Why Pitch Competitions Matter in Spurring Nonprofit Innovation

Pitch competitions are fun.  I know because I just went to one.  And it was exciting, energetic and just different (in a really good way).

Full disclosure here.  The event I attended wasn’t about or for nonprofits.  Steve Case—co-founder of AOL and the Case Foundation and, now, Chairman and CEO of Revolution—and his merry band on entrepreneurial buddies came to town as a part of the Rise of the Rest Road Trip.

They literally stopped their bus in Charleston mid-way on a five-city tour aimed at celebrating and supporting entrepreneurship across America.  The event, held on the deck of the USS Yorktown, brought people from all walks together—tech folks, investors, business owners and employees, politicians and other interested folks from the community—to hear about 10 four-minute pitches from local startups. An hour after the word “go,” one of the 10 was awarded $100,000.

Although this event was all about for-profit ventures, the same phenomenon is happening in the philanthropic community. 

Last fall only a few miles from Patriot’s Point where the USS Yorktown rests, another competition ended with the Center for Heirs Property taking home a $20,000 seed grant from SVP Charleston.

SVP stands for Social Venture Partners and is a group of engaged donors who are interested in seeking out nonprofits in which they make not only and investment of money, but also of time and expertise.

Critics of pitch competitions say they’re favored toward organizations that can talk fast and pretty.  That the substance gets left at the door.  But I suggest that any organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit, start up or long-time member of the community, can benefit from being ready to take the stage.

The main reason is that pitch competitions don’t begin when you take the stage. That’s the pinnacle, for sure, but it comes after a long hike up the mountain. The organizations stepping into the spotlight have made it through a curated process.

Here are three big take aways about why pitch competitions have value beyond the dollars awarded:

1. Pitches Are Stories

There’s a general truism that it’s easier to talk for an hour than it is for 10 minutes.  Getting ready to deliver a very short pitch with prize money on the line forces you to hone your story down to its essence.  It challenges you to convey what you do, why, for whom, and how – in a clear, appealing way.  And isn’t that what every nonprofit needs, a short pitch that helps donors, volunteers, partners to understand?

2. Numbers Are Vital

Storytelling is way more powerful when you have numbers to show your success, in delivering impact and – yes – in keeping your organization financially strong.  Prepping for a short pitch forces you to pick the 1-3 most important metrics for your organization, the ones that really show why you’re the best.

3. Successful Growth Requires Planning

As Steve Case put it, success doesn’t just happen. Organizations work for it, invest in it.  A good pitch requires a vision for where you’re headed and how you’d invest the money if you won.  Having a plan, regardless of whether you walk away with the prize, makes you much more likely to succeed.

So if you haven’t been to a fast pitch competition, maybe you should keep an eye out for one.  You could learn something valuable that helps your organization sharpen its story, know its numbers and take that next big step toward whatever success looks like for you.