Yes, But Will Philanthrosourcing Work?

If you read this space regularly, you are probably becoming familiar with the concept of Philanthrosourcing. We’ve been tracking the spread of the idea: that the crowd can be tapped for solutions to the most challenging philanthropic problems, and that new ideas and new strategies in civic engagement can be picked based on the strength of the idea… regardless of where the idea originates.

A few weeks ago, Business Week published this article, analyzing a specific branch of the Philanthrosourcing world. It’s definitely an interesting read, and it highlights for me one of the big questions about the branch of Philanthrosourcing that motivates people to enter contests for prize money: where will it work and where won't it work?

With certain industries (take Alternative Energy or Medical Research) there are already billions being spent every year to develop new ideas. This means that people with the know-how to get involved in advancing the discussion probably have to be drawn from a large company or research team. It's like the end of a bicycle race: only the people who are situated near the front already have any chance at sprinting to the finish, and only the best teams are even able to be there. But these same teams are usually set in their paths and have defined goals, so a prize purse has to be gigantic to attract their attention. This begins to explain things like why the Big Three auto manufacturers have never used their own engineers to enter the 100-mpg-car-that-can-be-mass-produced competition: the prize money is too small to make a difference, their engineers already have internal goals, and they have a lot at stake in not coming in second (or, god forbid, last).

Along the same lines, a final prize for a successful idea is only useful if you already have the resources to complete your task. That is to say: a $10 million X-Prize for reaching space is all well and good, but it doesn’t give me (as an individual dreamer) all that much to start buying rocket fuel. So there is clearly a question of choosing the right project and matching the dollars in terms of scope. The goal must be within the means of enough people, and the prize must be substantial enough to attract people positioned to compete.

Perhaps the best use of prize money in certain fields is not to push for innovation in general, but to redirect research away from capitalistic process and toward philanthropic process. This focusing, then, begins to dovetail with new ideas about creative design being focused on civic good; ideas that are currently gaining popularity with design schools and shops. If the philanthropic world can come up with purses that make it financially beneficial to create better water filters, people will focus on that instead of making more aerodynamic cell phone skins. This, then, might be the best method for imagining success for Philanthrosourcing projects: donors could begin to change who is dedicating their time and energy to civic projects. If we can target small enough issues and focused enough goals, unaffiliated groups or even individuals could have a chance to compete.

Richard Wilson from Washington University in Saint Louis raises a point about using the carrot of dollars too liberally. I’ll use his line, from the above Business Week article, to close this little brain storming session: "The motivation for us is a chance to make a difference," he says. "It's the patient we have in mind. I worry that the X Prize sort of thing is much more hype than substance."

Alan Smith

Posted at 9:05 AM, Dec 09, 2008 in Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comment