Partnerships Can Add Value to Prize Competitions

Oct 21, 2013

The right partner can be the key to a successful challenge competition.

If you’re planning a challenge for your agency, you’ve probably had to ask: “Do we have the tools and capabilities to pull off this challenge on our own?”

Why we form partnerships

Often times, the answer is, “no.” But that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing solutions to your problems. Challenge managers weighed-in on partnerships at a recent community meeting, and here are a few of their tips on how agencies partner for success.

Other organizations can do things your agency can’t and complement your agency resources and skill sets. Maurice Kent, the Lead Challenge and Prize Analyst at USAID, detailed a host of things partners can bring to the table for your challenge:

  • Resources (especially monetary)
  • Speed and flexibility
  • Functional and ready-to-use platforms
  • Capacity (reviewing thousands of submissions, for example)
  • Expertise

In describing the partnerships negotiated for the Rebuild by Design challenge created after Hurricane Sandy, HUD’s Kevin Bush highlighted the need to reach out to philanthropic organizations, a university, and even the government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in order to find the resources to execute the competition.

“Partnerships allow you to tap into expertise that you don’t necessarily have in-house”, Bush said.

Determining potential partners

Choosing partners depends on what resources your agency has at its disposal and what kind of challenge you are looking to run. Think about which companies, non-profits, and other organizations have a similar mission as your agency or to the specific goals of your challenge competition.

Consider others that would complement the initiative or have resources that government does not have. It can be as simple as getting an introduction through LinkedIn or from someone in your agency. Use your networks to see where there are connections to the companies and people you want to work with. If all else fails, there’s even the old-fashioned cold call.

If your agency wants the help of an online challenge platform to administer the competition, it has the option to use a vendor from the GSA Schedule 541 4g which has companies with expertise in crowdsourcing competitions. Vendors specialize in managing challenges in specific areas, such as coding, apps, or social innovation, so you can find the best fit for your program.

Larry Cooper, who has helped run many challenges at NASA, said that his agency almost always immediately looks for partners that have the capability to significantly offset the workload.

“[NASA] offers the prize, but the partners do all the heavy lifting”, he said.

Cooper described a particular challenge where NASA partnered with a university. The agency needed help running a robotics challenge and the university wanted to raise the profile of its robotics program, so the relationship was symbiotic.

It doesn’t always come so easily, though, and Cooper added that NASA is careful not to force ill-fitting partnerships. “We’ve had situations where we’ve gone out and found no one capable,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort to find the right partners.”

Legal authorization

You have the authority to use partners if your competition is using COMPETES. The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 grants authority for a wide-range of actions related to challenges and prizes, but other authorities can sometimes be used, too. There are also some agency-specific authorities. Work with your general counsel early and often to find the right avenues to create partnerships.

Cristin Dorgelo, Assistant Director for Grand Challenges at the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy, is a great resource. Before you give up on a potential partnership due to legal or other hurdles, contact her for guidance or to assist in conversations with your general counsel. She can be reached at

Kent’s short and central takeaway: “The lesson to take to heart here is [to ask]… ‘What does your team lack, and what do you need to take the next step forward?’”

When you take the next step, let us know. We’d love to hear your about your experience working with partners both in and outside of government.