Do Competitions Help or Hinder Social Enterprises?

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    By Rolfe Larson and Adam Brock, Joining Vision and Action

    Competitions are all the rage in the social enterprise world. From New York to San Francisco, organizations seeking to nurture emerging social entrepreneurs have decided to go all in on the pitch session, offering the winners startup funds and technical assistance. Good idea, right?


    Crowd Wisdom

    We’re not so sure. Looking for second opinions, we crowd-sourced this question to the npEnterprise Forum (npE), an online social enterprise forum, founded in 2001 and distributed to more than 10,000 people around the world.

    Here’s what the community told us:

    Too much about winners and losers?

    Winners-Losers imagesWinning a competition can be great rush of joy and resources for an emerging SE. But what about everyone who does not win? Are they “losers,” or just not as showy? “While these events are great opportunities for entrepreneurs to perfect their pitches and get quick and dirty input on their ventures, the focus on winners and losers in a fly-by manner is not always helpful,” noted Paul Lamb.

    Undermines Innovation?

    Innovation imageKara Penn mentioned a recent Fast Company article she and Anjali Sastry wrote. “Those of us who study innovation know that everything hinges on the hard, sometimes tedious work of taking a promising idea and making it work — technically, legally, financially, culturally, ecologically.” The article continues, “Innovation is usually a lurching journey of discovery and problem-solving. As a result, it’s an iterative, often slow-moving process that requires patience and discipline.”

    That rarely happens when all the focus is on that 5-minute pitch.

    Collaboration Is Better!

    collaboration imageMany of our subscribers voiced a preference for collaboration. Aaron E-J’s opinion is that “collaboration is a way better model for development (in most cases) than competition. Whereas competition goes down to the bottom line – who can present the best instead of what actually is best – collaboration does not worry about what individual or company can dominate and instead focuses on what ideas, actions and products best suit a given need.”

    Paul Lamb then suggested, “What might be more useful are collaboration events where social entrepreneurs, investors, experts, and others explore synergies and partnership opportunities.” He further notes, “In many of the SE classes I teach, entrepreneurs often discover commonalities and ways they can partner with and assist each other. In setting them up as competitors, this is much less likely to occur.”

    Kevin Jones wrote to say that “collaboration has a cost and startups sometimes or usually can’t afford it broadly but can afford it strategically as they drive toward their explicit milestones and deep goals.”

    Hey, Don’t Give up on Competitions!

    pitch imageHannah Pechan, Director at Social Enterprise Alliance-Nashville, counters “There’s a place for both competition and collaboration. Running a competition is a time-finite project. In contrast, fostering continued collaboration is an ongoing commitment. I agree that collaboration is important as there is, of course, more work to be done than just a single winner can accomplish.” She adds: “It’s not an either/or approach, it’s a both/and, in which competitions help to spur on a few very needed winners (and I would argue, the movement as a whole) and collaboration works to raise the tide and create more widespread progress.”

    Paul Lamb gets the final word: “I’m not advocating that we get rid of competitions altogether, but that we look at other creative ways to bring our community together and help lift each other up.”

    Adam Brock and Rolfe Larson are Denver-based social enterprise advisors for Joining Vision And Action (formerly JVA Consulting). They help organizations achieve greater impact and financial sustainability, typically through market research, feasibility studies, and business plans. Their new suite of affordable SE consulting products is called the Social Enterprise Navigator series. JVA horizontal logo