by John Trybus, Managing Director

Arts. Culture. Community development. Housing preservation. Juvenile justice reform. Conservation. Peace and security. Health. Public radio and television.

These are but a handful of the many issues that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports through its grant making. The foundation’s mission is to do nothing less than build “a more just, verdant and peaceful world” in Chicago, the U.S. and the world.

MacArthur’s impact is extensive. Consider the numbers for a moment. The foundation, with assets of $5.7 billion, made 497 grants totaling $230 million in 2011 alone. It also is responsible for administering the MacArthur Fellows Program, the so-called genius grant, which every year awards 20 to 25 creative individuals with $500,000 of no-strings-attached funding through a secretive selection process.

“It’s really different than any other institution,” explains today’s social strategist Andy Solomon. “The foundation can really choose to invest its resources as it sees fit and as it thinks will be most impactful without the constraints of fundraising, shareholders or much government regulation and that really makes it a unique place to be.”

Andy is MacArthur’s vice president for public affairs and the man behind the historic foundation’s communications strategy. After posts with such organizations as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Harvard University and others Andy found his way to philanthropy.

“I think that the common thread [running throughout my career] is really about using communications as a tool for social change and trying to find the best way to do that in different settings,” he says.

I caught up with Andy at MacArthur Foundation headquarters in the historic Marquette Building in downtown Chicago to discuss the evolution of communications within foundations. Here’s a preview of his thoughts on the progress of the philanthropy sector:

  • Prioritization of audiences remains of crucial importance. “We really don’t aim to communicate with everyone in the world about everything that we or our grantees are doing,” explains Andy. With a small but mighty communications staff the MacArthur Foundation must prioritize audiences and focus especially on members of the philanthropic community, academics and policy makers.
  • Break down the silos and integrate the communications team in the grant making process. Departments in foundations have worked in silos in the past and that’s a mistake, according to Andy. “We’re moving toward a more consistent involvement of our public affairs team in the development of grant making strategies,” he says. “Having public affairs be a part of thinking about how communications can enhance or extend the reach of grant making even as it’s put together at an early stage.”
  • Traditional boundaries are dissolving and creativity is rising. “I don’t think foundations operate in a vacuum,” Andy says. “I think increasingly the walls that separate or distinguish a foundation from a business, from a nonprofit and from universities are dissolving.” The use of technology and unusual partnerships are two ways in which Andy sees as advancing the sector. One such partnership was a recent grant to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to help address bullying.

Listen to my interview with social strategist Andy Solomon to learn more about the evolution of philanthropy and more about the communications work of the MacArthur Foundation.