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Building blocks, foot races & space travel; the power of prizes

July 23, 2014

No matter what the topic, prizes tug at something deeply human in all of us. Competitions to build the tallest tower of blocks in the classroom and races around the playground during childhood evolve into architectural competitions and the Olympics. Prizes have a strange, ubiquitous yet hidden quality to them; they are everywhere but almost invisible.

Yet, they all have common starting points; what or who is the best? how to solve a problem? how to move a group to action? Grant making, direct investment and expert advice are just a few traditional ways to answer these questions. These are all good tools but the results can be expensive, take too long, or not generate the ideas or insights needed.

For problems of a global scale a prize may be a last hope for finding a solution. For anyone considering using a prize I’d encourage you to ask yourself these three questions as you explore your options. The answers won’t tell you whether you should or shouldn’t pursue a prize, but they will help inform what kind of prize might work best achieve your goal.

1. Are you looking for the most unique, creative and innovative idea or the proven best of something?

Sourcing ideas and methods from the fringe can lead us to innovation, today’s weird approach is tomorrow’s new best practice. And, finding the proven best in one area can be seen as innovation in another. Prizes that look for the most unique or toward a future goal—inducement prizes—are designed to generate innovation and novel ideas by creating incentives to act. Prizes that recognize the proven best—recognition prizes—are design to enhance prestige and focus attention on an issue. Committing to the primary knowledge outcome will set you off in the right direction.

2. Will increased and focused competition be likely to produce better or worse results in your community?

Prizes work best when they are focused and competitive, which often means transparent. A very focused problem statement can yield thousands of high-quality entries and the more visible the ideas, the more heated competition. But, if you know your community wouldn’t benefit from transparent competition, such as those working in political environments or communities of violence, you can still host a private prize. Consider including complementary tools like workshops, hackathons, collective impact grants or storytelling campaigns to find your unexpected winners.

3. What’s more important to you: the entrant or the entry?

At face value prizes appear to be designed to find a winner, but well-designed prizes also understand who the entrants are and what they could do together in the future. Consider the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge. The first year of awards mapped 32 winning cities and those cities are now working together to exchange resilience best practices. Sourcing global grantees was an output of the prize but the lasting outcome is much bigger manifesting the Chief Resilience Officer role in each city and a network of resilience practitioners. If your primary gain is the intellectual property generated by the prize you should pay close attention to what is being submitted, performing rigorous testing and vetting. But don’t loose sight of who submitted the entry, who has entered can be a key element of the human drama that makes a prize great. For example, when a team of high school students beats MIT in a robotics competition the story is easily as powerful as the intellectual property produced.

Solid prize design is a complex process but Context Partners has a straightforward methodology that ensures each design decision is in service to the prize vision and the community it will create. To learn more check out the Prize Primer or get in touch to talk about what a prize could gain for your organization or aspirational brand.

Building blocks, foot races & space travel; the power of prizes

Robert Q. Benedict


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