Since 2007, Knight foundation has run or funded nearly a dozen open contests, many over multiple years, choosing some 400 winners from almost 25,000 entries, and granting more than $75 million to individuals, businesses, schools and nonprofits. The winners believe, as we do, that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.
The contests reflect the full diversity of our program areas: journalism and media innovation, engaging communities and fostering the arts. Over the past seven years, we have learned a lot about how good contests work, what they can do, and what the challenges are. Though contests represent less than 20 percent of our grant-making, they have improved our traditional programs in myriad ways.
A 2009 McKinsey & Company Report, "and the winner is....," put it this way: "Every leading philanthropist should consider the opportunity to use prizes to help achieve their mission, and to accept the challenge of fully exploiting this powerful tool." But of America's more than 76,000 grant-making foundations, only a handful, maybe 100 at most, have embraced the use of contests. That means 99.9 percent do not.
Sharing these lessons here is an invitation to others to consider how contests, when appropriate, might widen their networks, deepen the work they already do, and broaden their definition of philanthropic giving.
Before you launch and manage your own contests, you might want to consider the six major lessons we've learned about how contests improved our philanthropy.