Behind a Major Think Tank’s New Fund for Promising Problem Solvers

photo: Africa Studio/shutterstock

photo: Africa Studio/shutterstock

The Aspen Institute is a nonpartisan organization that’s been around since 1949, with a rather broad mission of supporting leadership and bringing people together to exchange ideas. It’s among the country’s leading think tanks and a lot of people of significant wealth and influence are fans. With a board of trustees that boasts a Pritzker, a Walton, some big shots from tech and Wall Street, and even an actual queen, the institute is a big draw for philanthropy. 

One example is a pair of funding mechanisms set up by one of the Aspen Institute’s wealthy trustees, Anne Welsh McNulty, to provide unrestricted support to select participants in the think tank’s several fellowship programs. For the past 10 years, McNulty’s family foundation has backed an annual prize of $100,000 and $25,000 runner-up awards, and just extended that program with a new pooled fund of $1.2 million to further support these fellows. 

One of the interesting things about the McNulty Prize and the new Catalyst Fund is just how wide open they are in terms of subject matter and approach, reflecting the big-tent, centrist approach of the institute they’re connected to. 

While the Aspen Institute is perhaps best known for its annual Aspen Ideas Festival, it runs a ton of programs, believing that what it calls “values-based leadership” can make an impact on problems in areas ranging from the environment to education. One such program is the Aspen Global Leadership Network, a suite of 14 fellowships that have collectively awarded more than 2,500 leaders from different sectors to take on a variety of societal challenges. For example, AGLN has fellows working in U.S. public education and health care, Chinese business, and in geographic focus areas like Central America and the Middle East. 

Being an AGLN fellow is the main prerequisite for landing funding from the McNulty Prize or the spinoff Catalyst Fund, so the candidates and winners are similarly working all over the map, in the nonprofit, government and private sectors. The first six winners of the Catalyst Fund, which collectively took home over $100,000, are a good representation of this range. 

The Student DREAMers Alliance is a group in South Carolina that’s working to provide leadership and scholarship opportunities to DACA recipients, while advocating for legislation to protect them (the most political of the grantees). Another recipient is Rare, a global conservation NGO, for its work with local communities to stop the decline of small-scale fisheries. A third example from the mix is global development impact investment fund Acumen, for its fellowship program. 

In particular, the Catalyst Fund, which was formed with a matching grant from the McNulty Foundation and several other donors—is trying to find candidates with a lot of potential at crucial points in their projects' growth.

Supporting leaders is generally a driving force in the McNulty Foundation’s overall programming. The foundation, which gets its wealth mostly from Anne McNulty and her late husband John McNulty’s successful careers at Goldman Sachs, also has programs for women in STEM fields and university-based leadership development. 

In 2016, McNulty gave a $10 million gift to establish the Anne and John McNulty Leadership Program at the Wharton School, where she and her late husband both got their MBAs. That same year, she gave a $5 million gift to Villanova University to establish a new women's leadership institute called the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership, whose aim is to "foster women’s advancement through education, advocacy, community-building and the collaborative creation of new knowledge."

The McNulty programs, and the Aspen Institute, for that matter, have some of that optimism and focus on innovation to solve problems that we see in programs like TED’s growing philanthropic platform. But they differ in that, rather than making “big bets,” they're planting a lot of seeds, backing impressive people taking different approaches, and trying to do so at just the right moments in their endeavors.