Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Contest Trap

Contests and competitions for social business ventures seem to be multiplying along with fast-pitch TV shows like Cupcake Wars, Shark Tank and American Idol here in the U.S. After an arduous application process, entrepreneurs tap dance a lightning-fast show for a panel of judges who declare whether they move on or lose. Over one hundred social venture contests serving North America are listed here. Hundreds more serve other continents. Each offers tantalizing funding and support to captivate any social entrepreneur with visions of a triumphant win. The numbers prove their effective marketing. Each boasts thousands of applicants each year.

These contests used to not bother me. The few I’ve investigated did not warrant the amount of work compared to the potential of winning; easy enough to ignore. But troubling accounts from contestants keep coming my way, many from social bike business ventures. Most tell of months of work only to be rejected. Others tell of hopeful climbs to the brink of winning, including time-consuming and expensive trips to pitch their idea again and again, only to be dropped from the final group.

The worst stories come from young entrepreneurs in developing countries who have stopped their work in order to join the “contest circuit.” Such entrepreneurs fit the profile of the ideal contestant and because they have a good chance of winning, find that their time spent generally nets a good income. The problem is they have no time left for their projects.

These contests bring all the disturbing elements of most charitable grant proposals including arduous application processes, unwieldy demands from the funders, disrespectful communication barricades, and cold rejections. On top of all this, they add this song and dance element.

This audition process is absolutely appropriate for Hollywood roles, American Idol and pitching nonessential products. Such industries depend on talent to increase sales. Like any for-profit venture, the bottom line requires that mediocre stars be jettisoned. This is sad for these talented folks, but such industries can only handle so many stars. There is no comparison to the flood of talent we need to combat poverty and suffering.

This win/lose game is no way to treat social entrepreneurs who have pledged their lives to helping our world. Rejection takes a heavy toll on passionate people and sends many away from the sector forever. There are too many problems yet to solve for us to rely on the most talented at pitching a project. Shy, awkward and introspective social entrepreneurs are just as likely to make an impact as those with an appealing stage presence.

The movie Moneyball offers some inspiration. It tells how the Oakland As baseball team shook the scouting world one season when they skipped over the most talented players and spent their budget instead on mediocre players. Each of these players had a particular gift that complimented the team as a whole. Their investment paid off and other teams soon followed.

Social business holds a far more important role than entertainment, cupcake sales or sports. Instead of punishing many thousands of social entrepreneurs each year or worse, distracting them away from their good work with promises of stardom, we need to reshape our support systems. We need to value the special gifts of every committed social entrepreneur and help them find their best role within the tremendous efforts ahead.

With so few social bike businesses underway, none of us can afford the distraction of such time-wasters. Have you taken part in a social venture contest? What was your experience like? Do you have ideas for creating a better system that offers assistance without disgrace? Even gentle ways of redirecting this contest fervor could go a long way. Please leave any comments that spring to mind.

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