Let’s start with some possible institutional failures in mainstream philanthropy. Many foundations have large staffs, and so a proposal must go through several layers of approval before it can receive support or even reach the desk of the final decision-maker. Too many vetoes are possible, which means relatively conservative, consensus-oriented proposals emerge at the end of the process. Furthermore, each layer of approval is enmeshed in an agency game, further cementing the conservatism. It is not usually career-enhancing to advance a risky or controversial proposal to one’s superiors.
There is yet another bias: the high fixed costs of processing any request discriminate against very small proposals, which either are not worthwhile to approve or they are never submitted in the first place.
Finally, foundations often become captured by their staffs. The leaders become fond of their staffs, try to keep them in the jobs, regard the staff members as a big part of their audience, and adopt the perspectives of their staffs, more so as time passes. That encourages conservatism all the more, because the foundation leaders do not want their staffs to go away, and so they act to preserve financial and reputational capital.
To restate those biases:
- Too much conservatism
- Too few very small grants
- Too much influence for staff
So how might those biases be remedied?
Why not experiment with only a single layer of no?
Have a single individual say yes or no on each proposal — final word, voila! Of course that individual can use referees and conferees as he or she sees fit.
The single judge could be an expert in some of the relevant subject areas of the proposals (that is sometimes the case in foundations, but even then the expertise of the foundation evaluators can decay).
This arrangement also can promise donors 100% transmission of their money to recipients, or close to that. If someone gives $1 million to the fund, the award winners receive the full $1 million. This is rare in non-profits. (In the case of Emergent Ventures there are unbudgeted time costs for me and my assistant, who prints out the proposals, and the paper costs of the printing get charged to general operating expenses at Mercatus. Still, a $1 million grant at the margin leads to $1 million in actual awards. I am not paid to do this.)
The solo evaluator — if he or she has the right skills of temperament and judgment — can take risks with the proposals, unencumbered by the need to cover fixed costs and keep “the foundation” up and running. Think of it as a “pop-up foundation,” akin to a pop-up restaurant, and you know who is the chef in the kitchen. It is analogous to a Singaporean food stall, namely with low fixed costs, small staff, and the chef’s ability to impose his or her own vision on the food.
Once a fixed sum of money is given away, and the mission of the project (beneficial social change) has been furthered, “the foundation” goes away. No one is laid off. Rather than crying over a vanquished institutional empire and laid off friends/co-workers, the solo evaluator in fact has a chance to get back to personally profitable work. It was “lean and mean” all along, except it wasn’t mean.
The risk-taking in grant decisions is consistent with the incentives of the evaluator, consistent with the level of staffing (zero), and consistent with the means of the evaluator. A solo evaluator, no matter how talented, does not have the resources to make and tie down multiple demands for complex deliverables. Rather, a solo evaluator is likely to think (or not) — “hmm…there is some potential in this one.” The wise solo evaluator is likely to look for projects that have real upside through realizing the autonomous visions of their self-starting creators, rather than projects that appear bureaucratically perfect.
And how about the incentives of the solo evaluator? Well, a fixed amount of time is being given up, so what is the point in making safe, consensus selections with the awards? The solo evaluator, in addition to pursuing the mission of the fund, will tend to seek out grants that will boost his or her reputation as a finder of talent. You might worry that an evaluator, even if fully honest will self-deceive somewhat, and use some of these grants to promote his or her own interests. I would say donate your money to an evaluator who you are happy to see rise in status.
In other words, the basic vision of Emergent Ventures, the incentives, and its means are all pretty consistent.
The solo evaluator also has the power to make very small grants, simply by issuing a decision in their favor at very low fixed cost. Alchian and Allen theorem! That helps remedy the bias against small grants in the broader foundation world.
The single evaluator of course is going to make some mistakes, but so do foundations. And the costs of these evaluator mistakes have to be weighed against the other upsides of this method.
In my view, at least two percent of philanthropy should be run this way, and right now in the foundation world it is about zero percent. So I am trying to change this at the margin.
How does this idea scale? What if it worked really well? How would we do more of it?
Well, it is not practical for this solo evaluator to handle a larger and larger portfolio of grant requests. Even if he or she were so inclined, that would bring us back to the problems of institutionalized foundations. The ideal scaling is that other, competing “chefs” set up their own pop-up foundations. Imagine a philanthropic world where, next year, you could give a million dollars to the Steven Pinker pop-up, to the Jhumpa Lahiri pop-up, to the Jordan Peterson intellectual venture fund, and so on. Three years later, you would have an entirely different choice, say intellectual venture funds from Ezra Klein, David Brooks, and Skip Gates, among others. The evaluators either could donate some of their time, as I am doing, or charge a fee for performing this service. You also could imagine a major foundation carving off a separate section of their activities, and running this experiment on their own, with an evaluator of their choosing.
In a subsequent post, I will discuss how this model relates to the classical age of patronage running through the Renaissance, into the 18th century, and often into the 20th century as well, often through the medium of individual giving. I also will consider how this relates to classic venture capital and the relevant economics behind “deal flow.”
In the meantime, I am repeating the list of the first cohort of Emergent Ventures winners. That link also directs you to relevant background if Emergent Ventures is new to you.