WeWork Creator Awards - what we love and hate about grant competitions

Two weeks ago we submitted an application for the WeWork Creator Awards. A week later we found out we had not advanced to the second round of the competition. Competing in the award competition was a reminder to us of all the things we love and hate about grant competitions like the Creator Awards.

On March 9th, 2017, WeWork, the global cooperative workspace company, announced the WeWork Creator Awards competition.  This $20 million grants competition was open to start-ups in 5 countries where WeWork has a presence. We heard about the competition from one of our Board members and without hesitation decided to apply. The decision was easy for 3 reasons - 1) the barriers to entry were low, 2) we already had a well-defined sense of purpose and 3) we had concrete plans for how we would scale our work with additional funds - as anyone in the nonprofit space knows, this kind of unrestricted capital is the lifeblood of a growing, learning organization. 

Things we loved about the competition -

  1. Super quick turn around - we had a week to put together our application, make a video and click submit.
  2. Simple application process with low barriers to entry - the greatest single expense, besides our time, was the production of a high quality video. We didn't have to invest that much in a video but we knew that even if we didn't win we could make good use of the video to promote our work.
  3. Open ended questions which left us room to be creative.

Things we'd like to see done differently in the future -

  1. The benefits of an open-ended approach have their limits. It was not clear what WeWork is looking for from applicants and what their selection criteria was. In a world where startups are constantly searching and competing for funding, its useful if potential funders provide some signals of what they are looking for so that organizations can make a considered decision about which opportunities to pursue - every pursuit comes with opportunity costs. Heck - we don't even know who judged the first round applications.
  2. Once we didn’t get selected our application went into the WeWork black hole - no one knew we had applied except for WeWork and us, meaning no one could browse the applications to see if they wanted to invest. Today's cutting edge donors and investors know that while they can't support every startup that comes along, they can play a roll in lifting all boats in their ecosystem by providing a platform to promote even those ideas they don't support. 
  3. We received no feedback on our application - what was it about our pitch or our mission that didn’t fit their vision? This is another area where funders can lower the costs young organizations take on when applying - at least if we get some feedback we can grow from our failure. 

We are making lemonade out of these lemons. We now have a much clearer value proposition, we put up this new website, and we have a new video which showcases our organization, our mission and what we have to offer. We've run these type of competitions ourselves in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Kosovo and now we have even greater empathy for the applicants who put in hard work but don't advance beyond the application stage. How might we help them make more lemonade out of their own lemons? How might we be clearer in our expectations and the criteria for our decisions? How might we provide a platform to showcase all the possible solutions - even the ones we did not fund? What feedback could we provide that increases their chances of success in their next competition or pitch?

After our WeWork adventure we are checking out how others run their competitions and reading more on the underlying theories behind prize competitions - the evidence that they spur innovation and contribute to development outcomes. The team at Ashoka addresses some of the challenges we highlighted in the WeWork competition - check out how their challenges work. The folks over at mWater have a few ideas for how we might move beyond prizes, hackathons and contests and last year SSIR published an article on Rethinking Business Plan Competitions. Maybe we could dispense with all the mentoring, coaching, networking in competitions and just give away cash.