What We Know - and Don't Know - about Philanthropic Competitions

Throughout history, competitions have produced innovative ideas, creative solutions, and even new industries. In 1795, for example, Napoleon Bonaparte launched the Food Preservation Prize seeking a safe way to store food. Nicolas Francois Appert eventually won the prize (12,000 francs, equivalent to about $36,000 today) for his solution, which sealed boiled food in airtight champagne bottles. And in 1927, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean in one flight, Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize, originally launched in 1919 as “a stimulus to courageous aviators.”

Jeff Ubois, VP of Knowledge Managament
Caption: Jeff Ubois, VP of Knowledge Managament

Today, competitions of some shape or form are hard to miss, having grown dramatically in number, scope, and prize amount. In the first half of 2021 alone, high-profile individuals and organizations announced well over $100 million in philanthropic competitions aimed at big societal issues, including:

  • Elon Musk’s $100 Million Prize for Carbon Removal;
  • The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Earthshot Prize, which began recruiting in early 2021 and will award five £1 million prizes per year over 10 years;
  • Google.org’s $25 million Impact Challenge for Women and Girls; and
  • The $22 million Stronger Democracy Award, announced by Lever for Change and ICONIQ Impact.

Indeed, competitions are more popular than ever even as debate around their long-term impact continues. Understanding who sponsors them, how they manage them, and toward what goals may help explain their resilience and their potential future.

To that end, Lever for Change commissioned a study to better understand the broad and diverse landscape of prizes and competitions. The study, researched and written by Yoon-Chan Kim, identified more than 580 prizes and competitions from the past 50 years, did a deep analysis of more than 160 prizes and competitions from 2020, and included interviews with more than 50 donors, senior executives, government officials, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, and academic scholars. An executive summary of the study highlights the key insights, which include:

  • The number of application-based prizes and competitions jumped from 36 in the period from 2005-2009 to almost 600 from 2015-2020.
  • Prizes and competitions share common themes and priorities and tend to look for “impact” and “innovation.”
  • Sponsors have different motivations for launching competitions, and their definitions of success vary. Some seek to improve conditions for the public, while others benefit from more private gains, such as increasing their network or knowledge.
  • Some reservations remain about competitions, including their perceived risk, criticisms of their lack of equity, and questions around effectiveness and their returns on investment. 

The study also found gaps in the landscape, most notably a significant lack of evaluation after the prize is awarded. Filling this evaluation gap could help us learn more about how much impact they deliver and for whom, making for a more informed debate and potentially leading to more effective competitions.

"They are not new, but competitions can break new ground and open doors to new networks and new ideas."

In the meantime, there are many important lessons we can learn from today’s successful prizes and competitions. Here are a few:

  1. Learn from others. Seek out similar competitions. If the prize is large, consider working with an organization that has run prizes similar to the one you are designing. Engage with other funders early. They can help recruit applicants and provide expertise and even additional funds. 
  2. Build equity into the process. At their best, competitions help donors break out of their bubbles and consider more than the usual grantees, without a reliance on pre-existing social connections. Budget enough to recruit a wide range of participants to avoid “the Matthew Effect” (to those that have, more shall be given). 
  3. Make eligibility criteria widely available and easy to follow. Be honest about the chances of funding and match the complexity of the application to the award size. Before you launch, check the criteria with as many people as you can. Are the criteria clear? Do people of different backgrounds in the applicant pool, judging panel, and target audience understand them in the same way? Are they complete, or might they exclude something wonderful? 
  4. Decide how you intend to manage the relationships with participants after the award is announced. Do you want them to report back on their projects? Will you set milestones tied to a gradual payout? Will you request an evaluation of the projects? 
  5. Plan to share information. Publishing the information and proposals gathered in the process benefits the prize participants who are not funded initially (because they may come to the attention of other funders) and can provide insights for others working on the issue that is being addressed.

History is rife with examples of competitions. They are not new, but competitions can break new ground and open doors to new networks and new ideas. We can and should learn from today’s many competitions and ensure that all participants benefit from the process thereby producing many “winners.” 

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This post was originally published on Giving Compass, October 12, 2022. Giving Compass is an online publication which aims to help impact-driven donors transform their generosity into meaningful change for communities and society.

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