As a child, my favorite fairy tales shared a common theme – a king promises an award for the performance of three seemingly impossible tasks with the third typically requiring the taming or slaying of a murderous, fire-breathing dragon. The hero (or, in modern retellings, heroine) succeeds, the kingdom no longer lives in fear of the dragon, and everyone lives happily ever after.
What I liked about these stories was that offering the award allows the king to set a goal (eliminate a dragon) without knowing in advance how to solve the problem or who might solve it. The announcement of an award attracts new talent and ideas from outside the kingdom and creates opportunity for those (e.g., the stable boy) who might not otherwise have a chance to demonstrate their merit. And the competition excites and mobilizes the community that, in the best stories, helps the hero succeed.
But, even in my favorite fairy tales, there is a downside. The hero succeeds, but not before the gruesome demise of many hapless contestants.
Many critics of prize philanthropy are justifiably concerned about this downside. They point to the time and resources devoted by nonprofit organizations to compete in competitions with many participants and only one winner. (See Kevin Starr, “Dump the Prizes,” Stanford Social Innovation Review). We share those concerns, but we recognize that there are some circumstances where a competition is the best philanthropic tool to accelerate solutions to the world’s most compelling problems. While we can’t eliminate the risks, we are working to lower the cost and increase the benefits of participation in four ways:
- Every Lever for Change competition must adhere to our principles of openness, transparency, equity and inclusion. We want potential applicants to understand the rules and judging criteria, to know who will be evaluating their projects, and to have the opportunity to self-assess whether their project is a good fit before they invest time and resources in the application process. We do not want to waste the valuable time of nonprofit leaders.
- Applicants receive constructive feedback at every stage of the review process, including valuable feedback from fellow applicants. Some applicants to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition reported that they used this feedback to revise their proposals and successfully apply for funding from other sources. To date, other funders and philanthropists have committed an additional $419 million to support round one 100&Change applicants.
In a traditional grantmaking process, managed by a few program officers, there is little capacity to provide feedback on all proposals. Lever for Change competitions are able to provide feedback by leveraging a large number of experts who participate on the evaluation panels for competitions.
- Finalists in each competition receive technical assistance, and in most cases, grants in support of their participation in the final stage. Lever for Change’s first client, the Pritzker Traubert Foundation (PTF), has demonstrated an especially strong commitment to strengthening the teams and organizations rated highly by its evaluation panel. Each of the six finalists for PTF’s Chicago Prize is receiving a $100,000 planning grant from PTF and will have access to in-kind technical assistance to support efforts to refine their proposals. In addition, 14 other teams whose applications were highly ranked by the reviewers will receive a $10,000 award to support their ongoing work and planning. The Pritzker Traubert Foundation took our modest ideas about openness, transparency, and value-add for all participants and amplified and scaled them.
- We will use the Bold Solutions Network, which launches on February 19, to market to other donors the top-scoring proposals from every Lever for Change competition. Each project in the Bold Solutions Network will have access to an array of supports designed to strengthen their ability to absorb and deploy large grants. From our experience with 100&Change and the Chicago Prize, we know that each competition will generate more than one compelling and fundable idea. Our experience with the inaugural round of 100&Change proved that sharing a database of pre-vetted ideas, coupled with curatorial services, is an attractive resource for funders.
Indeed, we see the Bold Solutions Network, more so than the customized competitions, as essential to our goal of unlocking significant philanthropic capital for social change.
Enjoying fairy tales is not the same as believing in fairy tales. We are still in the early stages of testing whether our approach to unlocking significant philanthropic capital will work. Lever for Change is committed to ongoing assessment of the competition model and of the Bold Solutions Network’s services. We will share what we learn on our website and through these newsletters. Please stay tuned!