Competitions as a form for philanthropic grantmaking have undergone a renaissance. To better understand the motivations and methods of the donors implementing these contests, we researched the landscape of philanthropic competitions and were surprised by some preliminary findings.
One of the most notable is that despite donors’ increasing use of competitions for grantmaking, single awards (where one team receives the award) of at least $10 million have remained, at best, unusual.
Since SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004, nearly all competitions run by private entities (including foundations like MacArthur and companies like Google) with at least $1 million in total prize money were launched or established in only the past seven years, with the vast majority launching in the past five
Yet despite this recent surge in competitions, only a few have promised to deliver a single award of at least $10 million since the Ansari X Prize, even if we include government entities: MacArthur’s 100&Change (2017), the UK Government’s Longitude Prize (ongoing), and two of the European Commission’s Horizon Prizes (also ongoing). (Google Lunar X Prize in 2007 promised a top award of $20 million to a single team but in 2018 decided not to award it to anyone.)
This is significant.
An analysis of the criteria used by these very competitions to evaluate their finalists and awardees provides critical insight also: the two most common criteria are “scale” (inclusive of “scalable” and “scalability”) and “impact” (inclusive of “impactful”).
This is likely not a coincidence. While hundreds of competitions with varying total prize amounts differ in their evaluation criteria, that “scale” and “impact” recur as the most prominent among competitions with at least $1 million in total prize money signals both the vision of the donors hosting the competition as well as the kind of organization that they imagine leveraging their award: effective and ready to make an impact, at scale.
$10 million fits. $10 million can boost an organization to scale its solution over several years. $10 million can deepen the impact of organizations with effective solutions to a degree that grants or prizes in smaller amounts can’t. $10 million is not only rare in the current landscape of competitions, but also, and more importantly, it can be transformative to those organizations who know how to make the world more just and verdant and will ultimately make it so.