Pepsi Refresh Challenge $250K Winner Speaks: How to Assess if Contesting is Right for Your Nonprofit

By on Monday, November 28, 2011
Online contests with opportunities for nonprofit organizations to win funding and raise awareness abound. But how do you know if contesting is right for your organization? Mark Neidig, Sr., executive director of the Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation, spoke recently in Washington, DC about winning $250,000 through the Pepsi Refresh Challenge and how it helped his organization.

How does a small foundation working to eradicate cancer, win a major online contest and stand out in a world dominated by much bigger fish, such as the Susan G. Komen Fund or the American Cancer Society? Being gutsy, putting a face on the disease, and commiting to win the contest, pay dividends.

“If you are in a contest, you’ve got to commit to winning it. You put everything into it,” said Neidig. For the Pepsi Refresh Challenge Contest, the Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation did no direct mail appeals or paid advertising, and did not issue a call through a newsletter. At the time of the contest, the foundation had one employee – Mark.

Mark Neidig, Sr. discusses winning $250,000.
Photo courtesy of Association Bisnow.
Media exposure can be critical to success in a contest – but you may have to do something extreme – gto get attention. Mark and two volunteers went to Times Square in New York City, to give out 10,000 fliers asking people to vote for the foundation in the Pepsi Refresh Challenge Contest.
The story of their gutsy trip to New York City, landed Neidig and his volunteers on the Today Show, Good Morning America, and Fox and Friends. By the time they got back to Pennsylvania, they had risen from 70th place to third.
Because they talked about what a treatment without side effects would mean to people – even strangers, who had never heard of the foundation, found their appeal compelling. And the foundation’s local community was also inspired by their media blitz. Located in a smaller media market (Erie, PA), community newspapers, radio stations and TV stations encouraged the public to vote. Local schools allowed people to vote during the day, loosening a firewall to permit voting. Proclamations were issued, and social media and email appeals were drivers for the campaign.
Admittedy, there are some downsides to particpating in these online contests. The labor invested by nonprofit volunteers and staff, can be intense. Not to mention slightly obsessive-inducing. Neidig admitted that he would get up in the middle of the night to check their rankings, while the contest was running. But the foundation also improved its email lists and social media followings because of the participatory marketing thrust. They won the challenge. The foundation now has a budget of almost $2.5 million and a staff of six people.
Neidig encouraged nonprofits attending the workshop he was speaking at, to be strategic when considering a contest and to invest wholeheartedly in trying to win. While competition is often a dirty word in the nonprofit community, which values collegialism and consensus, the reality is that nonprofits compete every day for limited funding and attention.
The Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation has also won $25,000 from the Ellen Degeneres PinkWell Award Challenge, and is looking forward to the PinkWell Challenge in early 2012. Neidig spoke at “PR Issues of the Day for Nonprofits and Associations,” sponsored by the National Capital Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

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