An interesting back and forth on “contest philanthropy” took place recently in the pixel-pages of Stanford Social Innovation Review between Mayur Patel, the wunderkind VP of Strategy and Assessment for the Knight Foundation, and Kevin Starr, managing director of the Mulago Foundation. Patel started things off in July with a blog post on six reasons why Knight likes to distribute money through contests: they bring in new blood and ideas, they create value beyond the winners, they help [funding] organizations spot emerging trends, they challenge routines and entrenched foundation behaviors, they complement existing philanthropy strategies, and they create new ways to engage communities. All fair enough, but if it felt a little canned, it’s because it was really just an executive summary of this (actually pretty cool) report that Knight released earlier this year.

Knight Foundation contest statistics

Infographic from “Why Contests Improve Philanthropy,” published by the Knight Foundation May 2013

A month later, Starr shot back with a post entitled “Dump the Prizes,” in which he eviscerated the weaknesses of contest philanthropy and jokingly suggested “mandatory jail time for crowdsourcing or crowd-judging.” Wrote Starr:

For social sector organizations, money is the oxygen they need to stay alive, so leaders have to chase prizes just like they do other, more sensible sources of funding. Some in the industry justify this as a useful learning process. It’s not. Few competitions (with some notable exceptions) provide even the most rudimentary feedback. Too many of these contests and prizes seem like they are more about the givers than the getters anyway. […]

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…

A lot of people argue that innovation competitions, challenges, and X Prizes are a vital part of that market and that they drive important advances that wouldn’t happen otherwise. I doubt it. There’s no real evidence for it, and I suspect that they do little more than speed things up a bit. The innovators I know do so to solve problems, not to win prizes. The only in-depth analysis of social impact contests I’ve seen was a 2009 McKinsey report, which began with a contests-are-wonderful perspective and carried on for 100 pages in the same vein without even a whiff of skepticism. Like many discussions of prizes, it confused anecdote with evidence and correlation with causation. We need a real study.

Not two weeks later, Patel was back with an on-point rebuttal that basically boiled down to, “we know that contests can be done badly; we’re talking about the benefits of good contests.”

A lot of this discussion reminds me of the perennial debate over the value of measurement and strategic frameworks like logic models. Details matter. It’s much more difficult to implement research-based frameworks thoughtfully than it is to implement them at all. But thoughtful or not, such frameworks can still be time- and labor-intensive to navigate, so when they are not implemented well you just make people’s lives more complicated without really adding any value. Similarly, prize philanthropy, especially when it devolves into popularity contest philanthropy, can easily do more to create stress than to improve outcomes.

I strongly share Patel’s belief in the value of open selection processes (such as those used in Knight’s contests). Nevertheless, I don’t think he comes out the winner here on every point. One of Starr’s key critiques is that, because of the competitiveness of open contests, applicants can invest a lot of time and energy in a game that they are very likely to lose. Indeed, the Knight Arts Challenge, one of the contests Patel mentions, has had over 13,300 applications in its various incarnations and funded only 257 winners, a success rate of less than two percent. (ArtPlace, whose initial formation was heavily influenced by Knight Arts VP Dennis Scholl, operates using a similar model.) While Knight takes care to minimize the administrative burden placed on applicants in the initial round, one wonders how much potential is wasted in the 98% of projects that don’t get funded.

Fortunately, as I mentioned, the report that started things off is pretty great – partly because of its interactive presentation, but more because it actually anticipates many of these issues and offers suggestions to address them. For example, some of the ideas Patel offers to make contests better include:

  • Include other funders in your reviewer pool. You can share contest knowledge with them. They may fund ideas you don‘t.

  • Treat your applicants as problem identifiers not just solution providers. Even entries that don‘t offer a feasible project idea worth funding still provide you with potentially useful feedback on the issues they think need fixing.

  • Make it the default option that applicants post their entries publicly. In the news challenge applicants can opt to submit their entries privately, but generally over 90% of all submissions are posted publicly. Why? Because applicants see the benefits of attracting attention to their ideas and generating support.

It’s obvious that Knight is still figuring things out to some extent, even as it champions the virtues of open contests. But overall, I share the foundation’s faith in the format, especially the open-access nature of it. Kevin Starr brings up some good points, but his foundation doesn’t even accept applications…and he’s far from the only grantmaker who takes that approach. The more who do, the faster we end up with an environment that’s inhospitable to new voices that aren’t coming through the traditional networks. That may well be a problem for innovation in the social sector generally, but I would argue it’s especially important to keep those channels open in the arts, given our field’s emphasis on diversity of expression and individual creativity.