Popularity-based grants are irritating, harmful, and need to end

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[Image description: It’s a little pug, starting directly into the camera, with its big eyes and wrinkled face, so cute! This pug wants all corporate partners to stop having popularity-based funding opportunities. Image from Pixabay.com]

Popularity-based grants (PBG) are funding opportunities where nonprofits compete to get the most votes or “likes” in order to win some money or services from a corporate partner. They have been popping up a lot lately, with the increase in social media engagement. If you are with a company that conducts these types of grants, I am begging you, please shut them down and never have another one again. I know intentions are good; you may be thinking that nonprofits get some resources, and the companies get some exposure, so it’s a “win-win.” In actuality, popularity-based grants are awful, irritating, insulting, inequitable, and hurt nonprofits and the people we serve. Here are several reasons why:

They waste nonprofits’ time and harm the people we serve: Since nonprofits need money to do our work, many of us will engage in these types of contests, hustling to get our community members to go and vote. Unfortunately, there will likely be only a couple of winners, which means everyone else wasted dozens of hours of time. Let’s say 500 organization participates in a contest where the org with the most votes gets $25,000, and they each spend, conservatively, 10 hours on the contest that yields one winner. This means that collectively 4,990 hours were wasted, hours that could have been used to further our missions of ending poverty, fighting hunger, building community, etc. $25,000 or $100,000 does not justify the wasting of nearly 5,000 hours’ worth of work across the sector. Many nonprofits do life-saving work—suicide prevention, helping victims of domestic violence, etc. By making us waste our time gathering votes, popularity-based grants prevent us from doing critical work, including engaging in proven effective fundraising strategies, and thus inflict harm on our community.

They are inequitable, biased toward larger, more established organizations: A few months ago, a marketing company asked me to promote a contest where nonprofits enter, then ask their communities to vote online for them, and the nonprofit with the most votes at the end gets some services from this company, like a custom video or a website redesign. I wrote back and said, “You do realize that the nonprofits that would most benefit from your services are probably not the ones that will get the most votes, right?” The organizations that have the strongest social media presence tend to win, and these organizations are often larger orgs that have more resources and influence. Smaller, grassroots organizations, which are often led by communities of color, LGBTQ folks, women, and people with disabilities often cannot compete. Most don’t have a full-time communication staff or team to wrangle likes and votes. But there is no correlation between who wins in these contests and whether they are effective at achieving outcomes. 

They are demeaning to nonprofit professionals and to the people we serve: If you’re a corporate sponsor, imagine if a nonprofit came up to you and say, “Hey, we’re trying to select sponsors for our annual gala. If you would like to be a sponsor, please make some sock puppets and create a video about how awesome your company is, then load it on YouTube and get people to watch it! The video with the most views at the end of the month gets to be our presenting sponsor!” That would be insulting, wouldn’t it? So why is it OK for you to expect nonprofits to do stuff like this? If we are to build effective partnerships between nonprofits and for-profits that are needed to solve serious problems in society, one partner should not trivialize the other partner’s work by expecting them to do a song and dance routine for needed resources. 

They perpetuate the nonprofit hunger games: To address the complex problems facing our society, nonprofits must work together more collaboratively, because our missions are all interrelated. Popularity-based grants, even the ones that are couched as friendly competitions, further encourage this idea that nonprofits must fight with one another for limited resources. We have plenty of unnecessary competition among ourselves; we do not need our corporate partners to introduce more of it into our work. If you can’t find a way to help nonprofits work more effectively together, then at least don’t make things worse by hosting divisive contests.

I know some of you reading this may be thinking, “Geeze, isn’t this a bit much? If you don’t like these popularity-based grants, just don’t participate.” Sorry, these contests individually may be irritating, but collectively they are harmful. Thousands of hours are wasted each year on them, hours that could be put to much better use. And the more we encourage them, the more it distracts us from forging deep and effective partnerships between nonprofits and for-profits. 

Corporate partners, we know that you mean well. We appreciate the support many of you provide to nonprofits in the form of sponsorship, board members, volunteers, and all the great hand-me-down furniture we use (which is basically 90% of the furniture in the sector). These popularity grants may seem like fun and a great marketing strategy, but please consider the harm they do, and whether you are actually being a true partner. If you would like to build authentic partnerships with nonprofits, please stop having popularity-based grants.

What you should do instead is identify what the needs are in the community you are invested in. Do some research, talk to nonprofits, attend our events, find out what we are working on that may resonate with your company. Then identify the organizations working on these issues that are led by these communities and provide them with multi-year, unrestricted grants. Unrestricted funding allow nonprofits the flexibility to respond to changing needs and circumstances, and making it multi-year allows us the stability to be creative in tackling systemic problems. Make it quick and simple, trust us to do our jobs, and provide support where you can.

Once you have formed strong relationships with nonprofits, brainstorm cool things you can do together. I’ve seen awesome collaborations between nonprofits and corporate partners, such as Trick Or Suite, where corporations go all-out decorating rooms for Halloweens, and neighborhood kids get a safe place to trick-of-treat. Does that not sound a billion times more fun than having us wrassle for votes, feel demeaned and insulted, and bitterly resent you?

Nonprofit colleagues, meanwhile, let’s all pledge to refrain from participating in these types of funding opportunities. There are a million things that we could do that would be more effective for our missions: Running programs, researching grants, writing proposals, calling up donors, authoring an op-ed, creating sock puppets and acting out our strategic plans, etc. Let’s never participate in popularity-based grants again, and when you see a corporate partner conduct one, kindly send them this blog post and courteously ask them to stop.

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