Reinventing Social Innovation Contests - RSA

Article: Reinventing Social Innovation Contests


  • Enterprise
  • Social enterprise
  • Digital

Competitive grants that seek to support social entrepreneurs quite rightly prioritise public engagement. Ruxandra Creosteanu FRSA welcomes the principle but not the method and argues for a new approach that engages communities and stakeholders in a more meaningful way.

I am a social entrepreneur:  I manage an organisation with the big dream to solve the world’s biggest challenges. If your ambition is to solve problems such as eradicate poverty, promote good health and wellbeing, gender equality or quality education, then you need the money to validate your solution, scale it internationally and measure your impact. And, unless your dad is Rupert Mardoch, you are constantly after funding.

You usually do not want Venture Capital money, to avoid crazy mission drifts. You may never get Impact Investors, so you usually go for bootstrapping; grant chasing or social innovation competitions. These competitive grants consist in lengthy written applications where the winner is selected by a jury, which ‘objectively’ scores the applicants on a rubric. The problem is that juries tend to favour academic and technically detailed answers. However, social contexts are always complex and non-linear in nature, and what sounds good on paper almost never works out that way.  

Another major problem of social innovation contests is that they are black and white. When contestants submit their responses to an online contest, they usually get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer as to whether they won or not, and sometimes they get some feedback. So unless a social innovator is among the few happy winners, the contest is just a waste of time and energy and it did not make him advance. Kevin Starr, founder of the Mulago Foundation wrote already a great article on this topic in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Some social enterprise competitions involve online-voting that try to measure a venture’s potential for community engagement. The business model gives the jury a clear view of the team’s business acumen, their understanding of the market and the strategy to conquer their very first niche. And the engagement of the community should give a clear picture on whether the team is capable of involving key stakeholders to participate to the venture success.

However, on-line voting rewards people with large established online social networks; but they might be shallow level of interactions, that do not lead to better outcomes.I have recently participated to a voting competition where even my grandmother voted; this is not representative of my venture’s potential to achieve a larger impact. The ultimate demonstration of the inefficiency of online-voting as a way to measure a venture’s community engagement is the growing market to buy online votes. It is now possible to buy votes for any type of contest through a range of companies such as

One way to improve social innovation competitions is to open up the applications, so that also the public, not only the jury, is able to read them and give feedback. Ashoka has done a lot in this sense through their online competition tool called Changemakers. Companies post challenges (for example, Boheringer Ingelheim’s Making More Health initiative or the C&A Foundation’s Fabric of Change), entrepreneurs apply with their projects, and the whole community has access to the projects’ strategy, being able to leave constructive feedback to the applicants.

They are now looking to improve the system, as they realised that sometimes they have over 1,000 applicants, but awards for only 10 winners. What happens with the 989th? It was surely a great project; juries sometimes admit that when competition is that high, and the choice between the best projects is really difficult. There might also be similar ideas among the 1,000 that might benefit from sharing ideas with their peers: an entrepreneur in Uganda might actually have a lot to exchange with an entrepreneur in Bangladesh regarding sustainable production of clothes.

We should be working on ways to create a thriving and supportive ecosystem that adds value to the applicants of contests even if they are not the winners. I am co-founder of Babele, a platform supporting social entrepreneurs with their business strategy by receiving feedback from the community (mentors, other entrepreneurs, involved citizens and so on). The platform is based on the principles of open business modelling. The strategy is accessible to everybody (an expert in marketing can give feedback to the marketing strategy; an expert in finance can review the revenue model). Traditional contests encourage people to write an application and wait and hope that they win a prize. We encourage them to start right away, providing them with a diversity of opinions on their otherwise unused business plan, and make them involve stakeholders validate their plan. The entrepreneurs who go through this process are more likely to launch successful social enterprises, even if they don’t win the prize, thus increasing the impact of the entire program.

It is time for funding organisations to wake-up and truly support the change-makers who are out in the field, working with people and changing the world!

Ruxandra Creosteanu is co-founder of Babele, an open innovation platform supporting social entrepreneurs through peer-learning and crowd-mentoring. She is an active member of the international grassroot communities Ouishare and Edgeryders. Previous work includes being a sustainability consultant at Deloitte France and manager at Carrefour Romania. She graduated in International Management at ESCP Europe in 2010 with a triple diploma in France, UK and Germany.

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