The Rise of Online Philanthropic Contests

Over the past couple of years or so there has been a steady rise in the phenomena of competitive voting contests for not for profit organizations to receive grants for projects or operations.  These contests are run by large corporations as well as not for profit groups.  Examples of corporate contests take different shapes such as Pepsi's with the Pepsi Refresh Project which gives grants ranging from $5k to $50k based on competitive community voting toChase Community Giving which touts donations over $600 million dollars through Facebook contests.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has similarly put contests into place by granting to various historic restoration projects based on the number of votes they receive online.

Whether these contests sit well with critic's ethical concerns or not, the volume of web traffic generated for the recipients, the donor organizations, and the organizations who compete but do not win is remarkable.  According to Pepsi, the most recent contest in the fall of 2011 garnered more than half a million distinct registrations with over 3.5 million votes counted on the Pepsi site alone.  If you aggregate this number with all of the site visits, social network hits, and emails then you have a truly noteworthy phenomena.

Why are people so invigorated by these contests?  There are less time intensive ways to earn money in aggregate.  One can point to the idea that the contest is a game and the competition itself is what people are engaging in more than the philanthropic cause.  It could also be argued that the community effort of building a team to go online and vote for the cause for multiple days has an intrinsic value as well and that by the simple act of building this team you are building and drawing constituents deeper into the arts community.

As these online contest continue even more organizations are starting to do them. The Humane Society recently used a online photo contest to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Case Foundation has been running a voter based contest for years, and American Express has also run contests in the past.

The following are some tips that have been gleaned from articles and criticism of various contests mentioned previously:

1)  Make sure that the contest aligns with your mission.  By diverting resources for a potential pie in the sky pot of money you can detract from your organization's true work.

2)  Ask what your organization can gain from competing for these pots of money?  Set forward goals of community building and identify volunteers to assist with these aims.

3)  If you are going to market this to your patrons identify your budget for staff time and delegate a reasonably proportional amount of money to pursue getting the word out.

4)  Don't start mid-steam.  Almost all winners of these contests have strong starts and once you are behind in the voting it is hard to keep up.  If you see a contest in progress that you would have liked to take part in simply put it on your calendar for an effort next year as your opportunity may all ready have passed.