Now more than ever, organizations find themselves needing to transform entire markets, systems, and communities to achieve their desired social impact. To do that effectively, they need new approaches that tap into the power of relationships. As our CEO recently wrote, “In a complex and increasingly connected world, movements and networks are cornerstones of the organizational strategy of the future.”

While building these movements and networks can seem daunting, a prize can offer a useful starting point.

Whether we call them competitions, challenges, or search-and-selection processes, in our work at Context Partners, we’ve found that they can be a powerful mechanism for network building. Instead of a prize that focuses only on winners who receive an award, a grant, or seed money at the end, the prize application process can foster collaboration between applicants and help them build lasting relationships with social change organizations.

A good example of how prizes can help seed a network is SPRING’s ambitious initiative, created in partnership with Context Partners, to support and grow girl-focused business in developing countries—initially in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Funded by Britain's Department for International Development (DFID), the Nike Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the initiative’s leaders aim to transform business ecosystems by bringing together a network of investors, mentors, and business-support organizations.

Knowing that to create a sustainable movement, we needed to do more than identify grantees, we designed the search and selection process of SPRING’s prize by adhering to three principles that ensured a powerful inaugural cohort, while also catalyzing a network that will further strengthen the girls empowerment movement.

1. We prioritized relationships over entries.

This principle is the foundation of a prize design that fosters networks. Because we wanted to find participants who shared SPRING's commitment to improving the lives of girls through business, the messaging associated with the prize initiative emphasized joining the network over winning a competition or receiving money. All the language—from eligibility criteria to the first paragraph of the application—made it clear to entrants that SPRING wasn’t simply about winning a prize, an RFP, or a grant. Instead, it was about joining a learning network focused on business models, products, and services with a greater mission of empowering girls.

2. We offered multiple ways to get involved.

Pushing beyond the narrowly defined roles of “entrant” and “winner” helped more organizations see themselves as part of the broader movement to support girls, even if they didn’t meet the entrant criteria or weren’t an entrepreneur. For example, we identified one individual who wasn’t a strong entrant but could be an excellent mentor for eventual winners. Recognizing that possible tangential role and others like it enabled SPRING to identify a host of like-minded people to involve after the award process ended. Broadening eligibility criteria and continuing relationships with non-winners gave SPRING resources well beyond what a traditional “winner takes all” approach would have done. The process also helped broaden its horizons, giving the consortium insights into new ways to structure and focus awards processes in the future.

3. We went beyond traditional outreach to identify promising candidates.

Traditional outreach often relies exclusively on broadcast communications and contacting known participants in a sector. Instead, Context Partners suggested a hyper-local campaign, empowering local SPRING representatives to aid in the identification of strong applicants—and, in the process, build trust with local business leaders. If SPRING had already known where to find the most-qualified applicants, a traditional grant process might have been appropriate, but the network effect unearthed qualified applicants who were often two degrees of separation or more from SPRING’s current network. One example is EarthEnable, an affordable flooring company in Rwanda. At first glance, this company doesn’t appear to support girls, and girl-focused impact organizations certainly didn’t have it on their radar. But EarthEnable’s leaders know that dirt floors are breeding grounds for disease, and pose a health threat to women and girls who are tasked with cleaning them. Once the company realized how its business aligned with SPRING’s purpose, it became a very strong applicant. Without intentional and targeted outreach, entrepreneurs like those behind EarthEnable might never think to apply.

By taking a networked approach to entrant search and selection, SPRING found more than enough promising entrants for its prize—more than 250, in fact. The consortium ultimately chose 18 winners to participate in a business accelerator as part of the prize award. The winners include a nonprofit that provides hygienic sanitation options for girls, a franchising business that equips African entrepreneurs to sell affordable drinking water, and an organization that personalizes SMS messages containing advice on health issues.

This model is changing the way that we tackle systemic problems, and we hope that other initiatives follow SPRING’s lead. Prizes can be a compelling way to seed a movement or build a network for impact if—through their design—they prioritize relationships over money. People who come together with a clear, shared purpose and who can build the right relationships have the potential to change the world.

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