About five years ago, Kevin Starr offered a searing critique of the social sector prize-industrial complex in his piece, Dump the Prizes. Prizes, particularly crowdsourced ones, waste too much of everyone’s time, he wrote, rewarding novelty and distracting people from the programs that produce real impact. 

Our organization recently launched a new prize, and we wrestled with some of the issues Starr raised.

At Encore.org, we’re on a quest to transform longer lives into a force for good. More than a decade ago, we launched The Purpose Prize, a $100,000 prize for social entrepreneurs over the age of 60. The idea was to elevate a new narrative about the potential of experienced people to be powerful changemakers. By many measures, the prize was a success.

Stories of our winners and fellows (the honorees who didn’t win cash prizes) appeared in every major national media outlet. And we supported — with cash awards — 98 ventures led by older social entrepreneurs. Several similar prizes were created, including one announced just this year in Germany. And AARP adopted the prize to scale it further as part of its Disrupt Aging campaign.

While the Purpose Prize is a great way to prove that innovation and experience go hand-in-hand, we’re also eager to find innovators of all ages with plans to tap the talents of millions of older people who aren’t entrepreneurs. Innovations around longevity are catnip to Silicon Valley venture firms (Live to 200!), but where’s the investment in making the most of the years we already have?

That was the premise for The Gen2Gen Encore Prize — a competition to uncover the best ideas to tap the experience of people over 50 to help kids thrive. But we had some wrestling with Kevin Starr to do first.

Starr writes that contests create too many “losers,” and he’s got a point. One of our biggest regrets in running the Purpose Prize was that we had to turn away so many great people who had put a lot of work into applying. Over 10 years, we had nearly 10,000 applications. More than 500 people put in additional effort when they were selected as semifinalists. But in the end, just under 100 of them became cash prize winners.

Certainly, the 9,500 applicants who didn’t make it past the application stage and even some of the 400 semifinalists who were recognized as Purpose Prize fellows but received little beyond that recognition may have felt that they lost out. Could we do something to make everyone who applied for The Encore Prize feel like a winner?

Starr also cites contests as huge time-wasters, and they can be. We knew from a test of the Encore Prize concept that many interested innovators didn’t know much about how best to design roles for older adults and might spend valuable time on sub-optimal ideas. Could we build learning into the application process so all comers would gain an understanding of a game-changing source of talent? Could we equip all applicants with learnings that would benefit them in the competition — and beyond?

After much wrestling with these tough questions, we came up with four principles that we believe will make the Gen2Gen Encore Prize a better experience for all involved.

We require only the minimal effort up front. In recognition of the value of people’s time, we cut the application process for the Encore Prize down to the most basic questions needed to help us spot a well-thought out innovative idea. 

We provide valuable resources to every applicant. Rather than rapidly winnowing the applicant pool to a few semifinalists, we invite everyone who applies for the Encore Prize to tap into expert knowledge through an online accelerator.

In the first year, these were live (and recorded) webinars on topics of general interest, plus specialized knowledge to help applicants improve their applications. For 2018. we’ve captured that information in a library of bite-sized online learning modules, available to all applicants from the beginning of the application process.

We allow applicants time and provide feedback to improve their submissions. After the initial application period closes, we give everyone additional time to get feedback on how to improve their submissions. In 2017, we created a social media community just for this purpose. This year, we’ll take it a step further by enlisting up to 200 “encore” leaders to read applications and offer constructive advice to the applicants. 

We provide ongoing coaching and support after prizes have been awarded. Although we have limited cash available for awards, we want as many of our applicants to succeed as possible. After the selection of winners and awarding of prizes, we continue to convene all the semifinalists online, offer them additional training, and provide one-on-one assistance. 

This year, we will expand the support by providing every semifinalist with up to 12 hours of coaching from experienced business executives who have completed 1,000-hour fellowships in nonprofits as part of our Encore Fellowships program.

We’ve gotten feedback from Encore Prize applicants who didn’t win cash that convinces us we’re on the right track.

“This has been such a phenomenal process,” said Julie Filapek of Goodwill North Center Wisconsin. “Whatever happens here, we will be in a much better position to start our project because of all we’re thinking through.” 

“I have participated in numerous federal, state and regional application processes over the last many years,” said Allan Barsema, a social innovator in Rockford, Illinois, “and must say that the entire Encore Prize process shines well above all of those I have previously experienced.”

As Kevin Starr wrote, “Great social entrepreneurs are people with high-impact ideas, the chops to execute on them, and the commitment to go the distance. They are rare, and they shouldn’t have to enter a contest to get what they need.”

We agree, Kevin. But great social entrepreneurs aren’t born great. They have to start somewhere and they have to be eager to learn. We hope to find these aspiring entrepreneurs with the Gen2Gen Encore Prize, then lift them up with cash when we can, but, more often, with learning, a community of other entrepreneurs, and mentors who’ve been there.

Will our contest be a winner? It may be too early to say, but we’re doing what we can to boost the odds.

Jim Emerman is a vice president at Encore.org, an innovation hub tapping the experience of people 50+ as a force for good. Janet Oh is director of the Gen2Gen Encore Prize. Applications for the 2018 Encore Prize are open through May 25. To learn more and apply, go to iamgen2.gen.org/encoreprize.

Published: May 12, 2018