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Catalyzing Innovation Through Prize Philanthropy: Seminar Recap

September 29, 2021

At a recent seminar, Leveraging Prize Philanthropy: Foundation Perspectives and Experiences, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and its guest panelists explored how prize philanthropy can drive social innovation and benefit ecosystems beyond the awardees, as well as some challenges presented by this approach.  Prize philanthropy, which has recently emerged as a tool for a wider segment of donors to advance their mission and goals, typically involves awarding monetary prizes at the end of a competitive process accompanied by a significant promotional and awareness campaign or event.

This convening was part of the peer-learning program of the Theory of the Foundation Learning Collaborative, a global cohort of dozens of leading foundations and philanthropic institutions. The panelists—Eric Braverman of Schmidt Futures (US), Cecilia A. Conrad of Lever for Change and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (US), Arturo Palma Matetic of Fundación Teraike (Chile) and Luc Tayart de Borms of King Baudouin Foundation (Belgium)—were joined by more than 30 senior philanthropy leaders in a discussion moderated by RPA vice president Renee Karibi-Whyte.

The insights and learnings that surfaced from this panel discussion may help donors who are engaged in or considering prize philanthropy.

Prize philanthropy can uniquely mobilize new ideas, initiatives, and individuals. This discussion recognized the enabling power of philanthropic competitions by helping donors step outside their sphere of knowledge and networks, no matter how big, and discover exceptional talent and new methods to solve problems they want to pay for. Further, the flexibility to design the competition’s scope to be as nebulous and open-ended as required widens the funnel of creative ideas that reach their evaluation desks from previously unexplored corners of the world. For instance, one panelist cited a competition that attracted tens of thousands of applicants from over 165 countries in just three months as an example of the innovation potential of this method.

Donors engaged in prize philanthropy should recognize and harness its radiating effects. Panelists noted that the radiating or multiplier effects of prize philanthropy far exceed the monetary value of the prize itself. Akin to strategic grantmaking, donors engaged in competitions or awarding prizes typically go beyond their monetary resources to advance the work of the awardees, or provide capacity building support to help scale the work of the winners. Most ubiquitously, the celebration associated with prize giving is often highlighted in popular media, bringing awareness that has the potential to inspire many others to act and innovate. One panelist shared their experience of working with African communities and how awarding five winners from over 100 contenders through their competition can activate a culture of finding genius in villages even beyond and after the life of the competition itself. Some donors make it standard practice to amplify the work of winners, with an express goal of introducing winners to new and eclectic bubbles of funders from across the globe to unlock greater funding. In one instance, a panelist cited, this process unlocked for a winner an additional US$559M in philanthropic capital.

In an effort to have deeper impact in a particular area, some donors host convenings and facilitate collaboration among contenders. This can lead to powerful partnerships and cross-pollination with both other contenders and those outside of the competition or award pool. For example, several panelists mentioned collaborating with school systems, state authorities and even federal governments. Through enabling such strategic multi-stakeholder ecosystems, prize philanthropy can become a catalyst to systems change.

Power dynamics and process requirements should be managed with equity, effort, and inclusion in mind. The panelists clearly acknowledged the inequity of power and privilege inherent in providing resources and awarding prizes. Accordingly, they noted that their organizations intentionally work to create as equitable a system as possible. Reducing the burden of application particularly in relationship to the likelihood of advancing is one approach that was embraced. Panelists provided examples of built-in application support including detailed FAQs and guidance for every application question, external resources, videos, nominators and other interactive tools to help ease the burden of application on the candidate as far as possible. Strikingly, broadening the application criteria beyond socio-economic needs and recognizing the myriad other stiflers that could prevent an innovator from accessing resources was raised as an additional way to encourage exceptional talent to come forth. Prioritizing the communities and social issues at hand, and working closely with local partners are two additional critical tactics to help balance the inherent power dynamic in prize philanthropy.

Donors that plan to host multiple prizes or competitions should create a learning culture to drive continuous improvement in the process. Intentionally creating an upfront culture within the philanthropic organization to continuously learn and improve the process by which prizes are awarded emerged as another important consideration. Using technology tools, setting up feedback and review systems, and orienting the team for this to be a multi-year repeat program are all techniques that panelists used to help them continuously hone their prize philanthropy. Sharing personal experiences and learnings with other donors across the prize philanthropy field was also seen as useful. To this end, one of the panelists mentioned that the more their organization shared, the more they got from other actors that are willing to help and are willing to be part of this change.

This discussion revealed the intricate complexities of designing and executing prize philanthropy successfully, including the importance of reflecting upon and articulating the goals and core considerations of prize philanthropy well before launching a competition. These can include recognizing and incentivizing talent, mobilizing more resources, or simply expressing donor’s generosity. This clarity of goals should drive the strategic direction of prize philanthropy which, as illustrated through this panel discussion, can be a powerful tool for social innovation and change. For more information on prize philanthropy, review the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ guide, Prize Philanthropy: Benefits, Challenges, and Winning Approaches.

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

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