Week 1 Reflections on Pepsi Refresh Project: More than the Money

Posted by Zach Maurin on February 9, 2010

There has been significant discussion among social media and social change folks about the worth of online contests that give money to a cause based on the amount of public support.

I’ve paid attention to the contests themselves, but less so to the surrounding discussion.  Now that ServeNext has entered our first and is eight days into the first month of the Pepsi Refresh Project (the largest of these contests to date, which has pledged about $20 million in grants during 2010), I thought it would be interesting to reflect on Week One within the context of various opinions of these contests.

Keep Your Eye on the…Social Capital

I knew about three weeks before the voting opened on February 1 that ServeNext would enter.  This gave us a chance to begin developing our strategy to deliver votes, while also thinking about other ways to advance ServeNext as a result of our participation.

A number of critiques about online contests have noted that this is not a sustainable way for nonprofits to raise money nor the best way to engage their members who can only be asked to do so much by an organization.

However, if raising money is the only goal and asking members to vote is the only way to get them involved in the contest, then it’s a big missed opportunity.  So while contests need to improve in certain areas, there are ways to grow outside of dollars raised that traditional fundraising does not enable.

These contests provide great opportunities to increase social capital between an organization and its networks (engaging them in strategy and opportunities to contribute to it; strengthening relationships with organizations we work with; giving members the opportunity to help decide how the money is spent if we win; etc., etc.).

Before this contest and during it, we’ve constantly asked: what can ServeNext accomplish so that even if we don’t win a grant, we will have made solid progress in other ways?  Every day has to include attention to those goals (which also helps to deliver votes).

“Forced” to Evolve

With the ubiquity of social technology, more organizations need to evolve to emphasize networked approaches and more bottom-up engagement.  It can be hard to prioritize this shift in structure and strategy, especially during tight times like these. (Yes, I know, limited resources can be the perfect time to evolve and innovate, especially if it means leveraging your organization’s network to help with the workload.  But that’s easier said than done.)

With that said, I’ve spoken to a couple of sizable organizations that have entered the Pepsi Refresh Project or are planning to, yet this will be their first time engaging their entire network in an extended online organizing pursuit.  At ServeNext, we have been involved in a number of efforts that emphasized an online component.  However, this contest forced us to get our online channels updated and more active (still working on some).  In a couple of weeks,  I can say that we’ve already learned a TON and made great progress.

The other organizations that are newer to this are incentivized to improve their ability to engage their networks online by testing ideas, learning strategy, etc.  In fact, one of these organizations told me that participation in this contest has pushed it to review and evaluate online engagement capacity and strategy across the board moving forward.

Deadlines and incentives help us all.


With about 20 days left to vote for the February applicants, it will be interesting to see how Pepsi’s audacious experiment plays out and evolves over the next 10 monthly voting periods.  We’ll be blogging about our experiences on most days and reflecting more broadly once/week.


One Response to “Week 1 Reflections on Pepsi Refresh Project: More than the Money”

  1. […] victory in this economic climate.  But as Zach Maurin, the Executive Director of wrote on this blog earlier in the week, online contests also present an excellent opportunity for organizations to engage their membership […]

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