So you have an idea to change the world. Or maybe just to change your city.
How do you turn your civic vision into an emerging initiative?
Civic pitch competitions – where organizations or individuals pitch an idea for a new program, project or initiative that innovatively addresses a social or civic problem in front of an audience of their peers and/or a panel of experts – are a valuable tool to move an initiative from idea to action and to gauge the feasibility of such advancement. This model has long been used by business accelerators to vet startups; more recently we have seen this model applied to pitches for civic initiatives and social enterprises.
Maybe you have a plan to more effectively connect talent, skills-training and workforce needs; perhaps you want to reduce food waste by instituting a city-wide composting program; or possibly you developed a technology that will disrupt the status quo of donating money. These are all ideas that gained momentum through civic pitch competitions.
Civic pitch competitions provide great value. To realize your civic vision you will need appropriate talent, funding and community support at the very least. Civic pitch competitions provide this and so much more.
Civic pitch competitions are a source of seed funding for emerging initiatives. That is the purpose of the competitions: to give dedicated individuals or teams the opportunity to pitch their ideas to potential funders or investors.
While the pitches are each vying for the prize money at a particular competition, the financial benefits of participating are not limited only to the winning pitch(es). Actually, all ideas pitched at such a competition have access to funding through audience members; there are likely to be numerous funders in the audience in addition to the ones judging the pitch competition.
You are not just pitching to one potential funder but a roomful of potential funders; what attracts Funder A to your project might not be what attracts Funder B—with this model, you increase fundraising efficiency by pitching to both simultaneously.
Connection to Talent
Civic pitch competitions are valuable because they facilitate a connection to top talent that can help advance your civic vision. You will need mentors, champions, and partners to succeed. Some civic pitch competitions have a strategic, intentional follow up process whereby they formally convene teams with the requisite expertise and desire to steer the winning pitches from idea to implementation. This was the case with Accelerate, a civic pitch competition I attended in February at the Global Center for Health Innovation. [For the purposes of transparency: this competition was coordinated by an organization I support through volunteer endeavors].
Even if the pitch competition does not have this follow up process officially built in, you will still connect with talent. One aim of making a civic pitch in this forum is for the presenting organizations or social entrepreneurs to start a discussion within the community of those who care about such causes. The competition – and the subsequent discussion – connects your ideas to immediate quality feedback. Your audience includes top experts in your field; if your idea can gain traction with that crowd, you know you are onto something. This feedback might be embedded in the competition’s format, such as the post-pitch Question-and-Answer period featured at Accelerate, or may occur at the conclusion of the formal event, as happened at SEAChange just days ago. At both pitch competitions the rooms were electrified after the pitches—there was no shortage of people willing to lend their expertise, network, and resources to see your civic vision succeed.
Starting Small, Working to Scale
An objection to civic pitch competitions is that the prize money alone is insufficient to yield positive outcomes. That is true but it is certainly not a knock on the competitions. Yes, all these proposals need more than seed money to fully realize their impact. But before emerging initiatives, especially ones coming from community members’ ideas and not an existent organization, are ready to accept major funding, they need to start small with pilot programs. They need to do this to: 1) learn from initial implementation of the idea; 2) observe and measure success of the program; 3) build community support and awareness for how the program is actually working. This intentional growth model is much more likely to see sustainable success than giving a multi-million dollar grant to a brand new initiative and expecting it to simultaneously navigate the early stages of the program and the magnitude of such a budget.
Just as later-stage investing exists in the startup world it similarly exists in the philanthropic world. In fact, there are some foundations that will not fund organizations in their first few years of existence—they want to see initial success and community backing before investing. Nonprofits and social enterprises need funders that fall into all these categories: funders who will invest seed money to get an emerging initiative off the ground; funders who will invest to support the sustained impact of a successful model; and eventually funders who will help them scale up the operation. The fact that civic pitch competitions systematically oblige promising initiatives to smart small before scaling illustrates yet another positive attribute of the model.
Pitch competitions are relatively new to the nonprofit and philanthropic communities. While a reasonable amount of skepticism can be expected this model has proven successful when thoughtfully applied. Not only are civic pitch competitions exhilarating, dignified and inspirational affairs they also break from the status quo of nonprofit fundraising in a way that signifies progress: they provide a valuable comprehensive platform to pitch emerging initiatives and they spur innovation. Our world needs innovative approaches to complex social problems. Civic pitch competitions are an essential tool to nurture the best new ideas to scale and sustainability.
Do you have an idea that you would like to present at a pitch competition but you do not know where to start? Feel free to ask in the comments section below or contact me and I can connect you with some resources. Have you attended or presented at a civic pitch competition? Share your experiences with the community below.
© John G. Lynch