This past June, the MacArthur Foundation announced a new funding opportunity called 100&Change: a $100 million prize ‘in pursuit of one good idea.’ As it did for many, the prize captured my imagination, particularly because of Playworks’ current ambitions.
As many of you know, Playworks recently announced our AIM of ensuring safe and healthy play at 7,000 schools, reaching 3.5 million students by December 2020 (check out this great piece in The Atlantic around the announcement) that has been largely funded by a small group of national foundations and individual investors. It’s a bold and audacious plan that is going to require us to learn a lot of new things and is designed to get us a good distance towards achieving systemic change.
With no real intention of applying, towards the end of June, I brought the challenge to a meeting of these investors as a tool for sparking discussion. But there was something about MacArthur’s $100M challenge that caught hold and pushed me and our investors to really stop and think twice. How would we define the problem we address in a way that justifies a $100 million investment? What would we do differently if money were not a limiting factor?
Playworks' simple yet powerful approach—bringing out the best in kids through play—impacts outcomes from physical health to academic engagement. For 100&Change, we chose to focus on how Playworks helps children to develop the skills they need to grow up to become thoughtful leaders and effective citizens.
This initial conversation with our investors led to multiple conversations within Playworks, a couple of design thinking-inspired brainstorm sessions, a lot of writing and sharing with trusted friends and colleagues, and a fair bit of reckoning that ‘winning’ $100 million would probably be both a blessing and a curse.
Writing inspiringly about the problem we address in laymen’s terms—and in 250 words or less—also deepened my empathy for my high school senior son, who was simultaneously working on college essays while I was editing Elizabeth’s first draft of our MacArthur responses. Here’s the executive summary of our proposal (an excruciatingly brief 150 words):
Our nation is the most polarized it’s been since the Pew Research Center started measuring. Whatever the conditions that have allowed divisiveness and the erosion of trust to develop, the basic skills of cooperation, empathy, and listening are not robust enough in our citizenry to respond. Without a solution that equips children with these essential skills, our country’s social fabric will continue to fray. Surprisingly, a solution is hiding in plain sight. Safe and healthy play in school offers an accessible and ubiquitous opportunity to model and develop these skills. Our evidence over 20 years demonstrates how straightforward and cost effective this solution is. The effects are nearly immediate and ripple from the playground to classrooms to the larger community. Playworks has a plan and the capacity to achieve measurable outcomes for 20 million students in 40,000 schools by December 2022, driving the system toward social/emotional learning for future generations.
Ultimately, I think the idea behind the MacArthur prize, the reason we applied, and the reason I wanted to write this blog is the power and importance of sharing big ideas and in going through the exercise of thinking them through. In this spirit, we wanted to share the full application and video (limited to 90 seconds!) that we submitted this past Monday. Please let me know if you have thoughts, and of course, feel free to share with your friends and networks if so inspired.