Dump the Prizes

Kevin Starr in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Contests, challenges, awards—they do more harm than good. Let’s get rid of them….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. …
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. ..
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….”
See also response by Mayur Patel on Why Open Contests Work