Recently, the Stanford Social Innovation Review posted a blog article written by Kevin Starr.  The piece, "Dump the Prizes," infers "contests, challenges, awards—they do more harm than good. Let’s get rid of them."

While Mr. Starr makes some valid points, we disagree.

Skild's Founder and CEO, Anil Rathi, authored and posted the following response:

I'm glad you wrote this outpour of frustration. Many people misunderstand what a contest/challenge could be and how to design a competitor experience that is mutually beneficial.

Contests and awards help organizers recognize and reward achievement and are useful tools to find undiscovered talent from the bottom-up. People or organizations (winners) are validated and can get a boost after proving they can perform. Transformational challenge experiences are the ones participants promote, recommend to their peers and want to enter again.

The solution isn't to kill contests. The solution is to educate organizers so they more thoughtfully design the participant experience. This isn't easy, but it can be done efficiently with the right knowledge and platform.

1) It wastes time >> it can

Organizers can design a contest that minimizes participants effort to a few hours rather than asking for the kitchen sink.

First, submission forms that overload participants like an endless survey suck participants valuable time and discourage participation. Keep it short -but not too short. Ask for more info, after the competitor advances to the next round. For example, 1 page form/exec sum or a short slide deck with a 90 sec voiceover is plenty to respond or convey the essence of the message.

We employed this strategy successfully for 9 years with student teams from the world's Top 300 universities called the Innovation Challenge.  We also vetted 100+ judges that provided detailed constructive feedback to student teams.

Second, organizers should offer engaging education materials to help build skills and mentor qualified participants. Too often, participants are presented only with the rules of the game rather than educational resources that could help them succeed in the contest and excel in their career or profession.

The National STEM Video Game Challenge provides training materials and guidance to help K-12 students create games using open source toolkits.

2) Too much emphasis on innovation and not nearly enough on implementation. >>agreed

Organizers can design a multi-phase or staged process that starts with a rough concept and ends with a proof of concept.  A continuous cycle of iteration and feedback leads to real-world innovation.

ImagineNation Outcomes Challenges - nationwide e-Health competitions accelerate teams of clinics to submit data on the traction of their already developed e-health solutions. The team with the most uses for a particular milestone won $25k (one of multiple cash awards triggered for quarterly milestones).

3) It gets too much wrong and too little right.>>>“winner takes all design” won't last

The examples you mention are prestigious prizes that have been around for ages and were designed for a top-down organizational structure, closed door decision making and judging. They are not designed for the new world of bottom-up innovation, transparency and constructive feedback (coaching). Think of the differences between American Idol and The Voice.

From what I know about the Knight Foundation, they are designing prizes for bottom-up innovation.

4) It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem. >> Public Voting shouldn't determine the winner. Isolate it.

Organizers should use People's Choice for awareness than determining a winner. It's about showcasing the work of industry peers, connecting the dots and collectively spreading awareness to lift all boats.

The Active Schools Acceleration Project identified the Nation's most innovative physical activity programs. Teachers submitted videos of their programs and the top ones were showcased to the entire community to share program ideas. Tufts awarded 9 winners $500k in funds to help scale the programs from classroom level to nationwide level.

These are insights from my direct experience of having created & powered more than 150 problem solving, innovation challenges and award programs distributing over $40 million in prize money for foundations, federal gov’t, academia and Fortune 500 companies around the world.


Anil Rathi

CEO & Founder, Skild

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