Should Causes Compete With One Another?

I’ve been thinking about online contests to raise friends or funds for the past several years. There have been wonderful examples of small organizations, some without any staff, being extraordinarily successful in contests like America’s Giving Challenge sponsored by The Case Foundation, through mainly elbow grease, friends emailing, texting, calling, cajoling friends to sign up for their cause.

Pepsi Refresh is this kind of contest on steroids. Pepsi has given nearly $20 million to causes that garnered the most votes monthly for the past year, and at least for another year here and in South America and China. This contest, like all contests, hasn’t been friction free. As I say here on an NPR story about the contest from a few weeks ago, all contest  organizers are playing a game of whack-a-mole with people who want to game the system:

Refreshing Pepsi’s Superbowl Alternative

I believe that the folks at Pepsi have gone into this contest with good intentions, and they have been resilient and steadfast in their continued engagement. However, a question remains for individual causes as to whether the amount of energy and the head-to-head competition with other causes are worth their energy, or whether the costs are too high.

A post on the Cone, Inc. blog does a great job of articulating the drawbacks to voting contests like Pepsi Refresh.

On this month’s podcast, Lena Shaw, of UC San Francisco, told a great story about a year-end fundraising campaign for a new children’s hospital that garnered over a million dollars in donations and nearly 165,000 new friends for the hospital. The original expectations for the campaign were $100,000 and 1,000 friends. Extraordinary results that are a reflection of the structure of the campaign.

They mixed Silicon Valley superstars like Michael Arrington and Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of, with 12-year-old Paddy O’Brien, a patient at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital treated successfully for bone cancer and now in remission as team leaders. They had great daily prizes, plus the grand prizing of the winning team having the right to name the new atrium of the hospital.  The Zynga team led the charge by having donors use their popular Farmville game and buy candy canes as donations for the hospital.  The Zynga team was the overwhelming first place winner of the competition.

What makes the UCSF contest so compelling is that although the teams were competing against one another, they were all playing for the same children’s hospital. This is a very interesting dynamic, an internal competition where all of the energy is positive and all of the proceeds go to the one cause.

I’m going to think a bit more about how other groups can structure efforts that combine the fun of competing without the detriment of causes competing against one another.


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Allison Fine

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