Recently I had the privilege of attending Collaboration Innovation: Public Sector Prizes conference, sponsored by the Case Foundation,the Joyce Foundation, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Prizes are a long-established way of researching and developing innovative solutions to problems. Designing and administering a truly beneficial prize competition is no small feat, however, and the Collaboration Innovation event was designed to share best practices among the many attendees. While the event focused on prizes in government, I took away several key thoughts for private sector nonprofits- some prize-related, and some not.
Panelist Bob Lee (Wright Brothers Institute) had many interesting things to say about properly designing a prize challenge, but two points really stood out to me: "make it solvable" and "spend as much time as possible in the problem space".
Making it solvable means tackling a problem that can actually be solved through a challenge/prize competition. Even if your instinct is to take on a large, conceptual problem, you're going to be better served by narrowing your scope and focusing on a specific, solvable issue.
And while you're thinking about designing your competition remember the two fairly distinct spaces in the work process- the "problem space" and the "solution space". Spend as much time in the problem space as you can. Too often we define a problem and then immediately grasp the first available solution (which we often had in mind even before a good problem definition was in place). There is much to be gained from spending much more time defining the problem, and importantly, breaking it down into those solvable and achievable steps. If all of this sounds familiar to the private nonprofit world, it should. In a project-based nonprofit program, we would street the necessity of a well defined statement of need, achievable and realistic outcomes and goals, and overall strategic planning.
One panelist said that prizes were a way to overcome the problem that "no matter your field, most of the really smart people work for some other organization". And while that is true, what is really interesting is that the prize incentivizes the participation of those outside our organization within a very defined structure. Bringing in outside expertise (such as hiring a consultant or collaborating with another organization) is hard and often messy work. A prize competition forces you to be incredibly specific in defining the task you need accomplished prior to engaging outside partners. Moreover, it allows for a certain "get back to us when you've solved our problem" mentality, rather than a massively time-consuming dialogue on program and outcome improvement.
That, of course, has certain implications for your prize competition as well. Particularly in the social sector, the idea of attracting a large number of prize participants to invest time and money in developing solutions with no guarantee they will see any return for their effort is troublesome in many ways. At the very least it could seriously inhibit the number of entrants for any competition, and guarantee that entrants are from already-well-funded organizations/individuals. But that is why events such as the Collaboration Innovation conference are so important- working to build shared knowledge of proper competition design and ways to effectively construct an inclusive process.
The idea of prizes in the nonprofit sector is very exciting. As I listened to the panelists, I thought of many challenges in the broader nonprofit sector that could be addressed through prize competitions, and it particularly occurred to me that prizes could be an excellent way to discover and implement process improvements within nonprofit organizations. But that might be a post for another day. For now, if you're interested in prizes and innovation, be sure to check out Jean Case's excellent blog post on the history, effectiveness, and potential of prizes in the public and private sectors. You can also check out the great commentary on Twitter by searching the hashtag #publicprizes.