The MacArthur Foundation, better known for offering so-called genius grants each year to individuals, will now recognize small non-profit organizations. The groups are diverse and are in different countries, but the foundation's president says they are all at critical points in their development, where they will benefit from the monetary award and the recognition it brings.
Innocent Chukwuma's experience with his country's police began in the 1980s, when he was a student activist. He spent 30 days in a Nigerian jail in 1988, which gave him an insight into the country's prison system. The conditions were indeed horrible, but he said what made an even stronger impression on him were the frank talks he had with the guards about their experiences.
"So, I got to see the other side of the police and prison officials, which made me to agree to do the work," he said.
In January 1998, he founded the CLEEN Foundation, a center for law enforcement education that promotes respect for human rights, and cooperation between Nigerian law enforcement agencies and society.
"They work with the police but they also are monitoring police activity, but I think what's very interesting is that it's not simply standing on the outside criticizing it. It's really trying to work with reform elements within the police force to help them do a better job." explained Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation.
Mr. Fanton just named the CLEEN Foundation one of the nine winners of its new creativity awards for small non-profits groups.
"This award spans all of the places we work, including the United States," he added. "But I think it's particularly important, for organizations outside the United States, and in countries undergoing a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy and free markets, it is often the independent organization, the NGO, that is leading the way, in that transition."
Other countries represented include India, Mexico, Peru and Russia. Fanton said the award to the Russian group, the Independent Council of Legal Expertise, is especially timely, following a new Russian law curtailing the activities of non-governmental groups.
"One vulnerability that many NGOs in Russia have is that they rent their space from government agencies," he noted. "And that makes them more vulnerable to influence and pressure and I thought it was interesting that the Independent Council of Legal Expertise decided to use its award money to buy a permanent office."
Fanton says recipients cannot apply for the MacArthur award, but are instead nominated by MacArthur staff members. The foundation gives grants in 65 countries. Its creativity awards range from $250,000 to $500,000, based largely on the size of the organization.
"There's no one size fits all. There's not a template that we impose. We really want to listen and learn and hear from the organizations about how we could help them," he said.
One of the American recipients, the North Lawndale Employment Network, runs an urban beekeeping and honey production program that offers jobs and skills-training to formerly incarcerated or low-income people in Chicago.
Executive Director Brenda Palms Barber says the very welcome MacArthur award will help her organization retire its debt and set up a cash reserve.
"[It's] Exhilarating," she said. "Because I think that sometimes, small organizations are overlooked for some of the amazing, creative work that can happen. And often times, people think that in order for you to have a big impact in the world, it has to be clearly a huge, well-established, long-standing organization."
Another recipient, Knowledge Ecology International, works to loosen patent laws that keep essential medicines prohibitively expensive for people in the developing world. The group's James Love referred to the better-known MacArthur genius awards, which are presented annually to individuals. He said, jokingly, that although he would have been happy to receive all the money, personally, he applauds the recognition given to non-profit groups.
"I think a lot of what's happening right now in the world, which is important, is collaborative efforts, that involve organizations, not just one person," he noted. "So, although I would love it if they had given me half a million dollars. I think it's pretty cool that they reward the organization's efforts because I think nothing happens without these collaborative efforts."
The new MacArthur prizes will be awarded in a ceremony in Chicago in October.