Despite hefty logistics, Canadian foundations and organizations are turning to attention-grabbing prizes as a model to spark innovation, give back, and increase awareness on social and environmental issues.
Inspired by similar competitions around the world, Canadian foundations, organizations, and businesses are increasingly turning to prizes as a model to drive impact. While Canada’s prize landscape may take different shapes and sizes, its competitions are similar in offering unique benefits to organizers, donors, and, of course, winners.
According to the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ 2021 donor guide on prize philanthropy, traditional grantmaking simply does not generate the same level of excitement and prestige as a prize. This rings true for several Canadian organizations that host high-profile prizes for notable causes.
Inspiring innovation for causes that matter
By far the most widespread benefit for hosting a prize is the attention and innovation it brings to issues organizers care about. Take, for example, the Weston Family Foundation’s Homegrown Innovation Challenge.
The Weston Family Foundation was established in the 1950s to support Canadians, and today it focuses on health issues associated with aging and ecosystems. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation sought to build Canada’s resilience to future pandemics. It spoke to more than 60 experts and ultimately determined that food insecurity was a fundamental concern.
A challenge prize … has a very defined end goal with a specific time period.Tamara Rebanks, Weston Family Foundation
“Once we found the problem, we thought about different ways we could address it,” says Tamara Rebanks, project chair and Weston Family Foundation director. “And that’s how we landed on the idea of a challenge prize, because it has a very defined end goal with a specific time period. It has milestones along the way that are clear and definable and really represented a way to try and tackle a specific problem in a relatively short time.”
Rather than issuing prizes for previous accomplishments, the Homegrown Innovation Challenge tasks participants with finding a solution: produce Canadian berries year-round, cost-effectively, and at scale. Teams have six years to accomplish this task and can win up to $8 million.
“When you talk to most people about prizes, they think of it as an award for something you did in the past,” says Rebanks, highlighting that the Homegrown Innovation Challenge’s teams must collaborate to build technologies and solve problems over the competition’s multi-year framework. “And challenge prizes – they’re a pretty tried and tested way of addressing difficult problems that have mainly been used in the [United States].”
Provoking industry change
Inspired by an ESG “investing Olympics” launched by several charities in the United Kingdom, the Trottier Family Foundation partnered with the Concordia University Foundation, the Foundation of Greater Montreal, the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission, the Consecon Foundation, the Sitka Foundation, and two private trusts to launch the Great Canadian ESG Championship. The competition is supported by financial and ESG integration organizations Millani and Normandin Beaudry.
Trottier Foundation executive director Éric St-Pierre says the competition “is just really to shine a light on the responsible investment market” and “send a message that we are concerned as investors about greenwashing.” “Greenwashing” occurs when a company falsely amplifies its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) benefits for marketing purposes. “There is a lot of [ESG] marketing in the finance sector,” St-Pierre says. “But when you dig a little bit deeper, it’s maybe not as robust as we want it to be.”
The competition challenges money managers to create meaningful ESG investing strategies that deliver the best long-term return. Winners will have the chance to control part of a $90-million investment mandate.
I think [the Great Canadian ESG Championship] has inspired the asset management community to perhaps up their game on meaningful ESG investing.Milla Craig, Millani
From 60 applicants for the ESG Championship, 11 finalists were given the opportunity to present their pitches to judges and a live audience on June 2. Competition judges are currently reviewing the submissions and winners will be announced in the fall.
“We really want to support those managers that are actually doing the best and integrate ESG within their operations, that are really driven by ESG, that it’s not just an afterthought,” says St-Pierre, adding that the co-investors also wanted to send a “broader message to the investment management sector and to the public at large.”
The Great Canadian ESG Championship has sparked a conversation around ethical investing among large institutional managers and smaller niche managers. While discussing the impact the competition has had on industry, Millani president Milla Craig says, “The whole experience has really inspired investors, but I think it has also inspired the asset management community to perhaps up their game” on meaningful ESG investing.
Providing support and visibility for meaningful projects
Alongside providing funding support to winners, prizes offer a substantial opportunity to increase the visibility of projects and charities.
Canada’s largest yearly prize, the Arctic Inspiration Prize (AIP), has given $8.4 million to 22 teams over its 10 years of operation. Launched in April 2012 by immigrants Sima Sharifi and Arnold Witzig, the AIP now donates up to $3 million annually through its northern-owned AIP Charitable Trust. The Rideau Hall Foundation offers administrative and logistical support to the prize as its managing partner.
The Arctic Inspiration Prize lets people in the northern regions decide what they feel should be the number-one priority for innovation.Wally Schumann, AIP Charitable Trust
Often cited as the “Nobel of the North,” the AIP supports northern-led teams with projects designed to improve the lives of people in the North. It offers seed funding for new projects in a range of fields, including health, traditional knowledge, performing arts, and science.
“What the Arctic Inspiration Prize does is it lets people … in the northern regions decide what they feel should be the number-one priority for innovation,” says Wally Schumann, chair of the AIP Charitable Trust. “These initiatives are driven right at the local level by local people as to what they think their community needs.”
Schumann notes that while winning the prize is beneficial to laureates, organizers are interested in supporting projects to ensure they are sustainable in the future. “We are looking for, as always, philanthropy to help the laureates continue on with their projects.”
The AIP employs a “flexible philanthropy model” that allows the winners to use prize money however they wish. Publicity garnered by winning the prize results in increased attention from potential funders and donors; in this way, prize money can act as a starting point to obtain additional funding from new supporters. Additionally, outreach and mentorship support are offered to prize participants by AIP Ambassadors.
Yes, we donate to charities, but we wanted to do something different. So we decided to – in parallel to our normal donation policy – launch this contest.Catherine Tardif, iA Financial
Insurance and wealth management group iA Financial is another organization that uses its philanthropic prize as an opportunity to amplify the work of worthy groups. The contest is currently in its sixth year and is part of the company’s donation policy, where 1% of net profit is given annually. Last year, iA Financial’s contest focused on children and provided a $500,000 prize for each of the four winning charities and a $10,000 prize for each of the eight runners-up.
“Yes, we donate to charities, but we wanted to do something different,” says Catherine Tardif, head of philanthropy, donations, and sponsorships for iA Financial. “So we decided to – in parallel to our normal donation policy – launch this contest. It was meant to be a one-shot thing, but it worked so well that we decided to make it annual.”
Each year, iA Financial selects a theme around which to structure the contest. The company then reaches out to charities that fall within the theme and encourages submissions. Charities are tasked with answering this question: What would you do with $100,000?
One way in which iA generates attention for the contest and its finalists is by engaging the public with a vote. After the 12 finalists are announced, charities then campaign for votes in their respective regions. Tardif explains that iA Financial supports finalists throughout the process: “We send them a tool kit for the press because sometimes you have … big charities that have lots of resources, but sometimes you have smaller charities where there’s only one person or two people that do everything.”
The path forward
While valuable in garnering public attention and fostering collaboration, launching and sustaining a prize requires significant resources. From spreading the word to judging the applicants, organizing a competition is a significant logistical feat.
Indeed, the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors guide cites administrative strains and general uncertainty as possible challenges with hosting a prize. For donors interested in launching one, the guide recommends that a competition meet an organization’s strategic goals, have a sizable number of applicants and experts, have organizational capacity, and ensure a meaningful impact on the issue it is addressing.
For initiatives like the Homegrown Innovation Challenge, the Great Canadian ESG Championship, the Arctic Inspiration Prize, and iA Financial’s philanthropy contest, the buzz-generating benefits of hosting a prize is worth the organizational effort. Only time will tell if others follow suit.
We’re hoping that this will create a model for other funders. I think a lot of funders just put some money out there and wait to see what happens.Tamara Rebanks
“There might be variations from other investors that are inspired by this,” says St-Pierre, who adds that ESG Championship organizers are creating a how-to guide to support other investors considering hosting a similar competition. The guide will be released after the competition is completed in the fall. “We suspect something else will happen, whether it’s us or other institutions. We’re pretty confident that we’ve inspired some others.”
“We’re hoping that this will create a model for other funders,” Rebanks notes. “I think a lot of funders just put some money out there and wait to see what happens. So I think if you’re someone who has a very clear end goal and likes that, a challenge prize is quite exciting.”