Open contests help community foundations catalyze change

Knight Foundation recently released a report on operating prize contests and challenges, “Why Contests Improve Philanthropy.” Below, Bahia Ramos, director of community foundations for Knight, writes about the impact of the Knight Community Information Challenge.

The Knight Community Information Challenge has received more than 1,000 proposals from more than half of the community foundation field in its five years. That’s a lot of experimentation, but the contest has given us the chance to support and learn from local grant-makers as they moved into a more catalytic role to lead change in their communities.

We opened the contest without a prescribed notion of what the projects should look like or how they would be structured. It was useful to create a space for community foundations to experiment and take the lead on issues they care about, but we realized after the first round that it was equally important to provide resources to help them implement those ideas. As a result, we created a corps of Circuit Riders to offer technical guidance and to help foundations anticipate and surmount potential challenges in their projects. They were there to consult around a range of issues, including web development, mobile, data and data visualization, journalism and project development, partnerships, social media and community outreach. They were also a great impartial body, invested in the project’s success, whose insight and advice had no connection to grant dollars (past, present or future) and could maintain a trusted, non-transactional relationship with grantees. This was key in getting the field to buy into a new idea.

Along with Circuit Riders, we funded the Knight Digital Media Center to provide training to community foundations through in-person or web-based modules. The center has offered its expertise not just to challenge grantees, but to any community foundation interested in informing and engaging their communities around critical issues. They have held boot camps for new grantees, as well as regional workshops for organizations that are linked to larger conferences, such as the Council on Foundations, or other great places where the field convenes.

We are aware that not every person likes to learn in a group setting, or wants the structured support a Circuit Rider may provide, so we published a healthy mix of materials on our website to inspire and inform. From case studies to the five things you need to know if you are starting your own project, these resources build on the strides communities are making in meeting their information needs and give real-life examples about the impact projects have.

The work put into developing a healthy array of resources to help build skills and encourage new thinking has been just as exciting as witnessing the evolution of projects through the life of the contest. That impact extends well beyond the 96 grants we have awarded. Now, as we take a look over the first five years of the challenge, we will be providing analyses on how and to what extent the field has evolved and what common characteristics those who have been successful at leading change share.

So, yes, contests have helped to create great allies in our work to make communities more informed and engaged. However, taking ideas to action in a more thoughtful and strategic way has been an instructive lesson for us in our effort to cultivate innovation in our communities. The lessons we have learned will help shape what we do and make us stronger partners in every community Knight calls home.

Bahia Ramos, director of community foundations at Knight Foundation

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