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Prizes Help You Get Noticed (a response to Kevin Starr)

Kevin Starr is a good friend and someone I respect a great deal. He’s a surfer, doctor turned investor focused on impact over monetary returns. He’s got one of the best heads in the business, and I tend to agree with most of his assessments.

I don’t completely agree with his recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled, “Dump the Prizes: Contests, challenges, awards—they do more harm than good. Let’s get rid of them.”

Let me caveat this by saying that I do agree with most of what Kevin talks about with prizes:

  1. It wastes huge amounts of time.
  2. There is way too much emphasis on innovation and not nearly enough on implementation.
  3. It gets too much wrong and too little right.
  4. It serves as a distraction from the social sector’s big problem.

If you’ve read his article (please do), then you’ll notice that I agree with Kevin on every salient point he makes. Where we disagree is due to the blinders that come with Kevin’s position, an omission due to perspective, not intellect or experience.

Why then are prizes worth it?

Simply because prizes serve as a filtering mechanism for new, young and unknown startups to be found. A method for recognition when a voice is too small to be heard.

It’s hard for people with money to understand this. It’s hard for companies that have had some success to remember it.

When you’re brand new, have a prototype and just a small bit of penetration with your new idea or product, it is extremely hard to be taken seriously or to get noticed. Being at the award event gets you in front of people. Winning it helps validate the concept and people with money start taking you more seriously.

This outlook comes from my own experience. As Ushahidi, way back in the early days of 2008, we were part of the NetSquared Challenge, where David and I walked onto a stage and pitched Ushahidi for a whopping 2 minutes (crazy short!). A day later we walked out with $25,000 – which allowed the newly formed organization to become a reality. It tided us over until we received real funding from Humanity United 3 months later.

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

Ushahidi wins the NetSquared Challenge in 2008 for $25,000

I’ll add two more points of my own – one of contention, one opinion:

Contention: I remember, when Ushahidi was just 8 months old, winning a prize. This was the last prize we ever applied to be a part of, as I realized that it was only $10,000 and that the cost of the award ceremony alone was more than all the prizes added together.

Opinion: When an organization gets the initial recognition and wins a prize or two, they should remove themselves from that world of smaller prizes. Applying (and even winning) a bunch of small awards takes time and energy, and it has decreasing value over time – both for recognition and for bottom-line value.


  1. I share the same opinion after reading Kevin Starr’s article on Stanford Social Innovation Review.
    Winning the App4frica Climate Change Competition with Farmerline gave us visibility and the confidence to take our product to market.We got funding from Indigo Trust later that year.
    However I also think that in addition to awarding prizes to the winners of these competitions, organisations should also provide a dedicated mentorship framework to enable entrepreneur implement their ideas and stay away from competitions

  2. Actually, Ushahidi went on to compete in several other ‘competitions’ that aren’t mentioned. Ushahidi was the recipient of the News Challenge Award twice (2009 and 2011). The News Challenge itself is highly competitive, offering credibility and great deal of institutional support with funders), in addition to upwards of $500,000 in funding. Way more significant than $10,000. Ushahidi also received a Webby Award (also a competition) even though it doesn’t appear to come with a cash prize.

    There are other awards Ushahidi has competed for, whether it was nominated, or actively applied for, that were also competitions. Some some of the conclusions drawn here don’t seem to match up with reality (at not least in regards to the early days of Ushahidi).

    • @Carl by using a throw-away email you caused this comment to get caught in the spam filter, glad I found it.

      You’ll note that I’m talking about smaller prizes, and how they’re most useful for getting recognized, and that’s what we used them for in that first 8 months at Ushahidi. Besides that I agree with Kevin on the competitions, so whether we took part in the Knight News Challenge a year later doesn’t change the points here – so not sure what you’re getting at actually.


      As an aside, while the Knight News Challenge does give out some awards upwards of $500k, most aren’t that large and we didn’t get that amount either as we were awarded $70k in 2009 and $240k in 2011. Interestingly, you’ll note that Kevin is also talking about winners who take away small amounts of money. For the 10 or so hours we put into the Knight News Challenge, I was fairly happy to get what we did get. So what’s the point here? In the prizes that have a larger amount of funds (let’s call that >$50k), if you win it’s worth the time. What Kevin’s getting at is that there are generally a lot of people who don’t win and then it’s a lot of wasted effort.

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