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Vote for me. Help me win. Click here to support. These types of phrases have become commonplace as corporations, grantmakers, nonprofits and even the government have become seemingly obsessed with prizes, challenges and public participation programs.
Here at the Case Foundation we are champions of all strategies that put citizens at the center of decision-making and empower them to take charge of the institutions that serve them and the problems that affect them. However, as these approaches rise in popularity we have to ask ourselves: is every problem best solved through a public vote/challenge, and when/how are these approaches best leveraged?
In 2007 the Case Foundation launched our first public participation program, the Make It Your Own Awards, which involved the public in nearly every aspect of the program, from guidelines creation to external reviewers to voters for the biggest grants. At the time, Stephanie Strom from the New York Times said it was the first time a major foundation was offering the public a direct role in deciding who should receive some of its money – “ a process typically shrouded in mystery,” as she put it. At that time, the only similar programs were American Express’s Member’s Project, which launched the same month as ours, Rockefeller Foundation seeking public input on program areas and the first Knight Foundation News Challenge.
We weren’t looking to blaze any trails with our program; rather we had stumbled on a new approach to civic engagement that involved neighbors connecting with each other to discuss common challenges, form solutions and then turn those solutions into action together. And, we wanted to learn and share as much about this approach as possible. So, we figured if we were spreading the gospel of citizen-centered civic engagement we should also practice what we preach and test out a citizen-centered approach to philanthropy. The results were great. We got almost 5,000 applications, tripled web traffic and more than 15,000 people voted for our Final Four grantees. At the same time we saw a huge increase in the amount of people and thought leaders talking about citizen-centered civic engagement, and we inspired the launch of some tremendous new grassroots efforts across the country.
This experiment changed the way we do business at the Case Foundation. From that point on every new effort we launched had to be citizen-centered, whether it was empowering people and nonprofits to embrace social media to raise money and recruit friends through our America’s Giving Challenges, inspiring folks to commit to taking personal responsibility for community change through Change Begins With Me or supporting the development of new applications for good through NetSquared’s Mashup Challenge. And from all of these experiments, we have had some big wins and made some big mistakes, and we’ve tried our hardest to share these lessons every step of the way through one-on-one calls with organizations looking to start new programs like Minnesota Idea Open, conferences and workshops, our Giving Challenge Research or our Make It Your Own Awards research, which will come out later this month detailing outcomes of the process and the grantees' work.
As part of the President’s Open Government Directive, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has begun laying out principals and guidance for how federal agencies can best leverage public engagement programs like prizes and challenges, and federal agencies have begun brainstorming specific ideas on how they could increase public participation and advance impact using these approaches. That’s why later this month we are joining with the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy to bring private sector innovators together with federal employees to share lessons and think through common challenges and paths towards success.
But, we don’t want this conversation to end with a small group of people in Washington. In light of efforts like Pepsi’s Refresh Project, the Chase Community Giving Challenge and the American Express Members project, great conversations and debates have been taking place online and questions are being asked about the amount of prizes, the appropriate time to bring in experts, the right amount of grantee support, the limits of transparency, and so on. Our experiments in this space have yielded tons of lessons on this subject, and we look forward to continuing to share them. And, starting this month you can watch this new series for interviews with the organizations and individuals that have both struggled and excelled in this space and tools, tips and resources for those interested in trying out these approaches.
We look forward to being a part of this conversation, sharing what we know and learning from and with you. So, please check back throughout the month for updates in this series, let us know what you think, and be sure to tell us if you’ve seen any innovative models or programs in public participation that we should know about.