Knight Foundation's People's Choice Award: Brilliant Promotional Tool or Just a Gimmick?

Should awarding grants be a popularity contest? That seems to be the case in South Florida, where one of five small arts organizations will be awarded a $20,000 grant from the Knight Foundation — and the general public will determine who gets it.

The Knight Foundation Challenge People's Choice Award highlights emerging arts organizations within South Florida's vibrant arts scene. The foundation initially announced 66 finalists in the summer and subsequently whittled the list down to five. Nominees range from an indie film collective, to a Haitian-Caribbean bookstore, to an arts program for disadvantaged youth. Visitors can check out each nominee's video pitch on the Knight Arts Challenge website and vote for their choice by text.

Of course, the Knight's approach is anomalous in a world where practically every grant comes directly from a foundation after a thorough vetting process. That said, we wouldn't be surprised if any of the participating non-profit organizations are frustrated by Knight's strategy. After all, what if an organization is simply more savvy on social media or has a few extra marketing dollars that can be directed toward a get-out-the-vote effort?

On the other hand, perhaps they're not frustrated at all. After all, consider how the process normally works. Organizations submit their proposals and wait for an answer, and after a period of time, the foundation selects the winners. The only time the general public even knows about this process comes at the end, when a winner is announced. And does the public ever hear about the organization that came in third place? Rarely.

So Knight's approach is refreshing: It actively promotes both the five finalist organizations and the grantmaking process itself. It also offloads some of the heavy lifting by incentivizing finalists to do crowdsourcing promotional work across social media networks. This promotional strategy has a compounding effect. We'd venture to say the general public knows far more about the Knight Foundation Arts Challenge and local nonprofits via this approach than with the traditional method of awarding grants.

The take-away? Don't be surprised if other foundations follow Knight's lead. As controversial as it may sound, Knight's People's Choice Award successfully engages the community, educates people about local nonprofits, and involves tech-savvy community members.