Yesterday we announced that Dispensers for Safe Water (DSW) in Kenya is the winner of the Stone Foundation’s Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water—you can read more about them in yesterday’s blog. To find a candidate like DSW is a fantastic end to a long journey for all of us that have been involved in the prize scheme since the idea was born about 12 months ago.

It all started after a discussion with the Stone Family Foundation’s trustees about the challenges of finding early stage initiatives in the water sector in Africa and Asia. It seemed like an enormous task—the  geographic focus was so large and discovering new projects that met the foundation’s criteria seemed daunting. A prize seemed like a great way of unearthing initiatives that we might not be able to find ourselves otherwise.

Running the prize scheme for the Stone Family Foundation has been a huge learning process for NPC. Over a series of three blogs we wanted to share with you what we have learned—about prize schemes, but also about giving more generally, particularly in international development.

The first lesson is the need to have clear and tightly defined criteria.

The process of developing criteria for the prize was quite iterative, and we consulted many experts, both in prize schemes, such as Ashden, and in the water industry, such as Aguaconsult. From their feedback we realised the need to strike a balance between being ‘friendly’ (our initial criteria were apparently so restrictive we’d be lucky to receive any applications) and being so broad that too many people would apply. We wanted to remain on the tightly defined side of this balance, so we had six key criteria for candidates. We were glad we did—even with these clear criteria, we received 179 applications from 39 countries.

Having clear, defined criteria for any funding programme is so important—it stops charities wasting their time filling in application forms and funders reviewing hundreds of applications that just aren’t right for them. But for me, having clear criteria for the prize scheme was about more than that, for three reasons.

First, when you review 179 applications in one go in a tight time period, you need to be able to compare them quite quickly. You need to really know what you are looking for so you can ‘rate’ candidates.

Second, for the Stone prize, the second round consisted of a review by an expert panel. The panel was acting on behalf of the trustees to select the top seven candidates for the trustees to visit. In order for the panel to be able to select the most appropriate candidates they needed to fully understand what it is the trustees were looking for. Having clear criteria (and prioritising these) was important for the panel to make their choices.

Third (and we will come onto this in our final blog), by being so tightly defined, we have learned a huge amount about the innovation going on in the water and sanitation sector. If we’d been more broad in our focus, I think we would only have learnt a small amount about a lot of different things, rather than gaining in-depth knowledge into a fascinating area.

Now we have completed the prize for this year we are really pleased we went down the route of being quite strict with our criteria. If we were to run the prize again in the future, we have already discussed with trustees adding in a few more criteria, to communicate even more clearly what it is the foundation is looking for, and to enable an easier selection of candidates by the expert panel.

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