The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is the 12th-largest private foundation in the United States. Based in Chicago, the Foundation makes grants and impact investments to support non-profit organizations in Chicago, across the U.S., and in approximately 50 countries. MacArthur reports that it has awarded more than US $6 billion since its first grants in 1978. According to the Foundation, it has an endowment of $6.3 billion and provides approximately $270 million annually in grants and impact investments.
The Foundation's stated aim is to support "creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world." MacArthur's current grant-making priorities include mitigating climate change, reducing jail populations, decreasing nuclear threats, supporting nonprofit journalism, and funding local priorities in its hometown Chicago. The MacArthur Fellows Program, also referred to as "genius grants", makes $625,000 no-strings-attached awards annually to about two dozen creative individuals in diverse fields. The Foundation's 100&Change competition awards a $100 million grant every three years to a single proposal that addresses a critical problem of our time.
John D. MacArthur owned Bankers Life and Casualty and other businesses, as well as considerable property holdings in Florida and New York. His wife, Catherine, held positions in many of these companies. Their attorney, William T. Kirby, and Paul Doolen, their CFO, suggested that the family create a foundation to be endowed by their vast fortune. One of the reasons MacArthur originally set up the Foundation was to avoid taxes.
When MacArthur died on January 6, 1978, he was worth in excess of $1,000,000,000. He left 92 percent of his estate to found the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The composition of the Foundation’s first board of directors, per MacArthur’s will, also included J. Roderick MacArthur, John's son from his first marriage, two other officers of Bankers Life and Casualty, and radio commentator Paul Harvey. Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, later joined the Foundation's board of directors.
MacArthur believed in the free market. However, MacArthur did not spell out specific parameters for how his money was to be spent after he died. MacArthur told the Foundation's board of directors, "I figured out how to make the money. You fellows will have to figure out how to spend it."
Between 1979 and 1981, John's son J. Roderick MacArthur, an ideological opponent of his father with whom the elder MacArthur had an acrimonious relationship, waged a legal battle against the Foundation for control of the board of directors. The younger MacArthur sued eight members of the board, accusing them of mismanagement of the Foundation's finances.
By 1981, most of the original board had been replaced by members who agreed with J. Roderick MacArthur's desire to support liberal causes. This ultimately resulted in the creation of what, in 2008, historian and conservative commentator Martin Morse Wooster called "one of the pillars of the liberal philanthropic establishment." In 1984, MacArthur again sued the board of directors, asking a Cook County circuit court to liquidate the entire MacArthur Foundation. He dropped the suit later that same year when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
John E. Corbally, the first president of the Foundation and later board chairman from 1995 to 2002, was followed in 1989–99 by Adele Simmons, who was the first female dean at Princeton University. Jonathan Fanton, president of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, served as the Foundation's next president. Robert Gallucci, formerly dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, served as the Foundation's fourth president from 2009 to 2014. Gallucci was fired in 2014, with the Foundation's board announcing it was "looking for a new kind of leadership." Julia Stasch, who formerly served as MacArthur's vice president for U.S. Programs, was named the Foundation's new president in 2015. Stasch had formerly served as chief of staff to Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley.
The MacArthur Fellowship is an award issued by the MacArthur Foundation each year, to typically 20 to 30 citizens or residents of the United States, of any age and working in any field, who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." The program was initiated in 1981. According to the Foundation, the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but an investment in a person's originality and potential. MacArthur Fellows receive $625,000 each, which is paid out in quarterly installments over five years. No one can apply for the program, and, generally, no one knows if he or she is being considered as a candidate. Nominators, serving confidentially, anonymously and for a limited time, are invited to recommend potential Fellows. Candidates are reviewed by a Selection Committee, whose members also serve confidentially, anonymously and for a limited time. Ultimately, the Committee makes recommendations to the Foundation's Board of Directors for final approval.
A competition launched on June 2, 2016, will award a $100 million grant to a single proposal designed to help solve a problem affecting people, places, or the planet. The Foundation’s competition, called "100&Change", is open to organizations working in any field of endeavor. Applicants must identify both the problem they are trying to solve, as well as their proposed solution. Competitive proposals must be meaningful, verifiable, durable and feasible. Eight semi-finalists were announced in February, 2017. A winning proposal is expected to be selected at the end of 2017.
In 2016, Phillip Jackson, of The Black Star Project, criticized the homogeneity of Chicago grant recipients. In response, MacArthur president Julia Stasch wrote that the critique "inaccurately and grossly understated our efforts to address the urgent problems that confront our city" and that "Since 1979, we have provided $1.1 billion in grants and direct impact investments to Chicago organizations—more MacArthur funds than to any other place in the world."
As historian Martin Morse Wooster comments...
Martin Morse Wooster, a historian and author of the book The Greatest Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent