Philanthropy & Funding

Dump the Prizes

Contests, challenges, awards—they do more harm than good. Let’s get rid of them.

I was sitting at my desk the other day, writing a recommendation letter for some prize or another, and I found myself thinking, “Why the hell am I doing this?” It often takes me a couple of hours to write something I feel good about—and for what? The vast majority of contestants don’t win anything, and even when they do, it’s often shamefully small amounts of money and/or the dubious assumption that the attendant publicity will lead to bigger things.

After years of watching and participating in this stuff, I’ve concluded that it does more harm than good—and by “this stuff” I mean the whole contest/challenge/prize/award industry. Yes, this lumps together way too many disparate things; yes, there are exceptions to everything I say here; and yes, it deserves a more nuanced discussion. That’s all true, but on the whole, I think we could dump it all and not miss a thing. Here’s why:

1. It wastes huge amounts of time.

The Knight Foundation recently released a thoughtful, well-publicized report on its experience running a dozen or so open contests. These are well-run contests, but the report states that there have been 25,000 entries overall, with only 400 winners. That means there have been 24,600 losers. Let’s say that, on average, entrants spent 10 hours working on their entries—that’s 246,000 hours wasted, or 120 people working full-time for a year. Other contests generate worse numbers. I’ve spoken with capable organization leaders who’ve spent 40-plus hours on entries for these things, and too often they find out later that the eligibility criteria were misleading anyway. They are the last people whose time we should waste. 

And it’s exploitive. For social sector organizations, money is the oxygen they need to stay alive, so leaders have to chase prizes just like they do other, more sensible sources of funding. Some in the industry justify this as a useful learning process. It’s not. Few competitions (with some notable exceptions) provide even the most rudimentary feedback. Too many of these contests and prizes seem like they are more about the givers than the getters anyway.

2. There is way too much emphasis on innovation and not nearly enough on implementation.

Ideas are easy; implementation is hard. Too many competitions are just about generating ideas and “innovation.” Novelty is fun, but there is already an immense limbo-land populated by successful pilots and proven innovations that have gone nowhere. I don’t want to fund anything that doesn’t have someone capable enough to execute on the idea and committed enough to make it work over the long haul. Great social entrepreneurs are people with high-impact ideas, the chops to execute on them, and the commitment to go the distance. They are rare, and they shouldn’t have to enter a contest to get what they need.

The current enthusiasm for crowdsourcing innovation reflects this fallacy that ideas are somehow in short supply. I’ve watched many capable professionals struggle to find implementation support for doable—even proven—real-world ideas, and it is galling to watch all the hoopla around well-intentioned ideas that are doomed to fail. Most crowdsourced ideas prove unworkable, but even if good ones emerge, there is no implementation fairy out there, no army of social entrepreneurs eager to execute on someone else’s idea. Much of what captures media attention and public awareness barely rises above the level of entertainment if judged by its potential to drive real impact.

3. It gets too much wrong and too little right.

The Hilton Humanitarian prize is a single winner-take-all award of $1.5 million to one lucky organization each year. With a huge prize like that, everyone feels compelled to apply (that is, get nominated), and I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted on fruitless recommendations. Very smart people from the foundation spend a lot of time investigating candidates—and I don’t understand why. The list of winners over the past ten years includes a bunch of very well-known, mostly wonderful organizations: BRAC, PIH, Tostan, PATH, Aravind, Doctors Without Borders. I mean, c’mon—you could pick these names out of a hat. BRAC, for example, is an organization we should all revere and imitate, but its budget in 2012 was $449 million, and it’s already won a zillion prizes. If you gave even a third of the Hilton prize to an up-and-coming organization, it could be transformative.

Too many of these things are winner-or-very-few-take-all, and too many focus on the usual suspects. In any case, the notion that even a smart selection jury can somehow discern which is best from a dozen stellar organizations is kind of silly. Too many juries are composed of unqualified people, and verdicts in this sector can be as capricious as those from an LA celebrity murder trial. There is also an obvious bandwagon effect: The more prizes you get, the more prizes you get. And while juries have their foibles, they are exponentially better than the Internet-based crowd-judging that is currently in vogue. That’s like having the passengers on a 747 vote on how to land the plane, and it has led to some remarkably dumb things rising to prominence.

4. It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem.

The central problem with the social sector is that it does not function as a real market for impact, a market where smart funders channel the vast majority of resources toward those best able to create change. Contests are a sideshow masquerading as a main-stage event, a smokescreen that obscures the lack of efficient allocation of philanthropic and investment capital. We need real competition for impact among social sector organizations, not this faux version that makes the noise-to-signal ratio that much worse.

A lot of people argue that innovation competitions, challenges, and X Prizes are a vital part of that market and that they drive important advances that wouldn’t happen otherwise. I doubt it. There’s no real evidence for it, and I suspect that they do little more than speed things up a bit. The innovators I know do so to solve problems, not to win prizes. The only in-depth analysis of social impact contests I’ve seen was a 2009 McKinsey report, which began with a contests-are-wonderful perspective and carried on for 100 pages in the same vein without even a whiff of skepticism. Like many discussions of prizes, it confused anecdote with evidence and correlation with causation. We need a real study. More to the point, we need a real market for impact. There may be a role for contests in it, but contests didn’t drive Silicon Valley—it was investors and entrepreneurs playing in a functioning market.

There are a couple of exceptions in the prize/competition world that illustrate by contrast what it is wrong most of them. The first is the serious-investment-disguised-as-a-prize, something exemplified by the Skoll Award given to high-impact social entrepreneurs. I like the folks at Skoll because, among other things:

  1. They give you $1.25 million.
  2. They pick multiple winners annually.
  3. The winners have a clear track record, but most are at a place where the grant could vault them to the next level of size and impact.
  4. There is no application process; Skoll does its own (high-quality) homework.
  5. They give follow-on funding to many awardees.
  6. They work hard to connect awardees to each other and other funders.
  7. They give you $1.25 million.

Another exception is the garden-variety-business-plan-competition. Everyone needs a business plan anyway, and they need to know how to pitch. In these competitions, teams get up and perform in front of a knowledgeable audience for all-too-rare seed funding. They’re judged on the quality of their plans and their pitches, and even for those who don’t win, the process is inherently valuable. They get immediate feedback, and everything they do to prepare is useful going forward.

All things considered, I’d like to see most of this industry go away, but people love their contests and they’re going to prove hard to kill. That being the case, here are a few draft guidelines to improve both the optics and impact of contests:

  1. All prizes must come with a cash award that is at least 20 times the cost of the accompanying award ceremony/dinner, with an additional 30 percent premium if formal wear is involved.
  2. Entrants must create first-round proposals during a lunch break and submit them on a napkin.
  3. All juries must include a majority of judges who’ve at least tried to do the kind of thing they are judging.
  4. A committed adult with a plausible plan must accompany all ideas.
  5. All clever product ideas must come with an equally clever idea for distribution.
  6. Mandatory jail time for crowdsourcing or crowd-judging.

OK, so maybe the napkin thing wouldn’t work, and I might be willing to cut some slack on the tuxedos, perhaps even concede on the jail time. But I’m sticking to the spirit and substance of them, because we at least need to do it better. You can propose your own damn rules; push back if you’re moved to do so. There are exceptions to everything I’ve talked about here and I’m probably not right about it all, but the truth is we haven’t taken a hard look at any of it and it’s high time we did. In the meantime, we’ll accomplish a lot more if we all do our homework, find the best stuff already out there, and fund on the basis of real impact that can go to scale.


Read "Dump the Stupid Prizes, Multiply the Rest," a response to this post. "Why Open Contests Work" and "Prizes and Challenges Matter for Development" are other responses.

Read more stories by Kevin Starr.

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  • Daniel Goldberg's avatar

    BY Daniel Goldberg

    ON August 22, 2013 12:45 PM

    I’m happy to concede that competitions may not always be the best way to fund organizational impact, and I agree that they’re an imperfect substitute for real market forces, but this article seems extreme. For one, there are plenty of other reasons that organizations might want to host competitions, from branding to promoting ideation to fostering debate.

    Moreover, nobody is forcing anybody to enter these competitions—if participants deem the effort not to be worth the risk-adjusted reward, they wouldn’t join. But they do in large numbers, indicating that there is some value. The author suggests that contests are exploitative because “For social sector organizations, money is the oxygen they need to stay alive, so leaders have to chase prizes just like they do other, more sensible sources of funding” but good managers regularly employ discretion over which funding sources to pursue (that’s why everybody’s first fundraising move isn’t writing a letter to Bill Gates and why environmental groups seldom take money from big oil). In fact if we’re going to idealize the market, let’s take the metaphor one step further: the market itself is one big prize-based competition. Prizes are seldom large and always uncertain, feedback is sketchy, and the winners aren’t always the most talented participants. But by and large it works to generate wealth and value, so rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, the sensible thing to do is tinker just with what could be better.

  • Dan Viederman's avatar

    BY Dan Viederman

    ON August 22, 2013 01:10 PM


  • BY Amy Heydlauff

    ON August 22, 2013 01:49 PM

    I loved it.  I absolutely loved every point in this blog.  Don’t concede on the tux.

  • BY Steve Gilchrist

    ON August 22, 2013 02:34 PM

    The article asks several important questions:
    • What is the purpose of these contests and awards, and do they help launch successful   initiatives or programs?
    • Who decides what ideas get awarded?
    • Are there different approaches that have a greater impact -both in supporting good ideas and in social impact?

    These contests serve as an alternative approach to the traditional grant funding process of foundations, business, and government agencies.  There are definitely drawbacks as pointed out in the article. Yet, there is an opportunity to identify strengths of contests and build on them in a way that can have a larger impact in our communities.

    What if contests were done within the context of a local community? Is it possible to connect contests to city, county, or state-wide plans and goals?  Can we use contests to identify areas that the city, county, or state is struggling with and provide awards to innovative solutions and help support their implementation? Can we use contests to bring funders, government agencies, non-profits, and for-profits together to solve the issues that face our community? Can contests be part of a larger event that looks at community goals, celebrates its achievements, and identifies new ideas where they are needed? Can contests provide a public and community-based forum (i.e. engage the community) that traditional funding approaches don’t provide?

  • Jim Fruchterman's avatar

    BY Jim Fruchterman, Benetech

    ON August 22, 2013 03:05 PM

    Awesome article.  Agree that there are prizes like Skoll that are worthwhile, but most do not meet the test of a net benefit to society.  There’s the magic bullet contest, imbued with the fantasy that lying around out there is the amazing breakthrough that will solve a major social problem overnight, if only we could discover it with a contest that carries a $1,000, $10,000 or $25,000 prize. This is accompanied by the breathless press release for the winner, who frequently proposed something either sexy but impractical, or a more or less direct copy of an earlier innovation that is easy to find by spending five minutes on Google. The contests that work best are the ones that are clear that their goal is educational (the business plan competition), investment (the Skoll Award) or encouragement (focused on encouraging promising leaders).

  • Krista Donaldson's avatar

    BY Krista Donaldson

    ON August 22, 2013 04:15 PM

    Really great piece, Kevin!
    Two things I would love added to your list:
    7. Awards/contest-style grants publish the number of applicants, number of awards given, final amounts to be awarded (and any other potential value to organizations) - and date disbursed.  Rarely is all this information clear and available.  Without it, it is difficult for us to evaluate if this is a good investment or a match to our organizations.
    8. All (yes, all!) applications should receive thoughtful feedback.  As you point out awards are great for the winner, but there is a real opportunity for impact and learning broadly if everyone receives feedback.

  • Andrea Schneider's avatar

    BY Andrea Schneider

    ON August 22, 2013 04:36 PM

    Thanks! This syncs well with my own observations. You’ve called some excellent questions, very timely.

  • BY Susan Dix Lyons

    ON August 22, 2013 04:36 PM

    Bravo. As the founder of a small non-profit that’s executed successfully in the developing world, I’ve discovered the hard way that we can’t compete with the names and numbers that are part of most of these contests – particularly crowdsourced voting. How can we (yet!) compete with PIH or PATH? We have limited time and resources and I’m guilty of wasting more of mine than wise in the hope we could rise to the top of the pile and score big for growth and impact. Thanks, Kevin.

  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON August 22, 2013 05:26 PM

    amen kevin. so much wasted energy and it reinforces power games.

  • BY Joy Burkhard

    ON August 22, 2013 07:41 PM

    Yes!  Implementation is HARD!  If anyone has any great ideas on stamina to make it through the implementation, I’d love to hear them.  We aren’t going to give up, but a few pointers from those with experience through the long haul would be great. 

  • Alan Hurt's avatar

    BY Alan Hurt

    ON August 22, 2013 09:54 PM

    I completely agree… Competitions, awards, and challenges tend to push good products/services out of markets. These markets, where established supply chains have created value across the entire chain, begin to falter and eventually push growing economies towards the bottom of the pyramid.

    Just look at East Africa. How many times is Echoing Green going to award a finalist for creating a solar lantern. It is our duty to firmly understand the context of the problem before throwing “new, innovative products” into emerging markets. What doesn’t work - this new system of creating contests, challenges, and awards, to meet some general quota of social goodness. “Rant over.”

  • The title of this article reminds me my experience in National Entrepreneurship Awards Show in Denmark. I was participating some entrepreneur competitions looking for potential investors in my business idea. I did not think of where it will lead me. I have concluded no more competitions, awards shows etc.

    It helped me to experience how competition organizers work whole year sending hundreds of thousands of emails. There has to be better way of identifying ideas. Competitions needs to be held focusing problems on ground reality at the source of problem, instead of siting thousands of miles and making business plans.

  • Love this. 

    Next time we get an invitation to participate in a competition I’m just sending them your article.

  • BY Prentice Zinn

    ON August 23, 2013 06:59 AM

    I always ask philanthropic prize-winners and runners-up what they got out of the whole shindig.

    Do they get more than crab cakes, orange cheese cubes and a photo-op at the reception?

    Their answers resemble a collective shrug—sorta - maybe - positive ...ish.

    Sure, the nanosecond of PR and ego-boost is nice, but the mixed-baggedness of the responses has made me wonder if the big winners of the prizes are the institutions and leaders that award them.


  • Mike Shafarenko's avatar

    BY Mike Shafarenko

    ON August 23, 2013 08:02 AM

    Having co-developed and implemented a $1 million contest on behalf of a collaboration of foundations in Northeast Ohio focused on economic development, I both agree and disagree with some of the specific points Kevin raises.

    While I agree that contests overly focus on ideas vs. implementation on the whole, there are certain niches in the social sector that need a good jumpstart to get something going. In our case, we wanted to catalyze activity and public awareness around local government collaboration. Our studies showed that local government spending in our 16-county region had increased 70% relative to a 1% increase in population over a ten year period of time (1997-2007). The amount of duplication of services and lack of incentive to consolidate those services was staggering, despite there being all the wherewithal to do so. The pervasive barrier was politics, particularly the election cycle which encourages short-term gains for elected leaders - gains that might have marginal impact for a specific community but have little to no positive impact on the broader development of the region. 

    So, we provided up to $630,000 (total) to up to six projects. Projects had to involve at least two different municipalities collaborating on and/or consolidating services, demonstrate cost savings or reallocation of tax dollars to economic development efforts upon completion and provide an agreed to implementation plan and timeline. A panel of public policy professors, State government administrators and members of philanthropy selected the top 20 projects from a pool of over 200 applications. The public then voted for the top six projects. Over 30,000 votes came in and there were over 200 media articles/mentions/broadcasts across three major metro areas within the region.

    Naturally, the biggest question that comes of this and is the premise of Kevin’s article is: So what? And, what’s happened since?

    Here are the biggest lessons we learned and outcomes that came from this program (in no particular order):

    1) Local government officials inclined to collaborate/innovate told us that this program provided them with the cover to do so.

    2) With the exception of a few small State or Federal programs that funded feasibility studies for these types of projects, there was no money available to implement them.

    3) The public contest nature of the program unearthed innovative government leaders and made them aware of each other; in many cases, they were neighbors and this program gave them the reason to work together.

    4) The State of Ohio picked up on the “success” of the program, abolished the long-standing local government fund and created the Local Government Innovation Fund. They went from a percentage-based local government allocation model to one that solicited and provided funding for collaboration/consolidation projects.

    5) As Kevin states, not everyone was a winner. So, we funded the development of a network of all the local government innovators to convene them regularly and leverage their knowledge, experience, and ambition to create more efficient models of local government operations.

    6) Some projects came to fruition: a number of local health departments merged, dispatch centers combined operations, shared purchasing contracts established.

    All of this could have been accomplished without a contest, and, lIke any ingrained social issue, solutions take a long time to truly develop and demonstrate impact. Yet, were it not for the contest, the issue would still remain largely closeted with no exposure or public support and no incentive for the brave few to come forward and give their ideas a chance.

  • Kel Currah's avatar

    BY Kel Currah

    ON August 23, 2013 10:19 AM

    While I agree with many of the points in the article, I do not agree with the overall argument that prizes and contests do more harm than good.

    I agree that often the prizes go to groups that have the resources and name recognition and not to the really innovative smaller groups but that is more reflective of the organizers intentions rather than the concept itself (PR over learning). I also agree that it can take up a lot of time for those groups making the submissions and the winner take all approach can be disheartening.

    However, I think prizes and awards are good for more than rubber chicken dinners. Firstly, there are some well designed awards and contests that encourage innovation and problem solving that is driving innovation and problem solving - having prizes can drive innovation - look at the Hack-a-thons and other examples in the tech industry. Also, if they are big enough, they can grab the headlines and raise the profile of a key issues. I think the Gates Foundation toilet prize is a great example of this.

    Secondly, awards do help draw out what excellent initiatives are out there - things that the industry would not have normally seen or heard about and which should be shared and copied. It is because people in organisations are so stretched that they do not have time to write up the learnings so prizes and awards help get excellent ideas out into the public. I set up an advocacy award in a large multinational NGO and through the award we discovered a wealth of very effective projects which were happening on the ground and could be easily replicated across our partners.

    I agree that it is the process of the prizes/awards that need fixing rather than the actual prizes and think the back of the list of rules of prizes is great and organisers should seriously consider these points. Perhaps we need a contest for the best awards process

  • BY Tracy Barba

    ON August 23, 2013 11:23 AM

    Classic Kevin.  Cutting through the hype and making it real!

  • BY Katalina Mayorga

    ON August 23, 2013 11:27 AM

    The article expresses a lot of my own thoughts on the whole field of social entrepreneurship and enterprises; particularly with regards to receiving feedback and more focus on innovation around implementation/distribution.

    I do not think the more “sensible sources of funding.” are any better to navigate if you are smaller organization and entrepreneur. These funding sources have their favorites too (hence the term “development beltway bandits”), and are just as difficult to get your foot in the door. Where competitions and contests are useful is that they allow the social entrepreneur with big ideas and the gusto to follow through a fighting chance to get their name out there and some hope that it will be funded. The more sensible funding sources and the various restricition imposed in the RFP sometimes seem just as much as a lost cause.

    Another prize that I think reflects the values you find important in a competition is the D-Prize. First it is focused on innovation around distribution and second the program director has been very open in talking to organizations interested in applying and providing feedback before they even decide to go through with it.


  • BY Mathias Craig

    ON August 23, 2013 04:34 PM

    Kevin, pure gold as usual. 

    This resonates very strongly with me - and we (blueEnergy) have won our fair share of prizes along the way: CNN Hero, Tech Awards, Ashoka, Energy Globe Award, etc…  As you say, there are exceptions and you can’t lump all of these together, but many are pure popularity contests, which doesn’t do anything to advance real impact.

    Crowd-sourced voting is the worst.  You’re asking a lot of people who generally know nothing about the given field to vote on what they think is coolest.  It’s all about emotion and loyalties.  That is not an efficient way to produce results.  Second worst is a jury that is highly unqualified to evaluate the submitted concepts.  The best is a qualified jury that actually provides valuable feedback; the kind of feedback all entrepreneurs need to move forward, competition or not.

    I deeply resonate with your comment about ideas being easy and execution hard.  So few people out there willing to carry the idea forward - to go the distance.  Getting funding to what we already know works to execute seems like a higher priority than sourcing thousands of new ideas with no legs to carry them forward.

    I am grateful for some of the prizes and the chance they gave me to get blueEnergy off the ground - I have to acknowledge the benefit I have received from them.  But as I look back on my 10 years in the field and how little I understood in the beginning, I am humbled.  Some prizes were won for ideas I can now see are not award-worthy.  So I eat my humble pie and justify that they made an investment in me and our organization and we are still out there learning, improving and increasing our impact - even if the award-winning ideas have been shed along the way.

    I second your view on Skoll - they are great.  I hope some day to build the organization and track record that can draw their attention.  We’re still a long ways away.

    I agree that most of the prizes that have sprung up in the last couple years are primarily to benefit the prize giver.  They get great PR, have people banging down there doors, and get to be associated with the social entrepreneurship movement.

    I like your golden rules for effective prizes.  I would only add that feedback to contestants should be provided.

    Thanks again for this spot-on piece!

  • Jimena Betancourt's avatar

    BY Jimena Betancourt

    ON August 23, 2013 07:38 PM


  • Thanks Kevin. This may sound harsh, but many of these lazy ‘philanthropic’ prizes have always reminded me of a time when I was a kid and we were on vacation somewhere in the Caribbean. I remember a bunch of big pink tourists having fun by throwing coins into the ocean, and little brown boys my age would have to dive and scramble and fight for the coins while the tourists laughed. That is the image I always remember when I see these prizes. We participated in a couple, but they are mostly not worth the time.

  • BY ruthie sobel luttenberg

    ON August 23, 2013 09:51 PM

    The wisdom of this analysis goes beyond the realm of prizes. All of us small non profits vie for the grants by gambling with precious, hard earned donations. Home made crowd sourcing pitches and budget spending on development resources by employing internal or external fundraisers are our only venue for keeping the blood flowing through our veins and keeping our causes afloat.
    I find myself, however, employing the same strategy of “prizes” to motivate activists in my own cause and question if I am not falling in the same trap.
    A pot of gold at the end of a rainbow drives people to move foward and devote their time to move in the direction we want them to follow. So like the rest of the herd, I guess we’ll just be in the game until some great angel in the sky waves its magic wand with a divine understanding of the good we want to promote and fills our pots of gold for us.

  • BY Sara Olsen

    ON August 24, 2013 12:22 AM

    Delightful and too true!  It’s a funny quirk of human nature that we will do so much for smallish prizes which we have a snowball’s chance of winning. But, when this is channeled thoughtfully it can do a lot of good.

    I agree the business plan is a productive outcome of many b plan competitions. And I welcome your call for a capital market for orgs that can really accomplish the most impact.

  • BY Aaron Tait

    ON August 25, 2013 08:57 PM

    A gutsy and interesting piece!

    To build on this, I think that similar thinking can also be applied to shaping relevant and focused support for early stage, local social entrepreneurs working in very poor communities.

    As we provide better engagement at this early stage to local Changemakers, the better we will fill the pipeline of social entrepreneurs who may one day be picked up by the Skolls of the world. 

    (Something we are working hard to crack at Spark* International!).

  • BY Daniel Ben-Horin

    ON August 26, 2013 01:10 PM

    Many good points, and entertaining writing, but big pieces of baby floating out with the bathwater. I would divide the challenge world into those that emphasize a common goal among the prize seekers and those that are essentially winner take all, thank you and good night. I’d say your critique is largely correct about the latter. The former, though, is much more interesting and, while often under the radar, more pervasive. Interestingly, these ‘collaborative challenges’ often violate your ‘make the $ flame worth the effort candle’ rule, in the sense that prizes can be minuscule. That’s because these challenges aren’t fundamentally about the prize money. They are about fostering innovation…and synergy…toward shared social goals. Here is an example:

    There is much to be learned and improved about incubation and propagation of great innovation. I agree with you there (and here—

  • Stacey Epperson's avatar

    BY Stacey Epperson

    ON August 27, 2013 04:55 AM

    thank you.

  • BY Charlie Brown

    ON August 27, 2013 11:00 AM

    Are prizes perfect? No. Can they be extremely powerful? Yes. Should we “Dump the Prizes” as Kevin suggests? Not at all.

    Having designed and managed 50+ prizes over the past 10 years I can say from experience there is a right and wrong way to run them. The wrong way is to make it all about an exclusive set of a few winners. The right way is to make it about building a network of solutions, partners, innovators and implementers that transcends the prize itself and increases the capacity of the sector. And there are lots of great case studies: Fish 2.0, X-Prize, Kaggle, Changemakers, Rockefeller Centennial, the BMe story and grant challenges among many more. What they all hold in common is that the prize is a way to both source powerful solutions and the sponsors believe in building a community to drive the field. This is one way to build the market and for funders to “do the homework” Kevin suggests.

    Just to take one example, the Knight Foundation sponsored BMe challenges to highlight the true assets black men are in their community. A few thousand men participated and are now part of a membership association driving real change and supporting each other in Detroit, Philly, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. And let’s remember that we wouldn’t be celebrating Elon Musk’s SpaceX if it hadn’t been for the initial Ansari X-Prize.

    My concern is that the more traditional mode of philanthropy encouraged in this article often results in a handful of individuals spending incredible amounts of time (and money) deciding the fate of large amounts of capital and the state of social and humanitarian affairs alone, in a black box, often funding the same organizations, with no entry point or feedback to the thousands of brilliant solutions in the market. While prizes may not be perfect, when done right they break us out of the box where we operate in isolation all too often. 

    The point is that when we are dealing with the world’s most serious challenges we can’t afford to make blanket statements like “Dump the Prize”. Instead we need a thoughtful discussion on how to use prizes well and as Kevin suggests, a commitment to doing them right. If that means conducting a follow up to McKinsey’s study, great, let’s do it!

    History has proven the value of prizes for a lot longer than recent usage. For me the answer lies in not making it about winners but instead making it about collective action, transparent solutions, the opportunity for community and the power of networks.

  • Michael's avatar

    BY Michael

    ON August 28, 2013 07:08 AM

    Prize competitions aren’t perfect. I don’t know if the answer is simply eliminating them, though. I’m not sure what the alternative could be either.

    Crowdsourced contests are popularity contests, and big pitch prizes do a lot for the companies that provide the prizes.

    So, do we stop trying to participate in contests, set an example, and hope others join in? I doubt that would work - as the article says some organizations rely on prize money for part of their budgets.

    Organizations with large budgets winning large prizes? BRAC’s $449 million operating budget puts the $1.5 million they won at .3% of their operating budget. Does that make BRAC better able to innovate and provide services? Who’s to say. Would it help a nonprofit with an annual budget of a quarter million dollars more? Again, who’s to say.

    I do agree that there’s something broken about how large-purse prizes get awarded, but I don’t know what we can do to fix it.

  • BY Anil Rathi

    ON August 28, 2013 07:36 AM

    I’m glad you wrote this outpour of frustration. Many people misunderstand what a contest/challenge could be and how to design a challenge experience that is mutually beneficial. 

    In 10 years, I have designed & powered more than 150 problem solving, innovation challenges and award programs distributing over $40 million in prize money for foundations, federal gov’t, academia and Fortune 500 companies around the world.

    Contests and awards help organizers recognize and reward achievement and are useful tools to find undiscovered talent from the bottom-up. People or organizations (winners) are validated and can get a boost after proving they can perform. Transformational challenge experiences are the ones participants promote, recommend to their peers and want to enter again.

    The solution isn’t to kill contests. The solution is to educate organizers so they more thoughtfully design the participant experience. This isn’t easy, but it can be done efficiently with the right knowledge and platform.

    1) It wastes time >> it can
    Organizers can design a contest that minimizes participants effort to a few hours rather than asking for the kitchen sink.

    First, submission forms that overload participants like an endless survey suck participants valuable time and discourage participation. Keep it short -but not too short. Ask for more info, after the competitor advances to the next round. For example, 1 page form/exec sum or a short slide deck with a 90 sec voiceover is plenty to respond or convey the essence of the message.

    We employed this strategy successfully for 9 years with student teams from the world’s Top 300 universities on our Innovation Challenge.  We also vetted 100+ judges that provided detailed constructive feedback to student teams.

    Second, organizers should offer engaging education materials to help build skills and mentor qualified participants. Too often, participants are presented only with the rules of the game rather than educational resources that could help them succeed in the contest and excel in their career or profession.

    The National STEM Video Game Challenge provides training materials and guidance to help K-12 students create games using open source toolkits.

    2) Too much emphasis on innovation and not nearly enough on implementation. >>agreed

    Organizers can design a multi-phase or staged process that starts with a rough concept and ends with a proof of concept.  A continuous cycle of iteration and feedback leads to real-world innovation.

    ImagineNation Outcomes Challenges - nationwide e-Health competitions accelerate teams of clinics to submit data on the traction of their already developed e-health solutions. The team with the most uses for a particular milestone won $25k (one of multiple cash awards triggered for quarterly milestones).

    3) It gets too much wrong and too little right.>>>“winner takes all design” won’t last

    The examples you mention are prestigious prizes that have been around for ages and were designed for a top-down organizational structure, closed door decision making and judging. They are not designed for the new world of bottom-up innovation, transparency and constructive feedback (coaching). Think of the differences between American Idol and The Voice.

    From what I know about the Knight Foundation, they are designing prizes for bottom-up innovation.

    4) It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem. >> Public Voting shouldn’t determine the winner. Isolate it.

    Organizers should use People’s Choice for awareness than determining a winner. It’s about showcasing the work of industry peers, connecting the dots and collectively spreading awareness to lift all boats.

    ChildObesity180 and Tufts identified the Nation’s most innovative physical activity programs. Teachers submitted videos of their programs and the top ones were showcased to the entire community to share program ideas. Tufts awarded 9 winners $500k in funds to help scale the programs from classroom level to nationwide level.

    Anil Rathi
    CEO & Founder, Skild

  • Viktor Venson's avatar

    BY Viktor Venson

    ON August 28, 2013 03:02 PM

    Kevin - nice piece.

    It’s a tough one. My experience is this - in 2011 we launched an innovation challenge calling on the creative industries to solve for the creativity crisis in U.S. schools. We gave them 7 days to submit ideas and solutions. We recieved 300 concepts from some of the top agencies in the world. The interesting part was that we never promised a cash prize, in fact, no prize at all. People were simply passionate about the cause and thought it was a great idea. Well, names on our judging panel helped (Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, Yves Behar, Lee Clow and others). How much impact did we create in schools? None. We didn’t have the pipeline to execute.

    So we decided to hone it in, and make it super focused. Workshops where you build, rather than ideation. We recently completed one in May, 9 designers worked on a solution for 6 nights. They built a prototype that addressed a real problem, it was funded and we’re now building for the pilot program. A solid team of product designers and engineers are co-creating the pilot with educators and students. To me, your main takeaway is focus on real problems and have people build and execute, instead of simply ideating. Let the judging be around those executions and the prototypes. Something tangible, something that has been user tested and initally vetted by the target you’re building for (not judges). That’s where we’ve been going.

    Shameless plug: here’s a video that shows our process -


  • rtjohnson's avatar

    BY rtjohnson

    ON August 28, 2013 04:11 PM

    Kevin,  while I agree with much of what you’ve written (and disagree with some), you missed what I consider to be the important problem with the competition circuit for social entrepreneurs—it undermines the ethos of the impact sector.

    Culturally, as you note, there is a strong ego push towards prize-winning, prize-making, and the celebrity that goes with both.  But there exists an inherently insidious cultrual ramification—success and celebrity drive a culture where failure becomes a seed for shame and fear; shame over past failures and fear of future failures.

    This failure shame/fear dynamic is all too common in American culture generally (and something we seem bent on exporting to the developing world).  But shouldn’t it be different in the social entrepreneurship realm?

    When I look at the many social entrepreneurs I work with who are focused on some aspect of poverty alleviation in the developing world, one common element exists among the best: they celebrate failure.  They have learned lessons from IDEO, read Paul Polak, attended classes like Stanford’s Entreprenuerial Design for Extreme Affordability, or watched (with wonder) the work of D-Rev, Proximity, and others, and they understand that empathic design thinking works so well, in part, because it celebrates failure.  In the mantra of Tom Chi (one of the best design thinking designers and the former chief designer at Google, now turned social entrepreneur incubator), the goal of rapid prototyping is to fail early and often.

    And the result is staggeringly different, not just in final ideas, but also for the spirit and soul of the social enterprise. Social entrepreneurs who employ empathic design thinking in the design of their solutions and their organization approach failure in a radically different fashion, than the celebrities.  Instead of shame over past failures, they proudly publicize the painstaking failures they put themselves through before they got it right, bolstering the viability of their concept with hard sweat-borne work. And they don’t fear future failures, but embrace the challenge they present to better refine what they are doing and how to push greater impact.

    The true social entrepreneurs (rather than the poser-celebrity types) are more transparent, stronger, and better prepared for the hard work of impelmentation.

    Well-run competitions still have their place, to encourage, to network, to foster collaboration and to give air-time to great new innovations.  (Let’s face it, not everyone has $9 billion like Jeff Skoll to set a team of dozens to work to find the most impactful social enterprises to celebrate and support.  Even with money like that, we’d need many more than the few handful of billionaires to scale the sector successfully.)

    But for the reasons Kevin’s stated—and for the hero worship it often fosters in the social entrepreneurship space—we need to think carefully about our compeition and celebrity culture that seems to be growing up around us in the social entrepreneurship space.

    Like all of us, there is good and bad present at the same time.  And although Kevin offers a tongue-in-cheek solution—“Dump the Prizes”—his post is really about doing the hard design thinking about how we do a better job.

  • BY Erik Hersman

    ON August 29, 2013 08:05 AM

    Kevin, you know I agree with almost everything here.  Where we disagree is due to the blinders that come with your position, an omission due to perspective, not intellect or experience.

    Why then are prizes worth it?
    Simply because they serve as a filtering mechanism for new, young and unknown startups to be found. A method for recognition when a voice is too small to be heard.

    It’s hard for people with money to understand this. It’s hard for companies that have had some success to remember it.

    When you’re brand new, have a prototype and just a small bit of penetration with your new idea or product, it is extremely hard to be taken seriously or to get noticed. Being at the award event gets you in front of people. Winning it helps validate the concept and people with money start taking you more seriously.

    Here’s my post on it:

  • BY David Curry

    ON August 30, 2013 02:16 PM

    One can certainly appreciate some of the points Mr. Starr makes in his piece above. They are, for the most part, thoughtful and properly invite all of us to think more about how we incent and recognize performance in philanthropy overall.

    More specifically, one can also appreciate Mr. Starr’s care in accurately portraying some of the dimensions of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize: that the Hilton Prize enjoys scale (at $1.5M a year), that the Prize recognizes an organization (not an individual), that the Prize selection process has integrity (“Very smart people from the foundation spend a lot of time investigating candidates…”), and that the Prize has recognized some of the world’s leading NGOs (listing a number of prominent Laureates).

    Over the last few years, I have learned up close that winning the Prize has been almost uniformly transformational for the winners, and that the strengthened credibility and reputation that results echoes well beyond the year the Prize is won and the check, as large as it is, has strengthened the balance sheet.

    One evidence of this is the recent emergence of the Hilton Prize Laureates Collaborative – the independent alliance of the 18 Laureates of the Prize.

    The Collaborative is now formed and is actively exploring joint Laureate programming pilots and field internship/fellowship programs in countries like Haiti, Senegal and Nepal. Of course, it won’t be news to anyone reading this that meaningful collaboration is hard work, requiring trust and tolerance for risk (and failure).  I believe the Hilton Prize has made taking the first steps – with fellow Laureates – immeasurably easier.

    This aspect of the Hilton Prize legacy is just emerging, so we will take its measure over the next few years. But I suspect it is not the only example of salutatory downstream impacts from well-designed and well-managed prize programs.

    Mr. Starr’s call-to-action to “Drop the Prizes” is rather sweeping, as is his claim that they “do more harm than good.” One hopes that his obvious analytical ability and passion for impact will lead him to explore the calculus of prizes and their impacts further.

    David R Curry
    General Secretary
    Hilton Prize Laureates Collaborative

  • BY Nick Rowney

    ON September 4, 2013 09:18 PM

    Great article and I totally agree in part. I have recently been working with a start up group who have brought 9 startups from idea to pitch in a 12 week immersion course.

    4 teams got early round investment ( $2mill) which is huge for New Zealand. However there was discussion around those who got funded and whether they were the best business model or the best pitchers.

    One teams who’s business was actually making some money with paying clients failed to attract investment while others with no revenue got investors. Quite often in life we choose the idea and not the team, ideas are cheap fully functioning teams are invaluable.

    Keep up the great articles.


  • Dorje Mundle's avatar

    BY Dorje Mundle

    ON September 5, 2013 12:34 PM

    Great piece - funny, challenging and lots of great points! Does get kinda silly that the same list of usual suspects all have umpteen prizes to their name.

    I can’t help thinking how great it would be if more prizes offered b-plan coaching, pitch advice and/or funding for early stage socents to participate in accelerator programs.

    We ran an innovation prize in which every university team that entered got access to regular business / tech / healthcare coaching from both Novartis and IBM professionals (the two co-sponsors). The two winning teams got to go to both HQs and received two days of coaching feedback from a bunch of very senior folks from both companies, as well as external thought leaders. Everyone benefitted, but it’s much more resource-intensive to run prizes that way!

  • Gannon Gillespie's avatar

    BY Gannon Gillespie

    ON September 6, 2013 03:02 PM

    Kevin, thanks for the “modest proposal,” shaking loose a much-needed dialog about prizes and the consequences they have, both on the organizations that seek them and on the sector as a whole.

    I have enjoyed reading the discussion your post prompted during the intervening week—one which seems to be split between three areas. First is the proliferation of product and innovation-focused awards. I agree that we should, generally speaking, give up the idea that the world’s problems exist because no one has yet had any good ideas or innovations related to them. To the contrary, if I might add a rule to your list, I would suggest all nominations require applicants to list at least 5 similar projects or approaches, and saying “we’re totally different and unique” is not acceptable. This would at least nudge groups who may not have done so before to grapple with those who share their approaches or elements of their approach.

    Second, your piece and the subsequent discussion has solidified some sort of consensus about the need to reform the online popularity contests that currently masquerade as somehow-loosely-tied-to-impact prizes. Charlie Brown’s and others’ baby/bathwater points of correction are also wise, and it would seem to me there is ample middle-ground to continue exploring. I’m not sure how to shift the more egregious ones other than to keep talking about why other structures would better serve their end goals.

    The third thread, most interesting to me, is around I would call “serious prizes” that have big stakes and big time commitments and probing questions/processes. In the end, I my experience, most organizations treat these prizes primarily as grant nominations, or something close to that. So your questions and “new rules” are to me welcome in the same way they are for any other grant application. Award-givers, like grantmakers, should do all they can to be extra transparent about criteria and processes, communicate better with those who don’t win, and think carefully about the time commitments they are creating among likely applicants. I do think serious prize nominations are actually more likely to be impact focused than most other sources of funding. That depends on how we define the group, but regardless, I think some would be early allies in an increased impact discussion, not late-movers.

    I did feel that the Hilton prize came across unfairly represented in your piece. They would clear most of your new rules, or at least do well rank-ordered against many other prizes (just think of it: the Starr Prize for Excellence in Prize-giving!) For example, their general application is a simple letter of nomination. I’m not sure if they allow napkin-scans. Yes, if you reach their finalist stage you do a lot of work, but an amount of work similar to Skoll and other serious awards to which we at Tostan have nominated. (For what it’s worth, Tostan did have to apply to Skoll, twice).  Also, for our part, Tostan was in exactly zero “hats” before we won the Hilton Prize, and I think several other winners would feel that way too—speaking to the “notoriety” benefits mentioned in some of the comments above. And Hilton also does lots of wraparound work with the Laureates as David Curry has noted.(FYI: BRAC can’t use much of the massive budget you mention outside of Bangladesh due to foreign exchange controls—so they used the prize money to seed a new project in South Sudan).

    So, yes to more nuance and smarter approaches across all 3. An open question to those posting here: what is the best step for us to take next? Let this beautiful open exchange of ideas continue to evolve, with those reading here free to take their own lessons away and “make our own damn rules?” (And, thus, hope that the person planning the next tuxedo fest accidentally reads this?) Or would there be some use in collecting and pushing further the thinking begun here, trying to make something more concrete out of it? If the 2009 McKinsey Report gets it wrong, what sector-level device or resource would get it right?

  • BY Chris Meyer

    ON September 17, 2013 09:31 AM

    Kevin, next blog idea.

    Thoughts on the conference circuit, time spent there, money spent on them, and lack of deals/funds flowing to start ups?

    They seem to be as resource consuming (time and energy of everyone involved) as the contests (that double as conferences anyways)...

  • BY Edward Harkins

    ON September 29, 2013 09:23 AM

    I’ve only just come across this excellent piece. IMO the basic argument applies well to the social enterprise field in the UK as much as the USA. I suggest that it can also be applied to many other fields in the UK including: community or economic regeneration; affordable housing; health & well-being; and SMEs & enterprise.

    In this era of increasing awareness of the criticality of sustainability, we also have to recognise the need to raise the priority of scaling-up ‘what works’, over awarding innovation for innovation’s sake

  • BY steve heilig

    ON November 19, 2013 11:16 AM

    I nominate this insightful and brave post and author for a BIG prize.

  • BY Tito Bianchi

    ON November 19, 2014 04:43 AM

    This article taught me that someone was actually thinking that prizes could be a way to fund the best ideas, to giude them towards realization in the real world.  It was never my expectation (I admit I am not full-time working on these issues), that’s why I am not as disappointed with prizes as the author of this post.  This said, on many accounts he is right.
    Prizes In my view were never to replace more conventional marketplaces for financing social innovation.  Therefore they should not be dumped, but revised and adjusted to what they could do well inexpensively:  Encouraging the generation of ideas at low costs for the organizer.  Inspire and provide examples to emulate.

    In fact I don’t think the way to go is to provide large prizes to the few, but many small.  At the same time provide opportunities for sharing information, advice, coaching and peer support.

  • BY AJ Lumsdaine

    ON February 22, 2015 12:31 AM

    It occurs to me that the real prize everyone is seeking (in addition to funding) is validation.  Maybe the purpose of the contest should also be to write up every worthy entry in a way that provides validation, whether they win the prize or not.  The most innovative and different the idea, the more the need.

    This kind of validation could be extremely valuable for emerging citizen science ventures, who would then be able to be far more effective at crowdfunding with such a reputable stamp of approval.  Also providing “opportunities for sharing information, advice, coaching and peer support” - many applicants would find these even more valuable than the prize.

  • marta del rio's avatar

    BY marta del rio

    ON May 13, 2015 06:07 AM

    THANK YOU for an excellent well thought, insightful, fun to read, and clever post.

    You are so absolutely right!

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