Lessons In How To Build A Successful Contest, From The Knight Foundation

Instead of waiting for interesting projects to apply for money, the Knight Foundation has started offering competitions to find ways to give away funds. Here’s how they make it work.

Lessons In How To Build A Successful Contest, From The Knight Foundation
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Grant applications are difficult for the uninitiated, and leave a lot of people with good ideas–but without grant application skill sets–from getting the money they need to move forward. Over 99% of all grant-making foundations in the U.S. still rely on the typical application process.


Not the Knight Foundation. The organization has held (or funded) nearly a dozen grantmaking contests since 2007, giving over $75 million to 400 winners–schools, business, nonprofits, and individuals. The first contest, and one of the most well-known, is the Knight News Challenge, which funds “breakthrough ideas in news and information.”

With so few other foundations launching similar initiatives, the Knight Foundation had no guidebook or set of directions to help out at launch. So now the organization has created a guide for others. A new report by Mayur Patel, the vice president of strategy and assessment at the foundation, looks at the six big lessons that Knight has learned from its contests over the years.

These are the six basic lessons:

  • Contests bring new blood and new ideas
  • Contests create value beyond the winners
  • Contests help you spot emerging trends
  • Contests help you change your routine
  • Contests go hand-in-glove with existing strategies

Within those lessons, Patel has culled four overarching tips for contest-builders. The first: keep barriers to entry as low as possible. ” If you’re going to use a contest to attract new individuals who aren’t versed in how to get money from foundations, you’ve got to make these contests as simple and easy to apply to as possible,” he says.

The second tip: leverage the social web to create community around certain activities. For example, in the 2013 News Challenge, Knight partnered with OpenIDEO to create a platform that allowed entrants to get comments and feedback from the public. They were then given a week to refine their entries based on that feedback. “As we promoted the winners, we have also tried to lift up the contributing people that helped provide feedback, refinement, and comments,” adds Patel.

Patel’s third tip is to “think about how you can nurture a set of people who are interested in the topic.” And finally, he recommends making sure that the contest cycle is in line with the cycle of innovation. In other words, don’t force entrants to wait nine months to find out if they’ve won–entrepreneurs have to respond to the market more quickly than that.


Most of the lessons in the report–like having a simple entry process and mining applications for data about the communities and cities you’re working with–apply to all types of contests. Others are more specific. When Knight has done more geographically limited competitions–like the Knight Neighborhood Challenge in Macon, Georgia, it has had to “sell the steak as much as the sizzle,” according to Patel. He says: “It’s not just the winners you’ve got to focus on. You’re also trying to sell an idea that’s going to energize the city itself.”

In the case of the Neighborhood Challenge (a contest to come up with ideas that would revitalize the city’s College Hill Corridor), that meant building the competition on the back of an existing community planning process which had identified opportunities for advancing revitalization projects in Macon.

Patel believes the contests have been a boon to the Knight Foundation. “The contest format allowed us as an institution to create a safe zone for experimenting with new kinds of processes, and an open brand for our organization,” says Patel. Running these contests makes you very public, and it makes the whole process much more transparent than other aspects of foundation grant-making.”

Plus, he says, Knight has received lots of applications from people who never had applied for a grant before–and maybe never would have if not for the contest format. And when it comes to grantmaking (or any kind of funding opportunity), the more ideas, the better.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more