Recognizing that the challenges of our time are global, enduring, and complex, the largest private foundations are increasingly awarding what might be called “mega-grants”—funding commitments of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to single organizations, often for long periods of time. Since 2000, Foundation Center data indicate that more than 50 grants of $100 million or more have been made to museums, institutions of higher learning, and organizations driving social change in areas such as education, health care, and the environment. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made roughly half of these mega-grants, but the remainder were awarded by nearly 20 other foundations.1

Unfortunately, little has been written about mega-grants. That is what spurred us to share lessons from two large commitments the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation made in 2002. One grant was to the then relatively young environmental organization Conservation International (CI), and the other to the well-established California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Initially, both commitments were for about $300 million (CI’s ultimately grew to nearly $400 million), making them the largest gifts of their kind at that time, and surpassed by few even today. Beyond their notable size, the commitments were unique in that they were long-term (initially set for 10 years) and they were highly flexible, allowing each organization significant room to decide how to spend the money. Both organizations used the funding to advance programmatic outcomes and for institution building.

As the CI and Caltech commitments were nearing their ends in 2013, the Moore Foundation contracted final, independent evaluations of the grants. The evaluations were meant to assess the ultimate impacts of the funding on conservation and science and on the institutions themselves, and to articulate lessons learned about large, long-term, single-institution funding.

The evaluations concluded that this type of funding can generate tremendous outcomes and impacts, significantly strengthen institutions, and represent an important complement to more traditional funding approaches. They also found that this type of funding presents certain challenges and trade-offs. Some of these challenges can be mitigated by tailoring the design and management of the grants to the needs of the funder and the grantee, the context in which the grantee is working, and the nature of the outcomes being pursued.

The Benefits

Large, long-term funding enables significant outcomes to be realized. Where CI and Caltech attained notable outcomes with the Moore Foundation funding—and in some cases field-changing results, the evaluators were unequivocal that these could be directly attributed not just to the magnitude but also to the duration and flexibility of the commitments. Both the CI and Caltech evaluations identified several reasons for this:

  • By design, the commitments advanced innovation and risk-taking and supported difficult-to-fund efforts. Caltech used a significant portion of its funding to make large-scale purchases of equipment, support novel ideas with no initial proof of concept, advance new research areas, and facilitate new uses of state-of-the-art instruments. Overall, the evaluators concluded that Caltech was able to fund the best ideas, take risks, and be creative, which ultimately was highly beneficial for science. Similarly, CI pursued innovation and took risks, allowing them to test hypotheses about what it takes to overcome some of the longest standing and most intractable challenges to conservation.
  • The long-term commitment model promotes adaptation rather than abandonment. Short-term grantmaking supports a “fail quickly” model that helps funders and their grantees identify and continue to advance things that are working well and cut loose efforts that are not working out as hoped. Long-term commitments accept that there will be both peaks and valleys. Periodic setbacks are less about “go/no-go” decisions and more about course corrections, cultivating the tenacity needed to drive meaningful and lasting achievements in conservation and important new scientific discoveries.
  • The long duration of the commitment model more closely aligns to the amount of time required to realize ambitious outcomes. This is particularly important in a challenging field such as biodiversity conservation where, as the evaluator noted, “…(i) the needed capacities will likely take decades rather than years to establish in most locations in the tropics, (ii) the speed of progress is unpredictable and the total cost hard to estimate, and (iii) gains are often fragile due to political and socio-economic changes.” Similarly, the Caltech evaluators found that the sub-grants, which averaged seven years in duration, allowed for continuity and stability that enabled transformative research, including a major shift in research approach to explore quantum phenomena and pioneering technology to solve major long-standing puzzles in astrophysics.

Large, long-term funding helps to strengthen institutions. Beyond simply providing assurance of significant funding for a number of years, the two commitments greatly strengthened the two institutions by:

  • Helping to attract and retain people who were leaders in their field. This proved important for CI because there is steep competition for highly qualified professionals among nonprofits, government agencies, the private sector, and aid agencies in many of the countries in which it works. In the case of Caltech, the long-term and flexible nature of the funding appealed to investigators looking to ensure some longevity and the ability to innovate in their work. The evaluators also noted that the acquisition of desirable equipment or the launch of a new and exciting center also drew talented new faculty to Caltech.
  • Cultivating greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. CI’s Centers for Biodiversity Conservation aimed to create hubs where economists, sociologists, and ecologists could come together to problem solve around the highly complex and multi-faceted challenges facing the highest biodiversity areas of the world. At Caltech, the evaluators found that, “Caltech management, PIs and students … felt that the commitment … helped to change the way that people interacted and the way that science happened in the context of these grants.”
  • Providing reliable coverage of operating costs. As the CI evaluators noted, “Supporting management, overhead and organizational development costs in addition to project activities is a major contribution. Most donors are very reluctant to provide funding over and above specific project costs, making only small contributions to overhead and other fixed costs that NGOs consequently find very hard to cover. The commitment allowed CI to focus on its mission for several years without devoting management time and energy to fundraising to cover core costs.” This was also true for the Caltech commitment, which included a single dedicated grant for coverage of indirect costs.

The Challenges

Making tough tradeoffs. In spite of the logical and demonstrated benefits of large, long-term, flexible funding, it clearly isn’t the right model for all funders or in all cases. Funders must be willing to accept at the start that making a commitment of this kind limits one’s ability to support great ideas and endeavors at other organizations. In the case of Caltech, the Moore Foundation made this leap with great confidence based upon the institution’s long and proven track record. In contrast, bets were placed on CI based upon its demonstrated willingness to take bold steps, innovate, experiment, and even transform the organization itself as needed to catalyze significant conservation advances.

Much like any long-term relationship, the funder and grantee should be a good match; having aligned visions and agreeing upon approaches and desired outcomes are critical to success. Ensuring that these visions, approaches, and outcomes are “realistically ambitious” is also fundamental. In spite of the unprecedented size of the funding provided to Caltech and CI and the strength of the two organizations, evaluators identified several examples where the objectives funded by commitments were overly ambitious. In some cases, this was attributed to very broad goal-setting. In others, objectives didn’t align with the fact that the magnitude and reliability of results were likely to vary in line with the maturity and past performance of the grantee.

The context in which the grantee is working also must be considered (the Amazon River basin versus a university lab, for example), with more conservative objectives set for less controlled and more dynamic contexts such as those focused on driving social change. Furthermore, such contexts require a higher acceptance of risk and a potentially lower return on investment. That’s not to say that mega-grants should be awarded only in controlled and predictable contexts. On the contrary, supporting bold ideas and risk-taking is central to the Moore Foundation’s funding approach. Both the CI and Caltech evaluators drew largely positive conclusions regarding the commitment approach, despite the tremendous differences in the nature and operating contexts of the two organizations.

Maintaining a trusted partnership. The broadly stated aims and significant flexibility of the two commitments allowed the two organizations to determine how to focus and use the funding. Committing funding in this way can work well when there is confidence in the grantee to strategically and effectively manage and direct the funds. But staff and organizations can change over time for both the funder and grantee. Shifts in the external context and challenges can drive new trends in thinking and approach, and the continuity of the original vision can be lost. It is important to have criteria and mechanisms in place to reinforce the vision, ensure that the use of funds continues to be aligned with the vision, and regularly assess and discuss satisfaction with progress.

Finally, it is imperative that grantees and funders think early on about the long-term sustainability of the organizations themselves as well as how to work together after the terms of the commitment end. It may be necessary to proactively map out how to ramp down funding so that gains are not lost post-funding. Ultimately, as with any long-term relationship, the Moore Foundation’s experience with its two largest commitments showed that success depends on communication, trust, transparency, celebrating successes, and effectively navigating challenges.


MOORE FOUNDATION'S TWO MEGA-GRANTS:

1. CALTECH COMMITMENT

Amount: $300 million
Planned Duration: 10 years, 2002-2012; still active
Vision: “To advance Caltech’s position at the forefront of higher education, technological development, and scientific research, and to foster significant scientific achievements in the life and physical sciences.”
Use of Funds: Basic research and discovery science in both the life and physical sciences. As of 2012, 29 grants, ranging from $1 million to $28 million each were used to support new research centers (60 percent of funding), specific research projects (20 percent), acquisition and maintenance of new equipment (20 percent), and educational initiatives (3 percent).

Notable Evaluation Results:

  • The majority of funded projects realized most or all of the originally stated outcomes, and most led to major scientific breakthroughs that would not have occurred without the catalytic commitment.Caltech advanced its world leadership in cosmology, earth sciences, and economics; established leading edge research centers and programs in biology; and became well established in new areas such as nanofabrication and sustainable energy.
  • Caltech’s culture of discovery and risk-taking was greatly advanced, providing the means to conduct basic, discovery-driven research and catalyzing greater cross-fertilization among disciplines.
  • Caltech strengthened its wealth of human talent, attracting and retaining top faculty, staff, postdoctoral fellows, and students.

2. CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL COMMITMENT

Amount: $261 million initially, $395 million ultimately
Planned Duration: 10 years, 2002-2012; closed 2014
Vision: “To transform biodiversity conservation, to spur nothing less than a revolution, and to lead a quantum leap in conservation.”
Use of Funds: Centers for Biodiversity Conservation (CBCs) in four global biodiversity hotspots, CI’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, the Global Conservation Fund for creation and financing of protected areas, TEAM—a network to track global biodiversity health, and CI’s transition to a mission focused more strongly on nature’s role in sustaining human well-being and economic development.

Notable Evaluation Results:

  • CI helped to raise the profile of biodiversity conservation worldwide, largely based on science; expand protected area networks in biodiversity hotspots; and establish long-term financing for many protected areas.
  • The flagship CBCs demonstrated that success in building strong management units within global biodiversity hotspots depends significantly on the robustness of strategic vision and objectives, operating context (e.g., single vs. multi-country effort), existing conservation capacity, and degree of effective collaboration with other stakeholders.
  • CI’s capacity grew with the recruitment of highly qualified leaders and specialists. While many of these people remain and continue to advance CI’s work, others have gone on to senior positions at other organizations in the field of conservation and today “collectively influence and make decisions about resources and environmental protection on a large scale.”

1 Foundation Center, December 19, 2014.

Read the related feature article, "Making Big Bets for Social Change."

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