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Strategic Philanthropy

Winning Philanthropy

By October 22, 2015October 13th, 2021No Comments

Prize philanthropy – giving financial awards to “winning” recipients – has long been used by those in the private and public sectors as a means to create and inspire positive change in society. And it has recently been undergoing a strong renaissance. Why? Well, prizes can help you:

  • Change thinking on a topic that you’re passionate about.
  • Confront challenges that have not been effectively addressed.
  • Spur groups to propose innovations and fresh ideas that have not been tried.
  • Bring into the conversation people who have not previously been consulted on an issue.
  • Give thanks and recognition to people for their important contributions in difficult fields.
  • Provide much-needed funds to enable individuals and organizations to pursue a creative project without the reporting or measurement typically required with grants.
  • Draw high-profile attention to an issue, provide prestige, and enhance future funding prospects.

Some of The Philanthropic Initiative’s clients have successfully engaged in prize philanthropy for many years, and others have considered wading in. We were recently asked by a client to help them decide if prize philanthropy might be a good fit for their giving. After all, prize philanthropy can be an incredibly rewarding form of philanthropy, but it’s also one that requires a thoughtful and intentional approach. Designing the prize, managing the process carefully, and achieving the ripple effect of good publicity can all require significant time and financial resources. As we helped this client research and consider their options, we thought we’d share some of what we know to be true about prize philanthropy.

Clarify your goals

While it might be tempting to simply put out an application and pick a winner, creating a prize should be done strategically. First and foremost, it’s critical to articulate a clear goal for what you want to achieve through awarding a prize. Several studies on prize philanthropy, including one from McKinsey & Company point out that the goal and strategy behind the prize are more important than the actual size of the award. Prizes won’t effectively address every issue, and you want to make sure that the strategy you’re using matches the solution you’re seeking.

Design it right

Match the design to your goals. There are a number of considerations that go into effective prize design. Will the application be open to all, or carefully targeted? Will decisions be made by experts or by the “crowd?” Will the reward be prestige, cash, or more? Will it operate for one year, or be designed to build a brand over time? What kind of support will you provide after the prize is awarded?

The Boston Neighborhood Fellows prize seeks to recognize dedicated “unsung heroes/ines” for their service in and around Boston, and to inspire others. The design is based on tapping a network of community spotters to find candidates to receive no-strings-attached financial rewards, and then seeking media coverage to spread the word about the winners and the prize. In contrast, XPrizes seek to “spur innovation and accelerate the rate of positive change” on big problems where there has been a market failure. They are designed with an open platform and millions of dollars in incentive rewards. The Milken Educator Awards program rewards early-to-mid career education professionals with $25,000 prizes to both recognize past achievements and inspire future accomplishments. It also seeks to build a community of educators, policy makers, and influencers.

Make it loud

Nearly all prizes seek to benefit from publicity – whether to spur applications and participation, or to draw attention to the winners and their causes. This attention creates a public conversation about the issue that the prize is meant to address, and adds prestige. Getting that spotlight has become harder and harder amidst the proliferation of prizes, and may require creative partnerships and a certain amount of “prize theater” designed to match the audience and goals.

What’s next?

Prizes can be exciting and fun for donors and recipients alike, and can have an impact on issues philanthropists want to address. Designing a prize can also be challenging and we are here to help. Over the years, TPI has worked with a number of clients to design unique and impactful prize philanthropy programs. If you are interested in exploring this idea yourself, or if you’d like to learn more about TPI’s experience in this area of philanthropy, please contact us at or 617.338.5880.