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Dump the prizes? Most definitely not.

October 16, 2013

Are prizes perfect? No.

Can they be extremely powerful? Yes.

Having designed and managed dozens of prizes over the past 10 years I can say from experience that there is a right way and a wrong way to run them. The wrong way is to make it all about a small exclusive set of winners. The right way is to make it about building a network of innovators and implementers that transcends the prize itself and increases the capacity of the sector.

There are lots of examples including Fish 2.0, X-Prize, Kaggle, Changemakers, Rockefeller Centennial, the BMe story among many more. What do these and other prizes have in common?

They are a means to:
1) source powerful solutions
2) ignite the network and community that drive the sector
3) get the sponsors to believe in the network made up of those who drive the sector

We wouldn’t be celebrating Elon Musk’s SpaceX if it hadn’t been for the initial Ansari X-Prize. This prize was a turning point in space travel when Spaceflight went beyond the realm of government, and the first private team led by aerospace designer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen went above the earth’s surface.

Another example is when the Knight Foundation sponsored BMe (Black Male engagement) challenges to highlight how black men are true assets in their community. Thousands of men participated in the challenge and are now part of a membership association that is driving real change in Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

What should be alarming to all is the more traditional mode of philanthropy encouraged in the article. By default, it often results in a handful of individuals deciding the fate of large amounts of capital and the state of social and humanitarian affairs in isolation, often funding the same organizations time after time. While prizes may not be perfect, when done well they break us out of the box—a box we are in all too often, where we operate in isolation.

We can’t afford to make blanket statements like “Dump the Prize.” Instead we need a thoughtful discussion on how to use prizes well. For me the answer lies not in making it about the winners, but instead making it about collective action. The strength of a challenge is found in the momentum it builds and the network of people it creates. In turn these networks provide a platform to fuel advancements, amplify brands and provide critical intelligence for business decisions.

That’s the power of the prize!

In response to Kevin Starr’s article “Dump the Prizes” —Stanford Social Innovation (Aug 22, 2013).

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