Kris Herbst

Dump the Prizes?: Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater

Last month, Kevin Starr’s provocative article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review spotlighted one of the oldest tools to source and support social innovations: prize competitions.

As one of the early players in the field, the Changemakers team would like to add its two cents to the conversation here, and note that there are not only shadows, even if there’s certainly room for improvement.

Ashoka Changemakers helped pioneer online competitions for social innovators nine years ago, which has given us ample opportunity to consider, and experience, the advantages and drawbacks of online competitions. After hosting 70 competitions that attracted 16,000 entries, we have learned that competitions do have limitations and can be misused –

like any tool – but we don’t agree with Starr. Ending all competitions in one fell swoop, as he recommends, is tossing this baby out with the bathwater.

We think competitions can be a good way to discover and connect the best solutions with funders and other partners that can support their growth – partners that might not otherwise have known about them in the first place. They offer the opportunity for a more open and collaborative process. At Changemakers, we make all our competition entries open and accessible to provide transparency and encourage interaction with and between participants.

Are competitions really a good way to drive this process? Our operation is evolving from using competitions to source social innovations and accelerate their impact – a valuable end in itself, but difficult to sustain after a competition ends — and is moving toward embedding competitions into a larger network of ongoing activities, with collaborating partners, so that competitions become just one driving force in a larger movement for social change.

We are working to add value into the competition entry process for everyone, not just the winners; we believe there should be no “losers” as a result. One way to ensure this is by making entry into a competition a gateway to a network or community where you can connect and form alliances with peers and potential supporters, discovering the best practices and resources that your peers are tapping.

We recognize that innovators spend precious time creating a competition entry, so we are exploring ways to get good data with less effort, such as protocols that automatically import information that a person has already accumulated, describing and validating their work and reputation, and port it across platforms. And we agree that competitions should reward a field of winners rather than be “one winner-take-all,” judging should be done by people who are experienced with innovation, and the criteria for winning solutions should include an assessment of the entrant’s ability to implement, and to demonstrate and scale-up their impact.

We are developing ways for competition entries to trigger feedback and reviews from peers and evaluators, as well as opportunities to learn how to strengthen your pitch, or become an effective storyteller for your project. We are also integrating tools that allow you to see how your work fits into a broader and deeper movement for social change. So, we’re not yet ready to abandon competitions, but we do appreciate Starr’s challenge to take a hard look at their value, and to improve how we find and fund the best solutions, based on real impact that can go to scale.

Kris Herbst is director of community for Ashoka’s Changemakers, leading a team that mobilizes participation in scaling-up social innovation and manages content and communications channels

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