In my first post (back in 2013) about the MacArthur Fellowships I quoted a 1997 New York Times article:
There are at least a few observers who question the very concept of the fellows program. Some of them, including Waldemar Nielsen, a consultant to foundations and a former foundation official, maintain that its primary job is to generate publicity for the foundation.
I went on to observe:
The late Waldemar Nielsen (he died in 2005) had directed major programs for the Ford Foundation, had been president of the African-American Institute, had written extensively about foundations, and “deemed them generally timid, inert and unimaginative”.I don’t know what Nielsen was thinking that he made that remark, what his reasoning was, but I find it interesting and plausible. First, we need to remember that the MacArthur Foundation is a large foundation and that the fellows program is only one of its many programs, a relatively small one. In 2012 the foundation’s total budget was $212.2 million of which the fellows program was $11.8 million, or just under 6%. The program is small enough that the foundation can treat it as an overhead expense, as publicity if you will.
Of course, thing haven’t changed, how could they? The MacArthur Foundation currently notes:
In 2017, the Foundation paid out $255.7 million in grants and impact investments to organizations and individuals in the United States and around the world. Actual cash paid out varies from year to year and will differ from the amounts budgeted because of the timing of the payment of grants, including large grants and those involving multiyear funding. MacArthur's charitable administrative expenses totaled $49 million in 2017, about 14 percent of total charitable expenses.
The fellows program cost $13.8 million for 2017, which is about 5.4% of that $255.7 and is equal to 28% of administrative costs. We subtract it from the grants amount without affecting it very much, though it would make a noticeable increase in administrative expense if we were to add it there as overhead, increasing that amount by 28%. Which is probably not the thing to do from an accounting point of view, but that’s OK. The Foundation’s overhead remains relatively small.
My original point still holds:
The Fellows Program is small enough that we could easily treat it as publicity without much affect on the overall finances of the Foundation.
Let’s continue with that first post:
Note that Nielsen’s reading is plausible even if no one at the MacArthur Foundation asserts, believes, or even thinks that publicity is the point. It does generate publicity, lots of it. I’d guess the foundation gets more publicity for that program than for all of its other programs combined. How many people who know about the fellows program can name even one of the other programs? And, I would argue, it’s the publicity that keeps the process going. That publicity is the latent goal of the program, not its manifest goal, which is to fund exceptional individuals, to fund “geniuses”.Now, let’s move beyond thinking of the program simply as publicity for the MacArthur Foundation itself. Surely some of that public relations glow accrues to The Elito-Meritocracy in general, to the whole network of individuals and institutions that coughs up this list [of Fellows] once a year. The list is produced in the name of The Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, but it validates the philanthropic activities of [the Elito-Meritocracy] as a whole simply because it’s the single most visible foundation program in the country. In rhetorical terms, it’s a synecdoche, a part that stands for the whole.Think of the MacArthur Fellows Program as a tax imposed on this brash young foundation by the older and more established members of [philanthropic world].
Nielson was right two decades ago. The Fellows program is publicity stunt disguised as a grants program. And it generates publicity, not just for the MacArthur Foundation, but for the whole philanthropic world and the elite one-percenters who fund it.