Not just the new should have prizes

They are getting used to making acceptance speeches at Pratham, India’s largest nonprofit working to help the 200 million children in the country who cannot read. In the past twelve months Pratham has picked up the Gold EMPI-Indian Express Indian Innovation Award and was made CNN-IBN Indian of the year in 2009, and now it has been chosen to receive the Kravis Prize in leadership at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (supported by private equity tycoon Henry Kravis and run out of Claremont McKenna College, his alma mater). Prizes are much in fashion at the moment, as a recent report by McKinsey demonstrated, but is there any more to this trend than the glitz and glamour?

Pratham itself is an impressive organisation. It has volunteers working in half the villages of India. Getting more kids into school has been one of the big pushes in the development business in recent years, galvanised by the Fast Track Initiative since 2002, which has produced impressive surges in school enrollment (including Kenya’s 84 year-old schoolboy). Yet names on the school roll are not the same as bums on seats, let alone knowledge in kids’ heads. This is the problem that Pratham is tackling by developing teaching models that actually help children to read. Former investment banker Mallika Singh, Pratham’s head of programmes, emphasises that the organisation’s goal is to leverage the investment that the Indian government has made in teachers and buildings into real outcomes.

OK, so Pratham is a good organisation – but what is the value added of the Kravis Prize? The $250,000 prize money certainly helps – Singh says that this will be invested in a leadership programme for the organisation, just the sort of thing that many donors are reluctant to fund but which can be vital to building an organisation’s capacity for future growth.

But why is a prize better than just making an unrestricted grant? Well, getting the endorsement of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and former World Bank chief James Wolfensohn, who sit on the prize committee, is certainly a signal to the media and donors that this is a good organisation. For smaller, less well-known recipients of the prize, like the first winner in 2006 the Rural Development Institute, this is an obvious way to draw attention to an issue that is off the radar. Yet for an organisation like Pratham, or 2007 winner BRAC, the value added does not seem so clear. (In the same vein, many of the Skoll Awards for Social Enterprise seem to go to big, well-known organisations like Teach for America, rather than unrecognised start-ups.)

But that may be the problem with conventional thinking in the social sector. Everybody loves a new idea and a start-up. What fun it is to hear and share about a new innovation, yet the real challenge is getting solutions to scale, which is much more boring. As we argued recently in Innovations magazine, we need to think about a ‘capital curve for social innovation’ that gets the right kind of funding and support to organisations at the different start-up, growth and scaling phases. That is why Marie-Josee Kravis, who chairs the Kravis Prize panel, is right when challenged that choosing Pratham is a bit boring to respond that “it is not venture capital”. The role of a prize like this one is a signal to the philanthropic market that, hopefully, will help a successful organisation to get more exposure and leverage more fundraising to reach full scale. Dull, perhaps, but important nonetheless.

Shifting reward and celebration in the social sector away from sparky innovation to boring scaling is not going to be easy but it is vital. If we look at the for-profit world, a lot of successful companies do not do much innovation at all, they are just good at copying what others do and copy it really well (perhaps with the odd tweak here and there to reduce costs or improve product quality). So how about a prize for the best copying in the nonprofit sector? Pratham’s model has lot to offer other countries. They are already starting to build links to partners in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Pratham is even trying to reach into Pakistan, a country with huge educational needs. If an organisation could copy Pratham and get a volunteer into half the villages in Pakistan and get the government to start investing in education outcomes, now surely that would be worth a prize.