Holden Karnofsky at The GiveWell Blog has been making a good case that foundations should release far more information about their outcomes.

How poorly or brilliantly are their grants achieving the intended goals? And what can the rest of us — nonprofits and funders alike — learn from the vast experimentation that is occurring?

What about creating a prestigious award program as a positive incentive in this direction?

Foundations, and perhaps individual major donors, would compete for the “most effective grant” award. They would need to articulate their original goal and strategy in making the grant and demonstrate in some measurable way the progress they had achieved. Awards could be given in different topical and grant size categories.

Making this an award for success would avoid nasty issues surrounding assessing failures. For example, if a grant failed to deliver the intended outcome, was that the fault of a deficient grant-making strategy, or a failure of performance by a grantee, or some act of god?

So while we can surely learn from failures too (maybe even more), practicality requires that we get off the ground with recognition of success stories.

Probably the biggest challenge would be coming up with the prize itself. What might constitute sufficient public acclaim to motivate funders to enter the competition (do the paperwork and face the humiliation of losing)? After all, they already have the money. Prize money aside, how else might the award be made sufficiently prestigious? Maybe the promise of a TV doc being made about their success?

Importantly, the awards would go to funders, not their grantees. There are already tons of awards for the folks spending the money. Funders would need to shed their humility, stand up publicly and proclaim, “We had this brilliant idea!” This kind of assumes that funders originate strategies to solve problems and therefore should be appropriately rewarded for wise ones.

Admittedly, there are cases where clever nonprofits or social entrepreneurs think up brilliant schemes themselves and convince skeptical funders to back them. But even then, it seems some reward is due to funders who are savvy enough to recognize a smart idea or promising leader when they see one.

I'd propose handling this sort of the way Hollywood does … an award for both best original screenplay and another for best adaptation from an exisiting work.

I'm sure we can work out the bugs. It's worth the effort to get funders to share their learnings.

Who will put up the reward?


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