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Hundreds of individuals and organizations have been able to help their cause or community through challenges and open-grantmaking initiatives, but there are few who have been as consistently successful at these competitions as Atlas Service Corps and its founder Scott Beale.
Atlas Corps has won grant money in both the first and second America's Giving Challenges, the Chase Community Giving Contest and Pepsi Refresh.
As part of our series on Citizen-Centered Solutions, I asked Scott if he would share with us from his perspective as a repeat winner in online citizen-centered competitions.
Kristin: Why have you chosen to put so much of your energy into challenges rather than traditional grant applications or funder requests?
Scott: Atlas Corps is a very unique model that addresses a wide variety of issues from the empowerment of women, to the environment to global health. We find that funders are often looking for very specific issues to fund (like organizations addressing clean water or malaria) and can be less enthusiastic about crosscutting organizations. While we are still approaching funders to support our leadership program, or even funders to support specific issues or Fellows within our program, we have sought creative ways to demonstrate the success of Atlas Corps and grow our program to scale.
Currently we don't have one angel investor who supports Atlas Corps, however there are thousands of people who passionately believe in our idea. We hope that by winning these contests we can demonstrate proof of concept, allow our organization to become 75% sustainable based on cost share alone, and attract the attention of traditional donors to support our program.
Kristin: What’s the most rewarding part of participating in these public-driven programs?
Scott: Certainly the nearly $400,000 we have won is very rewarding and critical for our success, but the most rewarding part is seeing how hard empowered supporters will fight for the idea of Atlas Corps. These contests allow $10 donors to help us win $50,000. These competitions turned Facebook Friends into $125,000 from Chase. Coke drinkers drank Pepsi like it was champagne when we won in February. We are showing that you don't need to be wealthy or well-connected to launch an international nonprofit, and that with hard work and a great idea you can tangibly change the world.
There is so much focus on our use of social media or the 5,000+ people in our network who have helped win these contests, but in reality the most rewarding part is welcoming the five new Fellows that the $50,000 from Pepsi made possible. These inspiring nonprofit leaders from Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Armenia, Belgium and Pakistan are addressing issues such as environmental challenges, and the exploitation of women and children. Winning these contests allows the previously unreachable dream of a sustainable, multinational, multilateral service corps to exist - it has been a tremendously rewarding experience.
Kristin: And what’s most challenging?
Scott: With regard to the contests, it is very challenging to convince people that it is worth the time and the effort. We are taught to go the traditional path, that funding comes from writing foundation grants and winning over the wealthy. From the very beginning we have tried to chart a new model of fund raising that begins with an income stream (organizations where we place nonprofit leaders pay approximately $29,500 for those Fellows) that covers 75% of our program expenses. In addition to our income stream we've successfully raised money from government, foundation, corporate and individual sources.
For us, the online contests were a part of our creative fund raising approach and one that I particularly liked because it empowered or network and got them excited about the competitions and out there fighting for Atlas Corps. Now the challenge we face is not convincing people it is worth the effort, but balancing the enthusiasm of supporters who want to do these competitions every month with our supporters that want us to scale back the number of emails we send about different competitions.
Kristin: As organizations continue to design and refine these programs, what advice would you give them from the participant point of view?
Scott: If a foundation or corporation is going to organize an online contest, please contact me, I am willing to give my advice for free and have a lot of ideas. We have competed in and won five online competitions and some are designed better than others. Here is a short list of suggestions:
- Legitimacy of votes is critical (as is clarity of the rules) - competitions can be manipulated if poorly formatted.
- $10 competitions, like the Case Foundation's America's Giving Challenge, are better than simple voting - in these competitions all organizations win by at least raising money for good causes.
- Leaderboards are key - teams need to know how well they are doing and whether they are wasting their time.
- Seek ways to promote collaboration, even in competitive environments - when nonprofits work together in these competitions everyone wins regardless of the outcome.
- Create different categories to allow big organizations go up against big organizations and smaller organizations to still have a chance - Pepsi Refresh Everything has done a good job with this.
- Competitions should be pathways to traditional funding - If these contests are about finding the best ideas then those ideas should become eligible for larger funding. I though Chase did a good job with their discretionary grant round following the competition.
- It should not be all about the money - media partners and additional recognition is key for smaller nonprofit who want to leverage these competitions and reach more traditional funders.
Kristin: What’s the future of these prize and challenge competitions?
Scott: I think there is still growth in this area of philanthropy. Americans are inherently competitive and I feel there is a sense that the traditional avenues of philanthropy are not identifying new innovative ideas. As more Millennials launch nonprofits and seeking financial resources, online competitions suit my generation well. We are group oriented, technologically savvy and well networked.
The competitions still need to improve their legitimacy and come to an agreement on some basic standards, but I believe more corporations will see value in associating their brand with these efforts and more foundations will appreciate the crowd sourcing of ideas that can grow out of online competitions.
Atlas Corps would not exist if the Case Foundation did not decide to dedicate $50,000 to the winner of the first America's Giving Challenge and more importantly if 1,700 people had not donated $10 to our cause during that competition. We had launched our fellowship only four months before that competition launched and in the last two and half years we have grown to four classes of fellows (39 individuals) from 12 different countries addressing critical social issues. I believe there are dozens of other organizations to be discovered every year from online competitions, so I hope the trend continues.
About Atlas Service Corps Atlas Service Corps's mission is to integrate a global citizen sector in order to create a global partnership for development. It brings rising citizen sector leaders from developing countries to volunteer at U.S. Organizations for a one year fellowship. Atlas Corps strives to build the capacity of the citizen sector both in the U.S. and in developing countries through this exchange.