Guest Articles

August 23

Renee Karibi-Whyte

A ‘Winning’ Approach to Corporate Social Responsibility: How Companies Can Get Started in Prize Philanthropy

Even as corporations have dramatically increased corporate social responsibility (CSR) over the past several years, much of corporate philanthropy still focuses on the same set of approaches: matching gifts, volunteer support and sponsorships. Each can benefit the business in terms of increased employee engagement, goodwill and brand awareness, among other benefits. However, another approach can achieve all of those goals while also spurring innovation, increasing employee excitement and driving even more publicity: prize philanthropy.

Prize philanthropy involves funders giving an award based on a competition between individuals, teams or organizations. It differs from other types of grantmaking in a variety of ways, perhaps the most significant being the publicity it generates for the corporation and the competition’s participants, and the cachet it provides to the prize winner. In addition, prize programs or philanthropic challenges open up the field of potential grant recipients (beneficiaries). They often involve a broader base of nominators or are open to any potential competitors who meet the pre-defined criteria — a clear distinction from the majority of philanthropic grant programs, which do not allow for unsolicited proposals. Thus, prizes can democratize philanthropic funding in a way that few other types of programs can match.


Examples of Prize Philanthropy Programs

One example of a corporate prize philanthropy program is’s Impact Challenges. Since 2013, Google’s charitable arm has hosted from two to 10+ challenges per year in an open call format. With awards ranging from US $50,000 to $2 million, recent thematic areas have included climate, economic opportunity and artificial intelligence for good. A key focus for Google is providing access to less-established, often overlooked organizations: 70% of the grantees winning an Impact Challenge have less than 15 employees, and 60% are less than 10 years old when they receive the grant. The award goes beyond just funding: Google employees work closely with the winners for the year after the award, providing technical assistance and mentorship.

Ashoka Changemakers provides another illustration of how corporations can use prizes to spur innovation while helping society. Started in 2004, it hosts five to seven online collaborative challenges per year, awarding an average of US $20,000. Ashoka Changemakers designs each of these global and regional awards in close collaboration with a corporation, co-creating the theme, messaging and selection criteria. One example is the Future Skills Innovation Challenge, run in partnership with the British investment bank HSBC. This challenge sought out social entrepreneurs focused on creating a “post-pandemic economy where everyone can access opportunities.” Other examples include the Urban Resilience Challenge with QBE whose winner, Drugviu, developed a population health platform that empowers communities of color to use their data to improve health outcomes, and the BetterwithPets Prize, run in partnership with Purina, which aimed to deepen the human-animal bond.


How to Run a Successful Prize Philanthropy Competition

For a successful competition, corporations should ensure that they plan, plan and plan some more. They need to consider their overall impact goals and how those goals reflect, advance or align with their corporate brand. Who are they trying to help, and why? How will they define success for the program? What resources can they leverage — both funding as well as mentorship, connections, advocacy, etc. — to engage in this successfully?

Specifically, corporations that seek to engage in prize philanthropy should endeavor to:

  • Be clear about the goals they want to achieve and how those goals fit into their larger corporate strategy.
  • Decide on the type of prize, the exact problem that will be the focus of the prize and the application/award process.
  • Plan a mechanism to identify potential contenders, publicize the competition or prize and provide a path for participants to get involved.
  • Ensure that the pool of potential participants is sufficiently large and that application requirements are accessible enough to ensure a robust group.
  • Develop specific evaluation criteria, and ensure that potential contenders understand them.
  • “Right-size” the time and resource investment required by applicants to match their chance of winning — for example, via a tiered application process or a self-qualifying questionnaire.
  • Marshal sufficient expertise among the contest judges — whether it involves technical knowledge, community familiarity or other factors — to assist in the evaluation process.
  • Structure the process to generate lessons and best practices based on what went well and what didn’t — both for their own organization, the participants and those working in the sector.
  • Plan for the award event, post-prize publicity and activities to support winners, and embed lessons into the corporation if the subject matter is relevant to its operations.

Resources also exist for corporations that are seeking to invest significant funds in a philanthropic prize, but that are apprehensive about doing it alone. For instance, Lever for Change, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is an organization that makes it much easier to run prize competitions. Focused on large awards (US $10 million and more), Lever for Change runs two to five challenges of its own per year. It also helps corporations organize their philanthropic prize programs, assisting them in developing the focus areas, creating a rubric for evaluating applications, assembling judging panels, and managing the overall logistics of the challenge. The potential thematic approaches and geographies it covers are broad by definition, allowing the corporation to customize its approach to its specific goals.

Regardless of the issue area a corporation or corporate foundation chooses as its focus, prize philanthropy can provide a fresh new approach that increases equity, broadens the potential pool of recipients, and furthers corporate purpose — enabling corporate actors to fulfill their desire to contribute to social good. For more information on Prize Philanthropy, check out Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ “Prize Philanthropy: Benefits, Challenges, and Winning Approaches,” a guide that can help corporations determine if a competition is their best option for driving impact and develop an effective approach.


Renee Karibi-Whyte is a Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.


Photo courtesy of Snapwire.




corporate social responsibility, corporations, philanthropy