Eyes on the prize? Should be we awarding grants or trophies?


Kristin Majeska

It’s prime season for awarding prizes in Spain’s philanthropic world. Last month Spain’s Prince Felipe awarded the Premios Principe de Asturias to artists, athletes and scientists, and to Ashoka’s founder, Bill Drayton, in the area of International Cooperation. The Principe de Asturias are often called Spain’s Nobel prizes. The prizes come with a €50,000 award, but their real value lies in the media attention and credibility they generate, especially when the recipients need to raise funds or awareness.

Prizes can be great media draws because there’s both a human ‘story’ and an event to cover. They can promote the work of the winners to a broad audience, lend them credibility and open doors. For example, in a recent Quora response to ‘What are the best prizes for social entrepreneurs?’, Jim Fruchterman, founder of Benetech and MacArther Fellow, cited the value of the Schwab World Forum invitation that often accompanies Schwab Fellow designations, which don’t include funding.

Foundations often create prizes with the objective of ‘inspiring others’ by publicizing examples of success or offering the carrot of securing next year’s prize. It’s less clear whether prizes for past accomplishments are accomplishing this goal. How many people are moved to action by hearing the tale of a prizewinner, relative to those who apply for a prize to support or market what they are already doing?

The word ‘prize’ comes from the Latin word ‘praemium’, a ‘reward given for a specific act or a sacrifice’. Unlike competitions for new ideas and innovations (a whole separate topic – here, a nice piece from the Spanish perspective), prizes recognize past achievements. They are rewards with ‘no strings attached’. Rather than grant funding for a specific use in the future, imagine a medal and a cheque for completely unrestricted operating support.

Prizes also imply judges – another strategy for advancing your mission. Spanish foundations have mastered the art of forming juries that combine expertise and media cachet. Explaining the judging criteria to a group of influential figures is a great way to educate them about your organization values (eg sustainable solutions, citizen involvement, excellent results measurement). You also get to involve these figures in your work, at least briefly, and benefit from being publicly associated with them. That being said, a jury of ‘big names’ can seem suspect to prize contenders. For its prize, la Fundación Novia Salcedo has figured out how to give legitimacy to the judging and ensure the judges learn from those in field: they include the previous year’s winner on the jury, as a peer. My colleague at Philanthropic Intelligence was on this year’s jury and was so impressed with the calibre of the judges and the deliberations that she has been happy to talk it up in the sector.

Prizes can be powerful and board members tend to love them. But before you add a prize to your funding repertoire, here are a few questions for reflection.

Will you really get the media coverage to justify dedicating the resources to run a successful awards process? Last week in Madrid the Fundación Seres awarded its ‘Premios’ to corporate social responsibility initiatives that benefit marginalized populations. When the foundation’s board members first awarded such a prize 10 years ago, Corporate Social Responsibility was almost unknown in Spain, and the awareness they raised was invaluable. But today CSR prizes abound in Spain and even though SERES spotlights best practices to a full auditorium, it’s harder and harder to get ‘heard above the noise’.

How will you want to be able to assess the ‘results’ of your prize money? You’ll be able to report on the trajectory of the prizewinner post-prize, but not on any specific initiative you’ve funded.

Will a panel of judges be better suited to assess the candidates than your experienced staff or grant committee? Will you feel comfortable giving them decision-making power among pre-screened candidates? Perhaps they’ll bring a fresh perspective … or perhaps the decision won’t be what you hoped.

Let’s face it, it’s more fun to be on stage handing out an ‘Oscar’ alongside a star-studded jury than it is to sign another letter after a grant committee decision. But which will have more impact on the cause you care about?

Kristin Majeska is partner at Philanthropic Intelligence

Tagged in: Awards CSR Measurement Spain

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