What’s So Wrong with Nonprofits Playing by Market Rules?

Here’s the thing about markets – they have this uncanny way of being candid, sending demand signals that companies need to pay attention and adapt to in order to thrive, if not survive.

So why is it that the nonprofit sector is uncomfortable with embracing more market-based approaches to its work? This week’s feeding frenzy of articles criticizing the Council on Foundations for its experiment to host a $40,000 pitch competition to identify new organizations and approaches to drive social change is an example of this discomfort. In fact, the frenzy was so severe, that the Council decided to cancel the pitch competition and instead host a discussion on the merits and drawbacks of new approaches to grantmaking.

One of the pillars of our work at the Case Foundation is “revolutionizing philanthropy.” We believe that the practice of mobilizing private capital for public good is in need of a major reboot. In order to keep up with the pace and scope of major social challenges, the resources and tactics going into addressing these challenges and the organizations managing those resources need to be more efficient and effective. And as a sector, we need more catalytic, collaborative and creative solutions.

That’s why we’ve tested programs like the Make It Your Own Awards, the first campaign to open up a part of the grantmaking process to an online public vote. Or the America’s Giving Challenges (in 2007 and 2009), which mobilized over 150,000 donors to give $3.8M to over 14,000 causes, most of which were small and scrappy. That’s why we created the Be Fearless campaign – because we believe that in order to create more innovation in our approaches to social change, we must all take risks, embrace and learn from failure and make big bets. And that’s why we consistently provide catalytic funding to partners that are experimenting with new approaches and hoping to find breakthrough solutions and collaborations.

We’ve long championed the potential for prize and challenge programs – including initiatives like pitch competitions – to discover breakthrough innovations. We know that sometimes the people with the most innovative solutions to big problems will be found in unlikely places – just take the wedding dress designer who played a critical role in helping to dramatically improve the design of the Ebola Protective Suit worn by health care workers treating the disease, thanks to a challenge hosted by USAID’s Global Development Lab. The U.S. government has broadly embraced the use of prizes and challenges, which kicked off with the Summit on Innovation that we co-hosted with the White House in 2010, leading to the creation of Challenge.gov, which hosts hundreds of prize and challenge competitions across 50 federal agencies. And we were proud to join some of the philanthropic sector’s leading innovators – Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Joyce Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation – in publishing a 2014 report on the ways in which incentive prizes are transforming the innovation landscape.

We love to see new practices for crowdsourcing ideas, pooling resources, disrupting old ways of doing business, testing new approaches and massively publicizing – if not competing – new programs. Why? Because, quite frankly, despite a massive amount of good accomplished with billions of nonprofit dollars, the evidence base for impact remains unsatisfying. We’re not saying that we should swing the pendulum completely toward prizes, challenges and other experimental approaches – but deploying tactics that can help us discover new ideas from unlikely places is desperately needed.

We have a saying at the Case Foundation based on an old African proverb – if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. What if, instead of trashing the Council on Foundations for trying something new, we embraced it as a fearless attempt to disrupt the status quo with the hope of finding a better way? Sure, we might each have our tweaks on how to make it better (e.g., having a panel of judges, not the audience, vote on the winner). But as a tactic, it brings a fresh market-based approach and has the potential to expose innovative people and ideas to a broad community of funders, who just might decide it’s worth pooling their resources for greater and faster impact.

We look forward to the discussion on the merits of new grantmaking approaches at the Council’s conference, but we’ll wistfully be wondering what it would be like with the pitch competition in full swing, tapping into the “wisdom of the crowd” and fully embracing of the idea of democratizing philanthropy, making it easier for anyone to participate in the efforts to solve big, hairy problems.

Want to continue the conversation? Tweet us @CaseFoundation with the hashtag #CFBlog

AGC Conversational Case Studies: A special sauce for contest success?

This post was written by Allison Fine on behalf of the Case Foundation:

For this third and final Conversational Case Study on America’s Giving Challenge from Beth Kanter and I, we wil pose a question rather than answer one: Is there a “special sauce” for successful participation in online fundraising contests?

Any good sauce is always a combination of ingredients, never just one thing. So is successful social fundraising. Based on our assessment and review of winning efforts in other contests, it seems clear that some of the key ingredients include:

Personal Appeals

People naturally respond more frequently to personal appeals from family and friends. Personal solicitations to existing donors and friends through multiple channels were rated as the most effective methods for fundraising by Challenge participants. Thirty-five percent rated messaging to friends through Facebook as most effective; 32 percent rated personal email to friends, family and colleagues as effective or most effective; and 25% rated email to existing organizational donor base as effective or most effective.


Many of the winners cited the importance of thanking donors profusely throughout the contest. Food for People not only made personal appeals to their donors but also went to great effort thanking their donors knowing that a well-thanked donor is likely to help solicit their own friends for the cause.


Creating public spaces to share information about who is doing what is also a very effective strategy. The Overseas China Education Fund maintained and shared a wiki about who was asked to do what.

Spreading Out the Work

One of the most powerful attributes of social media is the ability of large numbers of people to coordinate their actions as part of a larger event. This type of grassroots activism can be enormously effective for contests or any type of cause-based movement.

Some like Atlas Corps recruited 150 “Campaign Captains” before the contest started. These Captains agreed to get between 5-10 of their friends to give to Atlas Corps during the contest. One of the Captains was so excited about the contest that he made a challenge to his friends that if 100 of his friends donated to Atlas Corps he would go on a 30-mile bike ride in his underwear. His friends responded and he lived up to his promise. Take a look at the bottom and see for yourself!

Other organizations broke their efforts down into bite size pieces for their volunteers by creating templates to use to send messages to their friends, post and comment on blogs, and create their own videos. Here is a template page for the Challenge created by GlobeMed for its supporters.

A Picture is Worth a 1,000 Donors

Most of the winners, including our first Conversational Case Study organization Darius Goes West, chronicled their efforts by video. Students involved in GlobeMed made a series of videos and posted them on YouTube.

Face-to-Face Can’t be Forgotten

Brick and mortar methods still reign as a highly important aspect of online giving campaigns. Five Star worked with their local Chamber of Commerce gathering to set up a laptop and how to give in-person donations.

Contests are important to this concoction because they provide a framework for engaging the community, an urgent deadline for action and, in best cases (such as the Giving Challenge), matching funds for the winners. But in the end, we wonder if there is some other unique quality or combination of these ingredients that makes each person or groups efforts “special” and successful, that turns some combination of activities into a community of energetic people actively engaged in supporting a friend or a cause.

Our questions to our readers, doers, champions and participants, are these:

  • In your experience does a concoction, some blend of activities and tasks, exist, that makes some groups or people more successful than others in fundraising contests? And if so, what are they?
  • Under what circumstances does some combination of activities work best?
  • Is there a tool or action you think might work well in the future that you’d like to test next time (e.g. a geo-location service like Foursquare?)
  • Are we trying too hard to be prescriptive in discussing sauces, and should we just let people create their own recipes?

Guest blogger Allison Fine is a writer and activist dedicated to understanding and enhancing efforts to use new, social media tools for social change.

Autumn updates from Jean Case

As the summer winds down and we gear up for what promises to be an exciting fall at the Case Foundation, I thought it might be useful to step back a bit and reflect on our work – both the wonderful opportunities that we encounter every day as we invest in people and ideas that can change the world, and in the challenges and barriers we face as we work with our extensive network of partners and organizations to do great things.

Together with many of our colleagues in the philanthropy and nonprofit community, the macro shifts that have taken place around us in the past year have caused us to look hard at what we fund and to be vigilant in assuring that our resources are deployed in smart, effective programs that are yielding meaningful outcomes. And, despite the worst economic downturn in recent history and major transitions taking place in the public sector, we are pleased about the progress of the initiatives we’ve supported and enthusiastic about the new opportunities ahead.

One example for instance, we launched a civic engagement campaign in January to coincide with the inauguration of President Obama. The campaign, entitled “Change Begins with Me,” called on citizens to make commitments to “be the change” through small or very significant personal acts – anything from shoveling snow for a neighbor to tackling bigger issues at the community or even global level. Last week, we announced that a sampling of participants suggests more than 90% of those that made commitments said they’ve already fulfilled them. The number exceeds where we thought we would be with the campaign at mid-year, so we feel very good about those efforts.

But at the same time, on a larger spectrum, the Civic Health Index, released just last month by the National Conference on Citizenship, reports that volunteerism and acts of civic engagement are down in the nation overall, with the economy cited as the #1 dynamic influencing citizen efforts on these fronts. We’ve put significant Case Foundation efforts and resources toward civic engagement and volunteerism in recent years, and so the report reminds us that we still have a long way to go to achieve the kind of active civic engagement our nation and communities need and deserve.

Our main area of investment in health care has been in the brain cancer arena, through Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2), an organization that was launched with an innovative approach toward accelerating therapies for brain cancer patients. The organization was created to be a collaborative that brings together scientists, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, universities and other nonprofits. When we launched in 2002, we knew it would be a longer versus shorter haul toward desired outcomes. For many years and through many millions of dollars of investment, we have worked with the scientific and medical communities toward the goal of new therapies for patients. We had a sense of slow momentum as we aimed our focus at the screening of compounds and increasing the number of clinical trials and scientific convenings that we hoped would advance the field and result in new therapies being approved for patients. Admittedly, as the years ticked by, there were periods when we questioned if our investments were paying off or producing outcomes at a fast enough pace. Then 2009 arrived, and it has proven to be a remarkable year. For the first time in over a decade, the FDA approved a new drug, Avastin, for recurrent brain tumor patients. ABC2 helped to fund the early screening of this drug in partnership with Genentech, Duke University and others that ultimately cleared the way for clinical trials and approvals.

In addition, in the late spring, American Idol’s David Cook served as honorary chair of the Race for Hope, the primary fundraising event for ABC2, in partnership with the National Brain Tumor Society. This year the event raised more than $2 million. Shortly after the race, David appeared on American Idol’s finale and donated his iTunes revenues from the recording to ABC2. Needless to say, the momentum and progress is very real for our investments in brain cancer and we look forward to even more developments in the months ahead.

Our support of health and humanitarian efforts in Africa has resulted in a portfolio of diverse efforts that span much of the continent. Investments in HIV/AIDS, malaria, clean water and efforts aimed at reducing extreme poverty, have opened our eyes and taught us much about challenges and opportunities of working in Africa. And they’ve taught us that each country, and indeed each village, in Africa brings its own unique characteristics, making a “one size fits all” solution to entrenched problems unrealistic and posing significant barriers to scale.

One example is PlayPumps, the initiative launched to bring clean water to African villages via children’s merry-go-round pumps. We’re proud of the investment we’ve made in PlayPumps International U.S., the fundraising and marketing arm for the initiative, and the strides they’ve made in helping to bring clean water to millions of people. However, after three years of working on the ground in Africa, PlayPumps has identified significant concerns related to maintenance of the pumps in certain areas. While the initiative has brought hundreds of new pumps to Africa – an outcome we celebrate – at the same time some mix of the scale and reach, combined with a downturn in the economy, has meant that local contractors can’t keep pace with the maintenance needs. It is becoming clear that the kind of scale we hoped for will not likely be achievable in the timeframes initially outlined. As a result, Gary Edson, a strong leader with both development and business expertise, was brought on board as CEO of PlayPumps International to help the organization take a hard look at the right ways to go forward with humanitarian efforts in the future and how to best take and apply lessons learned from our involvement to date.

As I write this, we are poised to launch our next America’s Giving Challenge (AGC) in the coming weeks. We are deeply in the throes of the advance work, helping nonprofits gear up and get trained to take full advantage of what we hope will be many thousands of individuals coming online to support causes they care about – and to pick up new skills to engage new donors and supporters in the future. When we introduced the first America’s Giving Challenge in late 2007, our desired outcomes were not just about getting individuals to give to causes they cared about through this new technology, but also to galvanize nonprofit organizations to get up to speed and develop expertise in this exciting, new marketing and outreach front.

That Challenge motivated more than 70,000 Americans to give to causes they cared about and helped prepare many thousands in the nonprofit sector for social network marketing and outreach. But we realize that as we take this year’s Challenge forward, we do so in an economy in which resources are constrained – both for individuals and for organizations. What will this mean to the outcomes for this year’s campaign? Will fewer people give? Will nonprofits have the resources to fully leverage this opportunity for their organizations? These are questions we’ve asked ourselves time and time again, and at times we’ve worried that this year’s Challenge may not raise as much money or recruit as many donors as the first. But the bottom line is that we know there is a greater need in our communities, our nation and around the globe than ever before. We’re willing – and excited – to go forward with this investment with the faith that people will support the organizations that support them and that nonprofits will be ready to take advantage of the moment.

We say that the Case Foundation “invests in people and ideas that can change the world.” If we had a crystal ball, we’d invest in people and ideas that WILL change the world but the bottom line is sometimes we can’t know for sure until we try. We’re committed to learning from our successes and challenges and to work collaboratively with others to share and learn along the way.

Yours in service,

Jean Case