Think Strategically About Prize Hosting

Charlie Brown & Robert Q. Benedict at Stanford Social Innovation Review: ” For many in the social sector, hosting a prize has become practically compulsory. But prizes have also proved divisive, sparking debates about their intended use, the value they provide, and the costs they incur. With so many conflicting perspectives, are there any guidelines to help decide whether a prize is worth pursuing?

We have spent more than a decade working with foundations, corporations, government agencies, and NGOs to design and host prizes; we’ve also observed dozens more competitions hosted by others and made our fair share of missteps along the way. The motivations behind prizes vary but generally cluster into one of two groups: awareness, an aim to raise the profile of an organization or issue area to generate momentum; and disruption, which incentivizes innovation, surfaces new solutions, or fundamentally changes an entrenched system.

Some organizations already have a solution in mind and use a prize to find the best partners for implementing it—more like an open request for proposals (open RFP) than an innovation search. We would categorize this sort of effort under the awareness rubric. Another large share of prizes, also overtly about awareness, are essentially marketing efforts, and lay the groundwork for future brand positioning and programmatic grants and activities. By contrast, disruption prizes seek the attention of highly focused experts to address a long-standing, difficult problem by drawing innovative solutions from the fringes of the field.

These motivations are legitimate and meaningful. But nearly all prizes use the language of innovation and disruption in their communications, to spark excitement and lend weight to the challenge being posed. This tendency can create potential problems by treating disparate goals—awareness versus disruption or even innovation—as equivalent and can lead organizations to use a counterproductive strategy for their needs. An awareness campaign that is marketed as an innovation prize, for example, risks alienating participants, who often invest enormous effort with the expectation of seeing their ideas, or those of a worthy competitor, implemented in a significant way.

Matching a host’s goal with the right kind of prize strategy is perhaps the most important, most ignored task that prize hosts face. A mismatch of intention and strategy can result in not only lackluster results but, more important, damaged trust with entrants and weakened credibility for the host….(More)”.