Innovation prizes and support to solvers – how much, how little?

Here we discuss the challenges of running innovation prizes for development and the questions around additional support to solvers and value for money. 

Several of Ideas to Impact’s prizes have moved into their longer, implementation stages where the demands on solvers are higher and the potential for positive social change is greater. At this critical point in the programme, Ideas to Impact has been exploring whether any of the prizes should be providing more support to their solvers. Two questions quickly arose from our reflections:

  • What level of support to solvers is normal, or expected, in an innovation prize?
  • At what point does the amount of support provided mean that the initiative is still value for money and can still be classed an innovation prize rather than a programme that has a prize component?

In this blog post, we summarise the key areas of agreement and observations that emerged from our discussions. We also consider support to solvers in this short presentation on our latest thinking about assessing Value for Money of prizes.

Prizes may need to put resources into other areas than running the prize and offering financial incentives. A prize may want to:

Support solvers towards the prize goals, for example by offering support through workshops around particularly difficult aspects of the problem, or providing access to investors, or business mentorship and support.

Create a more level playing field for solvers so may need to provide support that enables solvers to overcome barriers that would otherwise prevent them participating in the prize. For example paying for translation services to allow solutions to be submitted in a local language and providing workshops for women to encourage and support their participation in the Adaptation at Scale prize in Nepal.

Create non-financial incentives. our interim evaluations have found a range of incentives are motivating solvers to take part (in addition to, or even instead of the prize purse), including the support to solvers discussed above but also the opportunity to make new contacts and partnerships, and the reputational benefit of participating in a high-profile prize.

There is a wide diversity of innovation prize types (even within the Ideas to Impact programme). Prizes can differ in many ways, including how the prize is structured, the desired outcomes, the type of solver being targeted, the demands placed on solvers at each stage and the risks they are being invited to take. Decisions about what support (if any) is given to solvers and the level of resources to invest, should therefore be made on a prize by prize basis, taking these variables into consideration.

As a rule of thumb, a prize is still a prize if the following conditions are met:

  • Participation is opt-in (voluntary) and participants are free to drop out at any point.
  • Participation is open to all who meet the eligibility criteria and the solvers are not prejudged in terms of who has the best chance of success.
  • The amount awarded and number of awards to be made does not need to be predetermined and no payment is made up front.
  • There are incentives to participating even if all financial incentives have been removed.
  • An award is only made after specific objectives are met by the first or best entrants.
  • The winning entries are shared as open access.


Further reading:

To inform our internal discussions on these questions, our Evaluation Team researched approaches taken by other programmes and reviewed some of the recent literature on prizes. One source we found particularly useful was Nesta’s ‘Mass Localism’ report, which makes a strong argument for including solver support in the financing and design of social challenge prizes. We were also interested to read in the African Innovation Foundation’s 2015 Annual Report, how their design of the Innovation Prize for Africa was adapted in acknowledgement of the barriers solvers experience and the needs they may have, particularly women and young innovators.

Cheryl Brown is the Evaluation & Learning Coordinator on Ideas to Impact

This blog was originally published on the Ideas to Impact website.