Improving the quality of life in the Great Lakes region and across the country.

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Special Opportunities Program

Exploring and Amplifying Critical Issues in the Great Lakes Region in Support of Program Goals


Power of Prizes

Special Opportunities: The Power and Possibility of Prizes

Goal: Solve some of today’s most pressing challenges by incentivizing new tools and ideas that can catalyze change.

Theory of Change: Prize competitions are an effective tool to solve problems, engage communities, and achieve other goals – particularly when other tools like government regulation, contracts, or grants don’t make sense.  Prizes offer a variety of benefits.  With prize competitions, sponsors can establish an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed – and then, pay only for success.

Prizes also expand the universe of likely “solvers,” reaching beyond the usual suspects in a field to increase the number of minds tackling a problem. This ability to bring out-of-discipline perspectives to bear is powerful: research from Harvard Business School shows that breakthrough solutions are most likely to come from outside the scientific discipline or at the intersection of two fields of study.  Prize competitions also can inspire risk-taking by offering a level playing field through credible rules and robust judging mechanisms. And, once awarded, prizes add prestige and validation to winning approaches, helping to elevate what works, so other groups facing similar challenges can replicate or adapt proven solutions.

The Joyce Approach

The Joyce Foundation supports innovative and collaborative approaches to yield solutions to today's most pressing problems. To that end, in recent years the Foundation has focused on the potential of prize competitions to catalyze solutions to persistent social policy problems and reveal best practices which other entities can replicate.

One example is the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which is supported by Joyce along with America Achieves, Bank of America Charitable Foundation, JPMorgan Chase Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Lumina Foundation for Education. The competition honors the nation's top community college for outstanding student completion and job placement outcomes.

The Joyce Foundation has also partnered with A Better Chicago to launch Project Impact—a competition to identify innovative nonprofit models that are successfully enabling low-income individuals to rise out of poverty. In June 2012, the Foundation co-sponsored Collaborative Innovation: Public Sector Prizes, a cross-sector forum on prizes and competitions held in Washington DC. Among the speakers, Cristin Dorgelo, the White House assistant director of grand challenges, spoke about the federal government’s efforts to use prizes to spur innovation. And, participating in a September 2012 White House forum on philanthropic innovation, Joyce President Ellen Alberding spoke about the Foundation’s prize work, outlining the benefits of competitions and encouraging peers in philanthropy to use prizes as a powerful tool to solve some of the country’s most pressing challenges.

Latest News From The Special Opportunities Program

3/24/2014 12:07:00 PM

President Promotes Jobs Training At Valencia Community College

First Aspen Prize winner represents what’s best in community colleges.

10/2/2013 2:46:00 PM

MDRC Releases College Match Practitioner Brief

Strategies high school counselors can use to help increase the number of high-achieving, low-income students who plan to attend selective colleges.

9/24/2013 11:49:00 AM

The Chronicle of Philanthropy Opinion: College Contest Shows Why Prizes Aren’t a Silly Fad

The following op-ed was published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy on September 22, 2013


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