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Funders Get Creative: Online Contests Aim for Innovative Solutions

By Tom Watson on August 1, 2007No Comment

Funders Get Creative, by Kate Golden
Funders Get Creative: Online Contests Aim for Innovative Solutions
By Kate Golden, 8/1/07

As more nonprofits crowd the field, vying for dollars and exposure, and the number of philanthropists -and foundations- continues to climb each year, the sector seems to grow more creative in its approach to philanthropy.  And it is not only the young entrepreneurial organizations that are experimenting.

Some of the nation’s largest philanthropic institutions, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, have recently announced initiatives that delve into areas of digital media, online competition, and virtual worlds.  At a time when presidential candidates are fielding questions in a YouTube debate, chart-topping singers are selected through text messages, and “social networking” occurs online as often as it does off, it makes sense that these foundations- and others- like them get creative with media.

What is still to be determined is how effective these new methods will be in addressing age-old problems. 

Online contests- in which organizations open up their grant programs to let the public play a role in selecting the winner- are growing in popularity, and enable average citizens to become, in essence, philanthropists, awarding anywhere from $500 (’s Speed Granting Competition on Facebook) to $5 million (the American Express Members Project).

Proponents of these contests argue that they encourage the participation of those who may not otherwise be engaged in philanthropy, and promote transparency of the grant-awarding process, by moving it from the secrecy of corner offices and board rooms into the light of a computer screen.

They can also be imbalanced.  When a well-known brand is pitted against a new or unknown organization, the latter faces the challenge of mobilizing votes against- well, a well-known brand.  Organizations that are able to leverage their own constituencies can affect voting, simply by sending out an e-mail to their supporters, asking them to vote.  Organizations with marketing money can place ads, directing people to the competition.  The challenge of democratizing the process can be seen in the questions that some have raised about one of the finalists in the Members Project. 

The Children’s Safe Drinking Water project was submitted by a Procter & Gamble employee, whose corporate affiliation enables him to promote the project internally to 100,000 P&G employees.  But a competition is, after all, a competition.  Winners are those who best use the resources available to them.  Perhaps the other four finalists will leverage their creative powers to uncover new constituencies and take home $5 million on August 7th. 

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is also giving away $5 million, through its Knight News Challenge, a contest open to “community-minded innovators worldwide.”  The Foundation hopes to encourage people to think creatively in using digital communities to enhance physical communities and improve the lives of people where they live, work and vote.  The News Challenge site invites the public to comment on proposals submitted in the “open” category, in the hopes that entrants will incorporate suggestions for improvements.  Ultimately, the winners will be decided by Foundation staff, but by opening up the entry process to allow for suggestions, Knight hopes to increase the number of “big ideas” they ultimately will fund.  

The Case Foundation’s new Make It Your Own Awards contest is an interesting opportunity for a small or fledgling nonprofit to earn money to jump start their online technologies. The Foundation is awarding more than $35,000 in grants and prizes to the top four individuals or nonprofits who can demonstrate the best “citizen-centered approach” – basically a cool and effective Web 2.0 idea. They also have tiers for other prize packages. It’s nice to see a foundation that recognizes the importance of technology for an organization – and that a couple of thousand bucks won’t cut it for tech development costs. [Editor’s note: the Case Foundation is a former client of Changing Our World, onPhilanthropy’s parent company.]

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is also using the Web to find imaginative ways to address challenges- in this case, health care.  From now until Sept. 25th, the Foundation is inviting a broad spectrum of people to demonstrate new ways in which video and computer games can help to improve health.  The online competition, “Why Games Matter:  A Prescription for Improving Health and Health Care,” hopes to uncover new applications of technologies and approaches, such as simulation games that can train health officials in infectious disease outbreaks. 

As Tom Watson noted in these pages not too long ago, old-line foundations face the perception (by some) of bureaucracy and stodginess, while organizations hip to social entrepreneurship and venture philanthropy seem to generate the majority of the headlines.  But by experimenting with new methods- in new media- perhaps these foundations can persuade the naysayers that they, too, are innovative, flexible, and ready for the brave new world of philanthropy.

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