• September 22, 2014

MacArthur Prize Winners Use Data, Communications, and Technology Creatively

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The National Housing Trust advocates for better housing for low-income families and rents out apartments poor people can afford.

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The National Housing Trust advocates for better housing for low-income families and rents out apartments poor people can afford.

The National Housing Trust doesn’t just advocate for better housing policies to help the needy—it also offers housing that poor people can afford to rent.

The group has overseen the development of 25,000 low-cost apartments in 41 states and has financed $1-billion in affordable housing since 2001.

It now owns and operates 3,000 apartments, which gives the nonprofit credibility when it talks to lawmakers about how housing regulations affect real people, says Michael Bodaken, the group’s executive director.

He says his comments to lawmakers are always fresh “because we’re always in the market.”

The group’s mix of advocacy and service helped it earn a $1-million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of seven groups the grant maker is honoring today with its Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

The prizes are awarded to organizations the foundation has supported in the past, and like its “genius” fellowships for individuals, nobody can apply for the award.

Instead, staff members nominate the groups they think deserve recognition.

“We don’t select the recipients for any one project,” says Robert Gallucci, MacArthur’s president. “Rather, we find their overall approaches to be highly creative and to have outsized impact in bringing about social change.”

As a group, says Mr. Gallucci, this year’s winners “reflect some of what is working best to achieve impact in the nonprofit community today: using evidence to inform and impact public discourse and public policy, using effective and creative communications to further program goals, and applying technology in powerful and innovative ways.”

Money for Growth

The seven nonprofit organizations MacArthur honored this year each received up to $1-million for operations and to support their long-term growth and sustainability.

The charities are receiving different amounts depending on their budget size, and the money can’t account for more than 70 percent of an organization’s annual budget.

The National Housing Trust will invest its prize money in new business ventures, using the additional income to further its work to renovate and make environmentally friendly improvements to its apartment buildings.

Specifically, the MacArthur grant will help the group pursue options to make low-cost housing more energy efficient in ways that other organizations could copy, says Mr. Bodaken.

Curbing Crime

Several nonprofits that were honored this year use a data-driven approach to their work.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab studies human behavior through randomized, controlled trials “of the sort that provide gold-standard evidence in medicine but remain far too rare in the policy arena,” says Jens Ludwig, director of the Crime Lab and a professor of social-service administration, law, and public policy at the university’s Harris School of Public Policy. His group uses its research to inform policy decisions that aim to curb violent crime.

One of the Crime Lab’s key projects has drawn attention from the nation’s top policy maker.

The Becoming a Man program provides tutoring and guidance to male students in grades 7 through 12 at some of Chicago’s most crime-riddled schools.

Results of one trial have been significant: Data show that program enrollment reduced violent-crime arrests among participating students by 44 percent, cut weapons crimes and vandalism by 36 percent, and increased the likelihood of high-school graduation by up to 23 percent.

The results caught the eye of President Obama, who visited students in the program last year, sharing with them some of the mistakes he made and overcame when he was a teenager.

The Crime Lab will put its $1-million MacArthur grant toward developing new methods of research, establishing an innovation fund, and beginning research projects in other cities.

The other MacArthur prize winners are:

  • The Campaign Legal Center, which seeks to teach the public about campaign finance. Most famously, it teamed up with the comedian Stephen Colbert to establish a super political action committee. The nonpartisan Washington group will use its $750,000 prize to replenish cash reserves and redesign its website.
  • The Citizen Lab, which uses data analysis to expose illegal online-tracking activities by government entities. Based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, it will use its $1-million grant to establish an endowment and expand its communications programs.
  • NatureServe, an environmental group in Arlington, Va. It will use its $1-million for a five-year strategic plan to expand its monitoring and evaluation of conservation projects.
  • ProPublica, a nonprofit in New York doing investigative journalism. The $1-million from MacArthur will support the group’s cash reserves and expand reporting on child welfare, immigration, online security, and sports finance.
  • Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative, in Abuja, Nigeria. It will use its $750,000 for a facility with a library, an auditorium, and a hostel to shelter women and children fleeing abuse.
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