Winning Online Competitions: A Coalition of the Giving


Zoetica has decided not to counsel potential clients on how to win contests like Pepsi Refresh, but many of you are asking for tips. That’s why when the opportunity came up to publish this guest post by Dan Morrison, CEO of Citizen Effect, I said yes. Hopefully, some folks will find it useful.

Philanthropy competitions are the new fad and mode for giving away millions of dollars to innovative organizations trying to save the world. Last year the Chase Giving Challenge gave away $5 million to 100 nonprofits and this year Pepsi allocated $20 million of its Super Bowl ad budget to launch its Pepsi Refresh Project that is giving away a total of $1.2 million a month to innovative ideas that will save the world.

While most of you have never heard of Scott Beale and Atlas Corp. you need to for two reasons. Atlas Corp is creating a new spin on the Peace Corp that will benefit your organization, and Scott is kicking your butts in these online giving competitions.

In the last 2 years, Scott and Atlas Corp have won $325,000 from online competitions, including $125,000 from the Chase Giving Challenge. And he just did it again by winning one of the ten $50,000 prizes from the Pepsi Refresh Project. This is impressive. But it is borderline unbelievable when you consider Atlas Corp’s 2009 budget was $400.000, they only have 1,700 friends on Facebook, 1,215 followers on Twitter, and an email list of about 12,000 people.

So how did they do it? Scott’s plan to win the Pepsi contest was ingenious and will likely have Chase, Pepsi and other online contests rethinking their rules in the future. Introducing the “Coalition of the Giving.”

The recipe for forming the Coalition of the Giving is simple: part good-hearted collaboration, part reality-TV show Survivor, and part persistence (or spam, depending on your threshold for receiving emails, Facebook updates and Tweets).

The Pepsi Refresh Project included hundreds of ideas from all over the country and Scott knew he would need more than Atlas Corp supporters to win. So how could Scott get people to vote for Atlas Corp that had never heard of them before, much less care about their mission?

Easy, ask another organization competing in the Pepsi Refresh Project to market Atlas Corp to their supporters. This was possible because every voter was given ten votes a day, but each voter could only vote once for a specific organization. That left nine useless votes… unless you could form a coalition and trade votes in a “I’ll vote for you if you vote for me” arrangement.

Scott found six other organizations competing in the contest (two vying for $50K, three for $25K, and one for $250K) and told them that every time he asked someone to vote for Atlas Corp, he would also ask them to vote for everyone in the coalition, as long as they did the same. Here again, Pepsi’s rules worked in Scott’s favor because there were ten prizes of $50,000, so it was not a “winner take all” competition and open to benefiting a collaboration.

Pepsi does not share the number of votes, but let’ assume that 70% of Scott’s supporters still only vote for Atlas Corp. That means that 30% of his supporters will vote for other coalition members. Thirty percent does not seem like a lot but multiply that by six and consider that everyone can vote every day. If Atlas Corp is able to pick up ten voters that vote every day through the coalition, that is 280 votes over the course of the February contest. That may not allow someone to go from worst to first, but it is highly likely that it can move you from a contender to a winner.

The results tell the tale. Six of the seven coalition partners won, that is a combined $225,000 for the coalition.

The strategy was ingenious in part because it was selfish as much it was selfless. Rather than just a “vote for me” play, Atlas Corp adopted a “vote for me and consider these other guys,” play. The better the coalition members did in the standings, the stronger the incentive was to continue with the plan and not defect because if they did, they would be dropped from the coalition and loose all those potential votes.

I am not sure voting contests are the most efficient way to allocate millions of dollars for innovative ideas since they reward innovative voter mobilization strategies rather than innovative projects. But at least in the case of Atlas Corp, both were rewarded, and we all learned a lesson that sometimes collaboration is better than competition. Thank you Scott and best of luck in the next competition, we will be watching.

For more information on Atlas Corp, email Scott Beale at and learn more about Atlas Corps at For more information on the author, email Dan Morrison, CEO and Founder of, at

62 Replies to “Winning Online Competitions: A Coalition of the Giving”

  1. Thanks for sharing this blog. It’s definitely going to make my organization think twice about applying for a grant through online voting competitions like Pepsi Refresh because it takes a whole lot of staff time to spread the word to membership about voting and if you’re not one of the “cool kids” or a member of this secret “coalition,” it’s essentially a wasted effort and waste of already limited resources. Hopefully, Pepsi will read this blog and re-think its strategy for determining winners.

  2. Thanks for the shout out! Shikha is right that it takes a whole lot of staff time and a lot of outreach. For the record, our coalition was not secret, you can see it right here:

    We are intentionally open about our strategy because we feel it encourages collaboration among organizations, something the nonprofit sector could benefit from.

    This contest is not perfect, none of them are, but we applaud Pepsi and contests that allow you to vote for more than one team because it creates an environment that is more about supporting like minded organizations rather than just competing for limited resources.

  3. Hey Scott: It’s awesome that you created a strategy that works. It’s just too bad that not everyone will get your memo unless Pepsi tips them off. You can bet that if I apply, it won’t be without a coalition behind me and I’ll have this blog and you to thank for that. I just feel REALLY bad for the amazing ideas that won’t get funded because those idea people didn’t happen to read this blog or see your website. Peace.

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  5. I have to applaud Zoetica for not working on these types of contests for your clients. I’m sure this isn’t true for all nonprofits, but many that I have a personal connection with resort to message overload and stray from their core message to emphasize “help us win this contest.” I’ve felt spammed by nonprofits that I have respected and supported in the past.

    Don’t get me wrong – I love that corporations are putting their money to good cause. I just wish there didn’t need to be a vote attached.

  6. Great post. Invaluable info to help me in the next competition. If anyone in the NYC would like to collaborate, please let me know.

  7. Competition fatigue is a major problem and because of that we are taking a 6-month break. Your supporters are less tired when you win a lot, but they still get tired. It is always important to appreciate your supporters and know how much they mean to you, win or lose.

  8. Geoff – Congrats to you and Beth for putting a stake in the ground about developing strategies around these competitions.

    In my opinion, they incent organizations to exhibit two harmful behaviors:

    Telling their supporters (through their actions) that votes matter more than mission.
    Spend valuable resources on chances.
    Potential torching valuable donor relationships in exchange for a quick buck that might not even happen.


  9. Geoff – Congrats to you and Beth for putting a stake in the ground about developing strategies around these competitions.

    In my opinion, they incent organizations to exhibit three harmful behaviors:

    Telling their supporters (through their actions) that votes matter more than mission.
    Spend valuable resources on chances.
    Potential torching valuable donor relationships in exchange for a quick buck that might not even happen.


  10. this strategy for gaming the system points to the depth of the flaws in this tired and getting tireder online voting for causes system at this stage of its evolution.

  11. Great article. If the mission of your non-profit is to fund equipment and facilities for a public school in a community with %15 unemployment (as ours is) than finding funding like this is a godsend.

    We’re very excited to have the opportunity to compete in April. It’s a lot easier to ask for votes online than to ask people who want to help but don’t have extra money for cash.

    Good luck to all the non-profits and Thank you Pepsi for giving us a chance.

  12. At this point, I am DESPERATE. I’ve heard of TWO people buying votes, and I am NOT going to stoop to cheating. I am just trying to get tickets for me and my 11 year old sister to meet our favorite band. I have 2 days left. all you have to do is click the link. That is it. You can vote every 15 minutes, but that is asking A LOT. Once will do just fine. Please help us, and maybe spread the word(post the link, even if its for like an hour) I know that if everyone that looks at this actually clicks the link, I will win FOR SURE(Without cheating). DIRECTIONERS UNITE? ♥ XOXO, Michaela

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