John Mohr and Sam Caplan: Democratizing Philanthropy with the Common App

In this episode of Impact Audio, John Mohr, Chief Information Officer of the MacArthur Foundation, discusses how a common grant application could revolutionize the sector.

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John Mohr and Sam Caplan: Democratizing Philanthropy with the Common App

31 MIN. Join Submittable with special guest John Mohr, Chief Information Officer of the MacArthur Foundation, in conversation about his efforts to create a common grant application.

 

Description:

Philanthropy’s latest evolutions have been focused on streamlining processes and centering the community. Inspired by the incredible momentum around reducing grantee burden, a small group of experts has come together to lay the groundwork for a more universal common grant application. In this episode of Impact Audio, you’ll hear from John Mohr who is at the forefront of this effort. 

Listen in to learn about:

  • What’s next for the common grant application

  • Technology’s shift from a supporting role to key pillar of strategy

  • Where higher education and grantmaking overlap

  • John’s path from punk rock musician to philanthropy pioneer

Drawing inspiration from indie music, ‘90s startups, university life, and more, this conversation is full of insights and stories that will strike a chord with anyone working in grantmaking, philanthropy, or social impact.

Guests:

Picture of your guest, John Mohr

John Mohr

John Mohr is the Chief Information Officer at the MacArthur Foundation. He oversees Foundation-wide technology services and planning and is responsible for developing a strong and sustainable information technology infrastructure. 

Prior to joining the MacArthur Foundation in 2012, John was the Director of Academic Systems at the University of Chicago. The 20 enterprise applications he supported serve student, academic, and campus activities. He planned initiatives across the academic and student IT areas. In previous roles at the university, John was the Director of the Web Services department where he led the redesign of the university's website. He also led the Project Management office and the implementation of the Alumni Development system. Prior to that, John led IT teams at early stage technology companies in Seattle, Washington. He was a key member of the leadership teams and had responsibility for technical operations, product development, strategic planning, and key relationships with technology partners and investors.

Picture of your guest, Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan is the Vice President of Social Impact at Submittable. Inspired by the amazing work performed by grantmakers of all stripes, at Submittable, Sam strives to help them achieve their missions through better, more effective software. Sam has served as founder of New Spark Strategy, Chief Information Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, and director of technology at the Walmart Foundation. He consults, advises, and writes prolifically on social impact technology, strategy, and innovation. Sam recently published a series of whitepapers with the Technology Association of Grantmakers titled “The Strategic Role of Technology in Philanthropy.”

Transcript:

Episode notes:

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Here are the people, organizations, and ideas John and Sam refer to, in the order they are mentioned:

Interested in more quality content focused on reducing grantee burden and improving equity? Here are a few Submittable resources:

Full Transcript

Welcome to Impact Audio. I’m Keriann Strickland, CMO at Submittable

Today’s episode features a conversation between Sam Caplan, Submittable’s VP of Social Impact and John Mohr.

John is the Chief Information Officer of the MacArthur Foundation. He oversees Foundation-wide technology services and planning, and is responsible for developing a strong and sustainable infrastructure. With a background in higher education, experience working with startups, and a long tenure in the punk band Tar, John brings a unique perspective and a well of creativity to his work.

And now, John and Sam

SAM: Alright, John Mohr, chief information officer at the John D and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Welcome to Impact Audio, my friend. 

JOHN MOHR: Thanks for having me. 

SAM: So I thought maybe we should just start by-- everybody would love to hear your origin story as it relates to philanthropy. Tell us how you wound up at MacArthur Foundation. 

JOHN MOHR: Yeah, so not a traditional career path, I guess, is what I would say.So in the mid-nineties I moved to Seattle. I had a bit of a background in management information systems. That was my undergraduate degree in operations management. So it was a business degree. But was really excited about technology. 

And then, along came this thing called the internet, which seemed like a total game changer. 

But I moved to Seattle in '95 determined to work for a startup. Got a startup job in late '95. That lasted two years. Acquisition suddenly working for a public company closed its little division. In Seattle, we were selling software over the internet, if you can imagine that, back then in the what 50 56 k modem days. 

Second company startup was selling content—community and e-commerce called the Mountain Zone. That was another two year stint including acquisition working for a public company. Realized at that point that public companies and me didn't get along real well. 

And in 2002, I started working at the University of Chicago leading an internal web development team, which was both applications—so you could think of it as maybe digital transformation (pre that term)—and then working with communications for things like the public facing website or departmental or divisional websites. 

So that was a—I did that for, I think, three or four or five years, somewhere in there. And that was a good-sized group of a couple dozen people. Then, helped implement a development fundraising system for the university. That was an 18-ish month project. 

Then, the last few years I was there, I ran academic systems, which is all of those systems related to students. And also, admissions.

And so it was sort of a combination of innovation, modern technologies, and then large enterprise systems. There's no excitement like opening up your website and 15,000 students all registering for classes at the same time. 

So however, after a couple of years of that, I noticed a pattern in the academic calendar and felt like my role was becoming kind of routine and felt like maintenance. So I started looking elsewhere. 

And then, the fabulous opportunity at MacArthur came up. Applied for that and just thought, well, what the heck? Maybe I have a shot. And it's been almost 9 and 1/2 years now. 

SAM: I'm wondering, once you got to MacArthur, did working for a large foundation that grants hundreds of millions of dollars to the community. Did that sort of start changing your perspective about the work that you're doing? Did you develop sort of a different sense of purpose or meaning around the work that you do? 

JOHN MOHR: I think it was a continuum.So at the university, there's maybe 18,000 students now and 20,000 staff and faculty. So you're a little cog in this big city. But it's both abstract and that the students and researchers are there and the objective of the university is to create knowledge. So I totally support that and it's inspiring during convocation or graduation days to see these students or see them walk in on the first day of class. 

So that idea of changing the world fit totally with MacArthur. Except that MacArthur has something like 200 people total. So my opportunity for personal impact proportionately is much greater. Interestingly, the size of MacArthur's endowment is similar to the size of the University of Chicago's endowment, which at the time I think was around $6 billion. 

So that's quite a difference, right? When you've got a university with that kind of endowment or a foundation with a targeted set of program areas and big bets and whatnot. So I still like to think that my work aspires to and hopefully helps change the world in some way. But there's a consistency there in terms of that motivation and incentive. 

So the pursuit of quarterly goals, financial goals, and measuring yourself by that or how the Wall Street or the market measures you just has never really clicked for me. And so intrinsic motivation or some kind of passion really resonates with me. And that's the case even going back to pre that 25 years when I was an independent musician and we were bootstrapping and driving around the country in a van and doing it for the love and passion of what we were doing. 

SAM: One thing that—I used to be able to say I don't think a lot of people know this about you and I don't think I can say that anymore. I actually think more and more and more people actually are recognizing you from your days as being in the band Tar in Chicago. What I would say is a famous punk rock band that has come out of Chicago. 

You were on a big label. You toured the country. You toured the world multiple times. So give us a little bit more background about your days as a punk rock star. And then, let's talk about how that influences your work today. 

JOHN MOHR: Yeah, so Tar existed actively from '88 through '95. I graduated from college in '87. There was a precursor band to Tar. But we evolved into Tar. We played hundreds of shows. I don't know how many tours of the US. And then, lots of smaller jaunts and three tours of Europe. Four albums, two EPs, a whole bunch of singles and odds and ends. 

But the Indie rock, if you will, was about a DIY ethic doing things yourself. Getting on the phone to arrange gigs. A lot of networking and grassroots kind of communication and support with interested like-minded people. 

Again, it was really sort of about the pursuit of the music and the satisfaction in creating it, not for some higher level aspirations of stardom or some sort of level of fame. So the success, I think, was measured by one, doing what you wanted to do. Finding out that others enjoyed or appreciated or valued it. And then, just creating things that didn't exist before. Making music. In this case, and artists are creating all kinds of things. 

So it was its own satisfaction. It wasn't about any sort of stardom objectives or things like that. 

SAM: I'm wondering, do you have a connection with the work that you're doing at MacArthur today to your years playing guitar and touring the country and just doing things for the sheer love of it? 

JOHN MOHR: So I think one thing in this relates I believe to IT careers, in general, is one of both humility and optimism. And maybe I'd contrast it a little in my startup years, which were largely technology-driven companies where technology was the star of the show, which was pretty exciting. And other organizations, technology is in a supporting role. But we should get back to whether or not that's where it is or should be today. 

So sort of being OK with that and being, I don't know, humble, I guess, is a lesson or something to keep in mind. Doing this kind of-- being an Indie rock musician is a lot of work. Writing songs, you're driving your own vehicles, you're booking your own shows, you're doing your own publicity. 

So just roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. On the other hand, over a period of time, you can accomplish quite a lot and it can be impressive. It's not for me to judge whether or not my music stuff's impressive. But certainly, it was productive. 

I think the other thing-- so there's a lot of hard work and there's no getting around it. I think the people I've most appreciated interacting with and being associated with and admiring have had a lot of integrity and a lot of honesty. And along those lines, carry themselves well. 

And as a result, I can feel good about the way I've operated and behaved and interacted with others. And I think that's important as well, right? 

And that can tie into then leadership qualities, right? If you're behaving with integrity and honesty and authenticity, that's meaningful and that's powerful. I think, now flipping to the professional side, one of the things I'm most proud of and satisfied with is continually creating strong, high performing teams. It's hard to do. 

But developing high-performing teams that are sustainable even after the leader leaves really makes a statement about the strength of the team. 

SAM: Right, one thing I think that I discovered as I made my way sort of deeper into leadership in the world of philanthropy is that IT teams, particularly at grant making organizations, are really entrepreneurial and very scrappy. You typically never have the resources that you really want to be able to get everything done that people are asking you to do. And so you have to really think very creatively and sort of outside the box. 

And really figure out how to meet everybody's needs and how to, I think, transition the world view of technology from being in that supporting role that you mentioned to sort of a more strategic place. And I would ask, to that end, where do you feel like MacArthur is in its technology journey? Over the last 10 years, based on all that you've done at MacArthur and your vision for the future? Do you feel like IT at MacArthur is becoming more strategic? 

JOHN MOHR: Yes is the direct answer. I think we've come a long way in that time. And to be strategic, you've got to have good relationships with any number of people at the organization. One of the things I did when I joined MacArthur was I looked at an org chart, which at the time was kind of hard to get, which was interesting and maybe a little bit telling. 

But then, as I started talking to people, I made an impact chart of those who I thought had influence and power within the organization. And tried to navigate and lead with that in mind. So you may have thought leaders at various levels of an organization and that's important to keep in mind. 

I think the biggest change in terms of that progression has been a couple of years ago when our President John Palfrey joined the foundation. And he has a very strong technology background and has used that when he led the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

So the question that John posed to me shortly after joining that still rattles in my head is, how can technology be used more strategically in the sector? And John was the third president at MacArthur in the time I've been there and the first that asked that question. 

So that reflects a transition from a supporting role or an administrative capacity into one of both leadership and strong influence. And then, the opportunity for innovation as well. 

SAM: And speaking of innovation, everybody is really interested in watching MacArthur like on a number of fronts. And in our little corner of the sector, that would be like, what's MacArthur doing like from an IT perspective? And I think there's a lot of eyes on your organization and your team to learn from what you're doing and how you're doing it and a real appetite to gather information on what mistakes have you made and what have you learned and what's next in line for the team at MacArthur. 

And now, you are-- you and your colleague Elizabeth are leading a really interesting project with a cohort of other funders exploring something called a common grant application. And by the way, I think this is probably one of the most intriguing topics in philanthropy today. Everybody is really interested in figuring out if there is a place for a common grant application in philanthropy. So would you mind giving us a little background on this project and what you think is next in line for this? 

JOHN MOHR: Yeah, let's see, so maybe a little bit broader and then going into it. The reason I have the time or capacity to do this and work on this is because of the digital transformation that occurred in building that high performing team. And that took a good, I'll say, half dozen years. 

So that effort, to me, is informed by a few things. One is if you don't like the state of things, whether it's music or the way information is conveyed, find willing and committed partners and figure out how to solve those problems. 

So let's talk about our sector. So here we have grant seekers who have limited funds and assets, which is why they're seeking grants. Spending a significant amount of time, 20 hours, 30 hours, 40 hours on an application depending on how extensive it is and sending it hopefully online. And again, we went online with our modern system six years ago. So I'll let you guess what we did prior to that. 

But that was 2015. And so you spend dozens of hours submitting your app. And it goes somewhere and then you hear something at some point. And then, when you need to send another application, you spend a very similar amount of time, as a grant seeker, submitting that and submitting that and submitting that. 

So if you're a well-resourced organization, you've got grant writers. But it's the same information, right? I mean, at least a chunk of it is. And we've learned from the 100 forms in 100 days and from the project I'm working on that somewhere between 35% and 40% of that information is the same information app after app. 

So why can't that information be shared from funder to funder or recipient to recipient? So from a technology perspective, we know this is possible. And in fact, from my time in higher ed, when I supported admissions, I saw that change happen when the common app happened in the field of admissions. And it took a couple of years to happen. There was naysayers who said it couldn't happen. But it did. And now that is a standard that happens in the admissions systems. I'll support that and have interoperability with that data. 

And that isn't necessarily the genesis of this, but rather, the need and desire to better support grant seekers to more effectively and efficiently apply for grants. And then, hopefully, in more to follow on this through process improvement and hopefully transformation more broadly, get quicker access to that capital. I mean, some of that is operational and process change, which is certainly related. 

So our effort is common grant app for philanthropy is to, one, understand what these common elements are. And I think we've understood that now. Present a model for how this data can be shared in an extensible way and in an interoperable way. And there's models for that. 

And then, once there is greater—and that's what our effort right now is targeting for is a proof of concept to demonstrate how this can be shared and what that paradigm looks like. And once we deliver that in the fall—later in the fall, then we'll look to add more participants to our effort. 

We currently have a small number of partner orgs. We call it the minimally viable coalition of six other funders working on this. But the models for data sharing standardization exist and they have demonstrated the benefit of that. So at a high level, that's what our project intends to do. 

But the priority, and I think, the equitable priority is around the grant seeker getting the benefit and the grant seeker controlling their own information and determining how they want that to be shared. 

SAM: Right, so in many ways, a common grant application just beautifully aligns with so many of the movements that we saw emerge over the course of the last couple of years in grant making, like trust-based philanthropy and participatory grant making, streamlining work and reducing administrative burden. 

And I think it's super interesting you mentioned that based on the work that TAG did with their 100 forms project and based on your own analysis, you're discovering that somewhere less than half, but maybe around half of the questions that are on most grant applications are the same or very similar. 

And so the real beauty here is that an applicant or a non-profit organization can complete that 40% to 50% of data that is common to so many applications out there and just do it once and not have to do it over and over and over again, right? And save potentially hundreds or even thousands of hours in terms of saved administrative effort. 

JOHN MOHR: Or alternately, that time could then be spent on talking about the work itself or spending it on the work and not on writing grant applications. You think about how data can be shared. And so we could flip back to the democratization of information, or even to the earliest idealistic objectives of the internet or at least of the world wide web and what was possible. 

I mean, I'm not going to be naive or innocent enough to say that we're going to have that kind of impact. But when data can be shared in a low cost, low friction way, all kinds of innovation and benefit can occur. 

SAM: Do you think that a common app could have occurred had it not been for all of the events that happened over the course of last year? And the reason that I ask is that there are a lot of examples of attempts being made at developing a common application. And some of them have been more successful than others. We know a lot of the regional grant makers have had some success in developing a common application that was used with dozens or even hundreds of funders. 

But in the end, those efforts always seem to fizzle out. But I would speculate that with all of the emphasis that we saw on making grant making more equitable and addressing the power imbalance between funders and applicants, it was almost a perfect storm that led to MacArthur Foundation leading the effort to develop what may become a common application that is finally accepted on a wide scale across philanthropy. 

JOHN MOHR: I think a lot of the right things are in place. You talk about equity, I think that's certainly one. I think the pandemic that we are in the midst of invites all types of creativity and creative thinking to figure out how we can make something good out of what we're all in the midst of. The technologies are there. 

But I think the effort needs to be a collaborative cooperative one. It's not going to happen through a competitive kind of situation. So that limits, perhaps, the field of who could lead this. I think a lot of organizations could. Getting either the bandwidth or executive support is really important. So I'm feeling fortunate that we've got John Palfrey as our leader and that he highly values and prioritizes this. 

Again, in my own professional personal professional situation, I have some bandwidth because I've built a great, strong team. I'm also hearing and talking to the grants management software companies. A lot of receptivity. I'm hearing a lot of interest and support from organizations that provide a very important infomediary kind of role. Who have large amounts of data on grantees or nonprofits. 

Those aren't always the same as the grant seekers or grant seekers likely outnumber those who get grants. But that's impressive as well. The lower friction evolution of APIs and the greater utilization of those, and certainly, in different sectors. If you look at the financial sector in Fintech, it's just an astounding amount of innovation. And because standards exist there, now, there's also incredible investment. 

Our sector is not there yet. So there's an opportunity there to utilize that. But the models exist in other sectors. So it's certainly as good a time as any. It's going to take a lot of effort and persistence and probably resilience. I mean, as we try to move this forward, we may have some missteps and we may have some failures. But back to the humility. We're trying to figure it out and that's OK. 

If you've ever been performing live and had someone throw an object at you that may or may not be full of something you learn about resilience in a real time aspect. So I guess I'm ready for that. 

SAM: I'm ready for that, too. And I really appreciate the fact that MacArthur is one of several funders who has stepped forward now to help spearhead the work. And to your point around interoperability and data standardization, something like a common application can really help usher in some of these data standards that have emerged in other sectors and have become so powerful. 

And I think, with a common grant application, we may finally have the ability to start to look at data that has been normalized across multiple foundations and multiple grant management systems. And start to see some insights in that data that are impossible to see otherwise. So I think it's super exciting. 

JOHN MOHR: I want to add—so to that percentage, when I shared those numbers early on with someone I was trying to gauge their interest level with, they were super enthusiastic and optimistic, which was a pleasant surprise for me. And they said, gosh, if we could even get 20%, that would be amazing. 

But there's a lot of data being collected. Most recently, DEI information. I've heard from a colleague who runs a nonprofit that as she was filling out applications, she kept getting asked DEI information, which is understandable. But it was consistently slightly different. And so perhaps, and hopefully, there can be some nudging or influencing and saying, here's—I don't know, 20—two dozen DEI questions. 

But as we look at these, we're really asking the same eight questions or something. And could we say these are the starting point for the DEI questions, these eight. And so suddenly—so then, can we do something there that gets that 40%, to 43%, or 45%? 

And so you play that out with some encouragement and nudging and visibility. So we're at a starting point, right? So again, thinking optimistically, can that number get higher? We need to get agreement around a paradigm of how this information is shared and how it's governed. But then, what can we do from a continuous improvement perspective as we collectively see what this information looks like? 

So more reasons to be optimistic. 

SAM: Yeah, I totally agree. I think that the work that you and your other funders and nonprofits in the cohort—I think the work that you're doing is really going to help usher in a new era of grantmaking. And more importantly, a new mindset around change for so many grantmakers out there. 

So I'm excited to see the fruits of your labor when the proof of concept is published. And I will have you back on for another episode of Impact Audio to hear about phase two of this exciting project. 

JOHN MOHR: That sounds good. I do want to add—let's see, something about collaboration, and maybe there's an edit in here somewhere. So one of the—and this was true in music and in building teams. One of the most satisfying aspects of my work is having good collaborators. And so you mentioned Liz Kane. And she and I worked together that half dozen plus years ago to implement our grants management system. 

And working with her on this common grant app for philanthropy project is part of, I think, what gives me optimism and satisfaction both in our likelihood to succeed and also just in doing it every day. And so I'm thrilled to be on this podcast with you, Sam. But truly, like that effort and many others, and certainly, as we seek to influence the sector are going to be collaborations, not just with Liz as my colleague at MacArthur, but with other funders and technology firms and infomediaries throughout the sector. 

And I think to your point about trust-based philanthropy, we see things like Mackenzie Scott's work. And that's both inspiring and a reflection of how disruptive approaches can have a huge impact, which I think is also something that is great to see right now and is also inspiring. And hopefully, it encourages other organizations to rethink things like unrestricted funding with a significantly lower bar on an application and on due diligence. 

Thanks for joining us. Check out our episode notes for more great reading on how technology is spurring transformation. 

Impact Audio is edited and produced by Jordan Marvin and our crew at Submittable. Submittable is a cloud-based social impact platform designed to help your team make better decisions and have a bigger impact. We’d love to partner with you to maximize social good and create lasting change—find out more at Submittable.com. And until next time, take good care.

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