Social innovation prizes: who really wins?

Social innovation prizes spur social innovation, right?
Well, sometimes they do, and their winners keep winning. Other times they don’t, and we all wonder, “What was the point of that?” Let’s assess the good, the bad and the ugly… the winners, the losers and the choosers.


In 2009, I entered the We Media PitchIt! Challenge – a competition for media and technology innovations that inspire a better world. The prize was $25 000 to help launch the winning ventures. Our idea was to implement media training as part of a youth cultural travel exchange programme, and to further use media and technology to keep participants connected and supported as they pursued change projects in their communities the following year.

I knew it would be a tough entry. Many of these competitions seem to be looking for technological innovation, which makes it difficult for us non-techies, whose idea of social change innovation involves using technology we already know. Like radio. We don’t know how to write code or build an app.

The We Media PitchIt! Challenge had a number of criteria, including story, pattern change and social impact, but We Media co-founder Andrew Nachison acknowledges that there was a “cultural bias” in how they defined innovation. They were trying to spark new approaches and weren’t looking for people using existing technologies, even with new audiences.

We did not win. But I did go to Miami for the We Media Conference, where I met the winners and discovered more.

There were 435 entries that year, according to Nachison, and only two winners – one not-forprofit enterprise (which actually became a forprofit business later), and one business enterprise, SeeClickFix – that walked away with the $25 000 cheques. SeeClickFix is a website where people can openly report problems within their neighbourhoods – like potholes or dead streetlights – and governments can react and respond. At the time, the enterprise was still in the seed stage, but an application and website had already been launched.

The competition was meant to target projects in their very early stages – “the idea stage,” says Nachison – and winner SeeClickFix was about as far into the development stage as We Media would consider. But it was certainly a safer bet than ideas just on paper… like ours.

I’m not sore about losing. It was probably a blessing in disguise, as I went on to create other projects I love. But I did learn then that these competitions can be time-consuming, distracting, sometimes mission-altering, and come with very low odds.

The winners  (It’s the network, stupid!)

Before SeeClickFix won the $25 000 prize, its four co-founders were working nights and weekends developing their idea. Co-founder Ben Berkowitz says the prize money did allow him to quit his day job, but he doesn’t think the cash was crucial to their success.

“Maybe it would have taken us a little longer,” he says. But Berkowitz explains that the real benefit was the network. At the We Media conference, they realised there was an opportunity to partner with local newspapers, something they hadn’t considered. And because they managed to get enough people onto the platform, local governments were there too, meaning problems could actually get solved.

According to the website, over 645 190 complaints have been fixed – 70% of those posted, says Berkowitz. Yes, SeeClickFix has found further success after winning the challenge, but Berkowitz still thinks it isn’t about the prize. “You are a winner in this game of… competitions if you get to have a microphone, whether you get $25 000 or not,” he says. “To… be a speaker at any event where the people you might be selling to are in the room is worth quite a bit of money.”

It’s true. Berkowitz says the relationships made through PitchIt! far out-earned the prize itself. SeeClickFix didn’t need to win an award, but it did help them get traction, users and early revenue. “It was a thunderclap of positive reinforcement for the platform we’d built,”he says. “It encouraged us to accelerate, and gave us a network to accelerate with.”

Greg Macfarlane from the Student Social Venture Programme (SSVP), established by the Bertha Centre and the Net Impact Chapter at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, agrees. He says that, if entrepreneurs have a sustainable business and investment support, competitions often waste time, “but if it’s about this business linking in with a powerful network, it’s completely worth it.”

The losers

When it comes to social innovation competitions, sometimes the losers can be winners too. Berkowitz says that when SeeClickFix lost TechSoup’s NetSquared Challenge it felt like they’d actually won. Why? Because they made contacts, partnered with TechSoup global partners, were invited to various events, and later got two mobile apps built for other platforms at no cost. That’s arguably a “win” of tens of thousands of dollars.

Conversely, sometimes competition losers really do lose, getting nothing out of the experience barring bad news, and a lot of catching up to do after time spent on the challenge. And, sometimes, competition winners turn out to be the losers (or more precisely, the “failures”). In other words, some award-winning innovations take home the big prize and then go nowhere at all.

Greg Macfarlane the Social Student Venture Programme (Inside|Out reported earlier) thinks that many prizewinners don’t really have sustainable businesses, and that part of the reason they may seek prizes rather than venture capital is that their ideas are too risky or early-stage. He thinks that, even for winners, success is the exception. “It’s not a case of ‘Did anyone fail?’ as much as, ‘Did anyone succeed?’” says Macfarlane.

But isn’t the whole point of these competitions to bet on and assist those that are likely to succeed? Milena Arciszewski, founder of Pando Projects, was the We Media winner in 2011, but a year after her win, she shares on their website how she ran out of money, lost her mojo and then put the project on hold.

It happens. Some social-change agents are better on ideas than on implementation. Many of us (and even former investment bankers like Arciszewski) have not gone to business school. And she didn’t have a co founder. Co-founders help keep you focused, motivate you, share the workload, and can be the yin to your yang – especially when it comes to business.

We Media co-founder Andrew Nachison doesn’t blame Arcizewski for the failure to launch, and thinks it’s important to know when to quit. She delivered a lot early on and had done good legwork, but “ran out of money and ran out of steam,” he says. “There’s an emotional toll when that happens as well. That’s the human reality of launching something.”

Finally, in the camp of winners-who-are-losers, there are also some award-winners who don’t deserve the prizes or get them through questionable means. To me, a Monsanto executive receiving the 2013 World Food Prize of $250 000 is just wrong. I know I’m not objective – Monsanto is a company I often fight against in my own activism for food justice and security. But even for the unbiased, this win raises ethical questions, as Monsanto pledged US$5 million to the World Food Prize Foundation five years ago.

It’s hard to justify giving prize-money to big corporations who don’t need it when sparse funding stops many small-time innovators from implementing very worthwhile ideas. Even more so when the purported aim of these prizes is to innovate for real social change.

The choosers

After four years, We Media decided to halt their PitchIt! Challenge. “We felt it had run its course,” says co-founder Andrew Nachison, explaining that funding became difficult and the innovation award market was becoming congested with prizes for entrepreneurs and good ideas.

This story shows how experimental the world of social innovation prizes really is. The thing about innovation, even innovating a prize, is that it always comes with experimentation and the risk of failure. Before calling it quits, We Media gave out eight prizes totalling $200 000. Nachison says the results are mixed:

How have the winners fared since?


So what’s the point of innovation prizes?

McKinsey on Society discusses how there are more film awards given out annually than there are full-length feature films produced. The question emerges: Why all the prizes?

They might be motivating and rewarding, but we live in a world where, too often, people think what you’re doing doesn’t matter unless you have a prize to prove it. If they don’t already, organisations are going to be hiring not only grant writers, but also prize enterers. It can become a game. The more prizes you win, the more prizes you win. Yes, the prestige of a prize is great for impressing funders and building credibility, networks and hype. But the competitions often overlook many people (the disadvantaged, non-corporates, non-techies, non-English speakers, and so on).

On the other hand, according to a draft report by the Young Foundation, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, “competitions can trigger an ‘innovation loop’ – whereby the various independent initiatives, both winners and ‘losers’, create a systematic change in the local environment.”

The report explains that the Impumelelo Social Innovations Centre in South Africa runs an awards programme that is “more than just a competition model”. It incorporates on-site visits, a media campaign and capacity-building training workshops, and uses the awards and the sharing of best practices to improve the quality of life for the poor. Their goal is to build public-private partnerships and to get governments to upscale and replicate innovations. Their website says they are the place where good ideas get noticed, documented, taught, disseminated and done.

Helping good ideas “get done” seems a good point for a prize.

The outliers – innovation prizes in Africa


7 ways that innovation prizes deliver change (click image to enlarge)

Most social innovation prizes have a noble aim: to make a difference where it’s needed most. But often the people who need it most can’t access the competitions due to financial, social and technological constraints.

How do change agents outside of universities, corporations or the developed world discover or participate in competitions that are largely online? And what about evaluation and voting – for projects based in Africa, the digital divide makes it that much harder for stakeholders to cast votes.

Greg Macfarlane agrees that many prizes are “not very accessible” for entrants in developing countries. That’s why the Student Social Venture Programme of which he’s student chair is trying to make it easier for African – or at least southern African – teams to access prizes and the opportunities they present. “If they’ve got a good idea, we want them to do well,” says Macfarlane. “[So they] aren’t limited by financial or technical components that don’t speak to their idea.”

SSVP and its partners run a pitching challenge for teams of social entrepreneurs that include past or present South Africa post-graduate students. The winners then get assistance with business plans, financial models and pitching for prizes deemed both impactful and appropriate. In other words, prizes that offer a large prize, an influential network or both – like the Hult Prize, which awards US$1 million and access to the Clinton Global Initiative network. Otherwise the prizes are “a waste of time,” says Macfarlane.

Teams that win the pitching challenge then get to travel to the Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC) regionals in London and may receive fundraising assistance to pitch in person at other international competitions. Prohibitive travel costs mean some African groups have to pitch via Skype, a disadvantage on many levels.

Of course, Africa-specific prizes like the Innovation Prize for Africa or SAB Foundation’s Social Innovation Awards do help open new avenues for local social entrepreneurs. Competitions like SSVP’s and the African Leadership Academy’s Anzisha Prize also play a critical role in helping outliers play the game. Both SSVP and Anzisha give selected teams mentoring and support that not only helps them win more prizes, but also helps them achieve implementation success.

One of the SSVP winners, Reel Gardening (Inside|Out reported), made it all the way to the 2013 Hult Prize finals. And a 2011 Anzisha Prize runner-up – then 20-year-old George Bakka of Uganda – went on to turn the $20 000 purse into several projects and investment funds for Ugandan entrepreneurs.

Among these is Angels Hub, a business centre designed to connect, train and reduce office costs for Ugandan entrepreneurs. Bakka, the founder of Angels Initiatives, formerly Angels Finance Corporation, is passionate about entrepreneurism and describes himself and his partners as “highly charged visionaries”.

Before the Anzisha Prize, Bakka and four friends were already multitasking entrepreneurs. They were trying to make wine and soaps in a parent’s garage, had started a micro-credit fund with $120 of saved pocket money (successfully lent to three village micro-entrepreneurs), and were running training for local business people… even if they had to incur debt to do so.

But Bakka says winning the prize was very important. “At the time, it was the biggest money I’d ever heard of,” he says. “You feel like now you have what it takes to take on the world.”

Bakka took that feeling (and $20 000) and ran with it. He says that, two years after the Anzisha Prize, in addition to supporting local business, his company is valued between $70 000 and $150 000. The proof of the prize is in what happens after the cheque has been cashed.

read on → Dump the prices?

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