Are Contests Worth It?

Are Contests Worth It?

Grantmakers use open competitions to identify new ideas and reach new people.

It would have been hard to miss the publicity surrounding the recent Minnesota Idea Open’s Forever Saint Paul challenge, a competition developed by the Saint Paul Foundation to award $1 million to the best idea for making St. Paul great. It was the fourth in the Open’s annual series of “challenges” that have asked citizens to propose projects around a specific theme like clean water, preventing obesity, and working across faiths and cultures. Submissions are aggregated on the Open’s website, where citizens can review them and vote their preferences and passions. This year more than 900 ideas were proposed and more than 16,000 people voted on the three finalists’ ideas.

For better or worse, the work of professional philanthropy is rarely noisy with public debate. But just as Forever Saint Paul was unfolding, so was a vigorous dialogue about whether contests are effective tools for philanthropic strategy. The debate seems healthy and helpful. Here’s how it shaped up.

In July, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation published Why Contests Improve Philanthropy: Six Lessons on Designing Public Prizes for Impact. The report, authored by Mayur Patel, the foundation’s vice president for strategy and assessment, draws lessons from the dozen or so open contests Knight has run or funded. As the leading proponent of the competition movement in philanthropy, Knight has granted more than $75 million since 2007 using some form of a competition mechanism. Among the most visible is the Knight News Challenge, which is working to accelerate innovation in the rapidly changing news media by “funding breakthrough ideas in news and information.” The News Challenge has awarded more than $30 million to 97 winners since 2007, with more than 12,000 contest submissions. Knight’s work also has spurred others like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, XPrize Foundation, and Case Foundation.

Knight’s contest report details the ways that competitions have helped the foundation bring in new blood and new ideas, spot emerging trends, and change philanthropy’s routine. Contests have helped introduce the foundation to people they would not otherwise have met, “refreshing the networks working on the causes a foundation cares about.” Nearly half of the submissions to the Knight Arts Challenge in its first four years were not tax-exempt nonprofits, and when surveyed, entrants said they “would not have applied for a traditional grant because they didn’t think they would be welcome.” By stepping back from individual contest submissions, grantmakers can see new patterns and trends at large. Emerging trends like data journalism and use of mobile apps were seen early across News Challenge submissions.

Knight also reports that the 20 percent or so of its grantmaking allocated to contests has resulted in major changes in its more traditional grantmaking, from practical steps like shortening application forms to bigger cultural changes like creating a “safe zone” for risk-taking and experimentation.

In August, Kevin Starr, managing director of the Mulago Foundation, responded to the Knight report with an article “Dump the Prizes,” published in Stanford Social Innovation Review. While he said the Knight report was thoughtful, his point was that contests waste huge amounts of time (25,000 entries and only 400 winners), and overemphasize innovation while side-stepping implementation concerns and capacities. He thinks contests are a distraction from what he defines as the social sector’s central problem: It does not function “as a real market for impact, where smart funders channel the majority of resources toward those best able to create change.”

This fall has seen numerous back-and-forths among Knight staff, Starr, and many others, making for lively, sometimes contentious, reading on blogs, Twitter, and in news organizations covering nonprofits. Contest advocates see open competitions as a way to democratize philanthropy, encourage new ideas, and build relationships with people and organizations otherwise uncomfortable with the standard grantmaking process (submitting detailed written proposals for lengthy analysis by foundation staffers). Skeptics doubt that contests truly advance issues or initiatives that wouldn’t happen otherwise, and that in the meantime they waste applicants’ time, cause organizations to stray “off mission” to try to get the money, and seem to serve as much of a publicity vehicle for the sponsor as for the prize winners.

Forever Saint Paul’s million-dollar prize went to Tracy Sides, who plans to take over a vacant four-story building near downtown to create an “urban oasis” offering a food hub and nature-themed event center. Naomi Pesky, vice president for marketing and communications at the Saint Paul Foundation, says that “when you ask people, great ideas emerge that would not emerge otherwise.” A report on the challenge will be made public soon, helping us understand not only what kinds of ideas were submitted, but also what the foundation learned in the process. The sort of public debate and openness to discussion that contests encourage is perhaps the best news of all for private philanthropy. Its inner workings are gradually opening up in healthy and interesting new ways.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.