The Latest in Gimmick Philanthropy: Grantmaking Before a Live Audience

Philanthropy is getting a little more like the reality shows Shark Tank and Cupcake Wars. Nonprofits can now perform like contestants on a game show to win their dough.

A case in point is Pitch It! The Innovation Challenge 2014, a program of the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF) in partnership with the Kresge Foundation and Chevron. This contest involved three finalists nonprofits who pitched their ideas to a panel of judges this morning at the New Orleans Museum of Art to win cash grants. 

Almost 30 nonprofits entered the contest. The judges were Earl Robinson, president of PowerMoves.NOLA; Michael Shaw, program officer at the Kresge Foundation; and Matt Wisdom, founder and CEO of the TurboSquid technology company.

At stake? Three prizes of $25,000, $7,500 and $5,000 to advance the winning projects. In other words, every finalist wins something, which is all very touchy-feelyunlike those TV shows where contestants are practically hooted off the stage. (That harsher approach would be fun to see in a nonprofit competition, with judges browbeating hapless would-be grantees for lacking a viable theory of change or evaluation plan.)

This is the second year that the Greater New Orleans Foundation has held its Pitch It! contest. And because we've never seen anything like it elsewhere, we're still trying to digest what we think of this. 

One thing that is clear is that GNOF sees the contest as a way to help nonprofits be open to new ideas and innovative in their problem solving. Making this a community event may also boost the profile of nonprofits in the community and help the public appreciate their role.

All that seems sensible enough. Anything that can juice up the staid nonprofit world or illuminate the mystifying business of grantmaking has to be a good thing, right? 

Well, yeah, as long as it's not taken too far or gets too silly. 

As it happens, the top finalists for Pitch It! did generate some pretty cool ideas. Here's a rundown. 

  • New Orleans Kids Partnership pitched a new interactive online platform for adult-youth mentoring called Louisiana Mentor Match.
  • Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans pitched a program to use aquaponics to grow organic and sustainably cultivated food for hungry, distressed communities.
  • VIA LINK pitched the idea of using texting to help young people in crisis access assistance within their comfort zone.

Choices, choices. It's nice that everyone won something. But the top prize this morning went to Second Harvest!"It's not enough to alleviate hunger any more," Gina Melita said during her pitch in the auditorium at the New Orleans Museum of Art. "We plan to solve it."

Did she say, solve? Regarding hunger?

Yes, indeed she did. And how could the judges resist a pitch like that, even if the specter of helping poor people grow food because they can't afford to go to supermarkets in the world's richest country is, um, unsettling. 

Like the Ice Bucket Challenge, this new style of funding could catch on. Certainly we can think of a few ideas that would get people's attention: like maybe putting foundation program officers in dunking booths and handing the balls over to development folks.(Although, come to think of it, they might throw wide on purpose.)