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Rethinking Social Impact Competitions

crowd of people at the Skoll Venture Awards 2019

Written by Julian Cottee (Social Innovation and Sustainability Expert) and Chris Blues (Programme Manager for Social Ventures).

Competitions, accelerators and prizes are now well-established fixtures in the social entrepreneurship world.

The Chivas Venture, The Earthshot Prize, Nesta Challenges, The Audacious Project, European Social Innovation Competition, Food System Vision Prize and Tata Social Enterprise Challenge to name only a few.

The ‘Gardeners’

Outside of award schemes that recognise retrospective excellence and best practice (like the UK Social Enterprise Awards for example), competitions come in a number of flavours. On the one hand there are the ‘gardeners’, who delve through the undergrowth looking for the green shoots of promising innovation to nurture. These are prizes like our own Skoll Venture Awards, which aims to spot potential and deploy small but targeted doses of no-strings capital to encourage growth. Other variants of the gardener paradigm are more involved, seeking to actively engage in and boost the evolution of new businesses.

In addition to publicity and funding, accelerator programmes offer a range of other services including learning and development opportunities, networking and access to investment, sometimes taking a stake in the business in return. 

The ‘Architects’

Elsewhere in the innovation support ecosystem are the ‘architects’ – challenge prizes that carefully identify problems that they or their funders are particularly keen on solving, and design tailored competitions to promote innovation in the sector. This is an idea with a long history. Famously, the British government in 1714 offered an award equivalent to several million pounds in today’s money for anyone who could come up with an innovation to precisely determine a ship’s longitude at sea. Today the X Prize Foundation offers similar amounts, and more, to those who can offer advances in diagnosis for medical conditions, or remove CO2 from the atmosphere. 

Both the gardeners and the architects of the social entrepreneurship world have in common the ambition of supporting innovation that our societies need, but for which there is not yet (or might never be) the market demand to unlock capital from traditional investors. They support young ventures with innovative ideas and high social impact potential, but with business plans that are still unproven. In between this high-risk grant capital and the world of traditional growth finance, is the world of social investment, which plays off the calculus of return on investment against the chance of societal benefit.

Systemic Challenges

But how well is our landscape of capital and other support for social ventures really enabling the potential of the best social entrepreneurs to ideate, prototype, launch and grow new businesses that provide answers to the world’s systemic challenges at the scale we need? Even since the inception of the Skoll Venture Awards in 2012, the number and breadth of organisations (corporates, governments, nonprofits, and academic institutions) building awards that catalyse social ventures has grown exponentially. The ecosystem might seem crowded, but are we filling all the right niches, and are we providing support at all of the crucial pinch points along the social entrepreneur’s journey to allow beautiful, wise and impact-led ventures to grow, and to fill the landscape? 

Social innovation needs gardeners and architects, and like any ecosystem, thrives on diversity and plurality. But by combining the best of these two approaches we might see something else too. Taking the big picture approach of the architect alongside the gardener’s ability to see possibility and provide it with what it needs to grow, we can map the system that enables and shapes social ventures to thrive, and ask how it could be improved. How are competitions feeding into the wider social innovation and investment ecosystem? Are we collectively selecting for and nurturing the most important attributes of truly impactful ventures? Are we duplicating efforts? How might social ventures move from one competition or accelerator to another most beneficially? How might we partner for increased impact? 

Competitions play a key role in celebrating and supporting individuals and teams who have chosen to follow their imagination and to demonstrate leadership and courage through building a venture. To serve them better we can step back and consider how we can work together towards just, equitable and sustainable systems.