional commissions and courts, which exist in Europe and Latin America and are just starting in Africa, for crimes that are bad, but fall short of the worst crimes— crimes like police abuse, discrimination, rights of free speech. These are crimes that ordinary people are subjected to, usually by government authority, and when remedies are not found in Russia, Nigeria or Mexico, where we work, we help get cases into these regional courts and commissions. We're interested in supporting human rights groups all around the world that are trying to go after abuses by naming and shaming, not only through the court system, but by calling public attention to problems of police abuse or conflict in northern Uganda or civil wars in the Congo and other places, as well.
    On the domestic level, we've focused our concern on reforming the juvenile justice system. We aim for a juvenile justice system that is based on a number of principles. One is that young people are developmentally different from adults and therefore should be addressed in a juvenile justice system, not in an adult system with adult penalties. Underneath that distinction lies a belief that people can be rehabilitated and lives that may have gotten off to a bad start can be redeemed. We also are concerned about public safety, and some of our research has demonstrated that young people who are tried in a juvenile court with redemptive options, alternatives to incarceration, actually do better than kids who have been tried in adult court and put in an adult prison. Doing the right thing for the individual also turns out to be good policy for the large of society: safer, kids re-offend; cheaper, it's expensive to put kids in jail, much better to have them go to school and get out and get productive jobs. Our aim here is to work in four states, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Washington, to develop model systems, and we hope those models will spread to other states in the union.

Where are the grossest violations of human rights?
There are a lot of candidates. Certainly the situation in Darfur is very troubling and should be stopped. Let me digress to say that in addition to our work on the ground into human rights and trying to strengthen the court system, our concern with getting the thinking right, establishing the norms—the government of Canada some years ago organized an independent commission on state sovereignty and humanitarian intervention, and MacArthur was pleased to provide funds for the commission's work. That commission of leading statespeople formulated the concept of the responsibility to protect, and that norm says simply, if a country can't protect its own citizens, which is of course an essential aspect of sovereignty, then that responsibility migrates up to the international community. And that concept has been endorsed by the United Nations just a couple years ago and now is the norm that should guide nation states through the U.N. Darfur is a prime example where the government is not only unable to protect its people, but may be implicated in the atrocities there. It's been slow-going to get an effective international force deployed in Darfur, so I'd say number one on my list is Darfur, and here is a chance for the international community to live up to a commitment it has made. Other situations of concern: trouble in northern Uganda persists; in the eastern Congo; Sri Lanka remains a human rights hotspot—there are plenty of problems.

Do we have human rights violations in the United States?
There are human rights violations in probably every country of the world. The U.S. would have a better record than most. The lack of due process for prisoners detained in Guantanamo is troubling. Discrimination, even though it's been greatly reduced, still exists in our country. Prison conditions in some jurisdictions are not up to international standards, but on the whole, I think the U.S. has a good human rights record and continues to set a moral standard for the world.

Published: December 02, 2007
Issue: December Philanthropy 07