In defense of competitions

Who’s afraid of a little competition? Too many philanthropists.
An illustration of businesspeople positioned to start a race toward a finish line.
Feodora Chiosea, Getty Images

(This article was originally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy)

Ever since Anand Giridharadas’ book “Winners Take All” made the bestseller list five years ago, the words “competition” and “winners and losers” make many leading philanthropists cringe. 

For Giridharadas, philanthropists make nonprofits compete against each other over scraps while building reputations for themselves as do-gooders. 

But this zero-sum framing has hurt the field. Philanthropists should encourage well-designed competitions for grants, which can put everyone on equal footing to apply, regardless of their connections, funding needs, or star power. Moreover, competitions that come with high-profile prizes can elevate important issues and the organizations best placed to address them, while moving funds quickly and efficiently. 

Grant makers can also design competitions that encourage nonprofits to work together and fuel movements for social change. Take the buzz created more than a decade ago by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, which garnered press and sparked collaborative efforts around the world to encourage safe sanitation that continue to this day. 

Competitions can also excite other donors, bringing more funding to the table, magnifying the impact of each philanthropic dollar, and providing money to organizations beyond those in the winner’s circle—runners up can benefit just by their proximity to the spotlight.

That’s why my organization, Lever for Change, a nonprofit affiliate of the MacArthur Foundation, has embraced philanthropic competitions, utilizing them as opportunities to encourage equity in grantmaking. More philanthropists are overcoming their discomfort and joining us in adopting this strategy.

The number of large, application-based prizes and competitions in philanthropy has grown from 36 between 2005 and 2009 to almost 600 from 2015 to 2020, according to research Lever for Change commissioned. Some notable examples include Elon Musk’s $100 million prize for carbon removal, Prince William’s $1.2 million Earthshot Prize for climate change projects, and’s $25 million Impact Challenge for Women and Girls for projects that create economic opportunities for women. In addition, my organization offers several competitive prizes, including the $22 million Stronger Democracy Award.

But donors rarely follow up with winners after a prize is awarded, the study found. Doing so could help them learn more about a competition’s effect on participants and awardees, and how to improve a competition’s effectiveness.

In the meantime, here are ways philanthropists can ensure prizes and competitions pack maximum punch. 

Build in equity. At their best, competitions can help donors break out of their bubbles and consider more than the usual A-list of applicants. To do so, grant makers should loudly and clearly communicate their inclusive, equitable approach by framing the competition as an “open call.” This signals that the competition is open to any applicant, including emerging leaders and under-resourced organizations well-positioned to create lasting change.

Grant makers should also budget enough to recruit a wide range of participants to avoid the so-called “Matthew Effect”— to those that have, more shall be given. And select judges and design rubrics with equity in mind. Both judges and rubrics should reflect the challenge being addressed and the community in which the challenge exists.

Go big. The median grant size awarded by a U.S. foundation in 2021 totaled just $23,000, according to a report by Foundation Source. If you want to change the trajectory of an issue, $23,000 isn’t going to cut it.

The prize purse must reflect the size of the challenge being addressed, give leaders and organizations permission to think big, and have the heft necessary to garner attention. The bigger the pot of money, the more it will elevate both the issue you are trying to address and the eventual awardees.

You can also join forces with other grant makers to maximize impact. Find similar competitions and expand the pie. Two $100,000 grants are less valuable than one $200,000 grant.

Encourage collaboration. Design competitions to encourage collaborations between nonprofits and social entrepreneurs for joint funding. This can be a requirement and spelled out in the competition application. In this way, competitions can build community and ignite or expand social movements.

Eliminate hoops. Make eligibility criteria widely available and easy to follow to lower the bar to entry and diversify your pool of candidates. Before you launch, check the criteria with as many people as possible. Are they clear? Do people of different backgrounds in the applicant pool, judging panel, and target audience understand them in the same way? Might they unintentionally exclude a promising, innovative solution? For example, efforts to improve farmers’ productivity have often focused on landowners in low- and middle-income countries—unintentionally leaving out interventions focused on indigenous communities and women farmers who are less likely to “own” the land they rely on.

Manage reporting. Communicate how you’ll manage the relationships with participants after the award is announced. Do you want them to report back on their projects? Will you set milestones tied to a gradual payout of the funds? Will you request an evaluation of the projects? Adjust your reporting requirements if they unnecessarily burden small, local organizations. 

Over-share. Publishing the information and proposals gathered in your due diligence process while evaluating applicants benefits participants who don’t win an award. Indeed, your due diligence on runners up can help other grant makers find shovel-ready opportunities and guide other nonprofits looking for partners.

For example, each of Lever for Change’s 11 challenges has generated far more promising proposals than our donors could fund. In an effort to bolster data-driven research on issues and solutions, we’ve developed the Bold Solutions Network, which features a publicly-available, curated list of highly ranked proposals from our challenges that have a lot of potential to create change.

To date, the Bold Solutions Network has delivered almost as much funding for nonprofits ($610 million) as our challenges ($708 million). 

For philanthropists interested in launching a competition where there are no existing efforts on which you can piggyback by joining the existing competition, consult this guide on best practices for prize philanthropy from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and Lever for Change. 

Competitions typically require more planning and administrative time than grantmaking. But they shouldn’t be feared. The attention competitions bring to issues and awardees—and their potential to achieve transformative change—make them well worth the effort. 

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