Do you have a great idea that brings nonprofits, businesses and community groups together to address the needs of children and families in Greater Atlanta? Through SPARK Prize, a “Shark Tank” style live competition, we award small grants to help communities test innovative ideas that can move the needle on our region’s most pressing issues. Prizes will be awarded at our C3 Conference on Friday, April 21, 2017.


To enter the 2017 SPARK Prize competition, submit a video here. Read on below to learn more about the United Way of Greater Atlanta SPARK Prize selection criteria and frequently asked questions.


How do I apply?

Interested applicants are asked to submit a 3-5 minute video presentation explaining the problem they are attempting to solve, their innovative solution, and the partners who they will work with for implementation. Videos do not have to be professionally recorded — cell phone/digital camera videos are highly encouraged! Videos can be submitted via the SPARK Prize website or in-person at a “live audition” event where United Way and Center for Civic Innovation staff will assist individuals with recording their presentation. Proposals that go on to the conference will be required to submit a 3-page proposal and will receive support with improving their presentation and their implementation plan.


What is the deadline for submission?

The deadline for video submission is February 17, 2017, at 5:00 p.m. Finalists selected to move forward will be notified by March 17, 2017. Finalists are the only ones required to submit a written proposal, which will be due on March 31, 2017.


How much is the award?

These are small awards that will help communities test an innovative idea. Requests can be made in any amount up to $15,000. Awards will be given based on the ability of the applicants to demonstrate a clear project plan and use of the funds. There will also be an Audience Choice Award which will be based on online votes by the general public, as well as in-person audience voting at United Way’s C3 event on April 21, 2017, when the SPARK prizes will be awarded.


How many awards will be made?

We anticipate about 4 prizes to be awarded, including the Audience Choice Award which will be based on votes by the general public. Ultimately, the SPARK Prize investors will determine which ideas they want to invest in. All ideas that are presented at the conference will be eligible for funding and have an opportunity for crowd-funding from conference participants.


Who is eligible?

Any individual, group or organization that has an innovative idea can apply with special consideration for organizations with a budget under $500,000. (Individuals and community groups must have affiliation with a registered 501©3 that will serve as their fiscal agent.)

We applied for United Way’s previous Spark competition. Are we eligible to apply for this year’s competition?

Yes! If you applied or were even selected for a further round of consideration during the previous Spark competition, you are still eligible to apply. However, if you were a final winner and received a Spark award, you would not be eligible to apply.


Is this funding renewable?

This funding supports 9-12 month projects. There is currently no commitment being made for additional funding. The SPARK Prize winners will receive coaching post-award which will include building the capacity of each organization to effectively raise funds. Having a nonprofit or small business partner may also help with consideration for sustainability.


How will award winners be selected?

This award is designed to reward organizations with budgets of less than $500,000 who provide direct service within the 13-county United Way of Greater Atlanta service area. All videos will be reviewed by a panel of community leaders, including entrepreneurs, nonprofit service leaders, issue experts and others who will be vetting ideas for:

  • Alignment – How well the project or program is aligned with United Way of Greater Atlanta’s three pillars of Child Well-Being (click here to learn more about the child well-being agenda). The three pillars are:
    -Strong Foundations – Strategies that prevent problems from occurring in the first place. These programs strengthen core skills, sustain what’s working and increase overall family stability.
    -Opportunities for Success – Strategies that help children and families heal, rebuild and create new opportunities.
    -Nurturing Communities – Strategies that address community-wide issues to ensure that each child, regardless of zip code, has a fair shot at growing up in a healthy, nurturing community.
  • Solution Oriented – Clearly articulates a need with goals that directly address a particular community/social problem, removes barriers, or increases efficiencies
  • Creativity – Ability to demonstrate creativity, new or unconventional thinking  
  • Innovation – Project or program is unique and cutting edge for the field; new to the community
  • Thoughtful Implementation – Feasibility of the implementation plan (sufficient resources, feasible scope of work and timeline, clear goals and objectives)
  • Leverage – Ability to use funds to leverage additional skills, expertise, human capital and other resources to ensure project’s success (Examples: Engage 100 community volunteers, 25 hours in-kind web development expertise, or $2,000 matching funds)


10 finalists will be selected from the larger pool of applicants and will be required to submit a three page proposal. The final winners will be selected by a panel of investors live at the C3 Conference on April 21, 2017, using the above set of criteria.


Why is United Way offering this now?

United Way of Greater Atlanta is committed to solving complex community problems and building a community of leaders who are continuously looking for innovative and creative solutions. The SPARK Prize grew out of listening to our stakeholders — both nonprofit agencies and donors. They both expressed a desire to support innovative and collaborative ideas. United Way has offered similar opportunities that were more suited for large organizations and recognized that small nonprofit agencies face the same limited resources, creating obstacles to innovation.


Why invest in small nonprofits?

Innovation often emerges from small nimble organizations, but their creativity and innovative solutions can lay dormant because of lack of flexible resources. We must empower people to be innovators and assist leaders to accelerate solutions. This award is designed to reward organizations with budgets of less than $500,000 who provide direct service within the 13-county United Way of Greater Atlanta service area.


Can the prize be used for planning or research?

The SPARK Prize is designed to reward individuals and organizations that have already spent some time planning and are ready to move into testing their idea. There should be a well thought-out concept. The prize supports projects that can be implemented within 9-12 months of the award. Additionally, all funded projects will need to have clear milestones of progress and measures of success that show the impact on individuals and families.   


How do I know if I have a truly innovative idea?

Our best experience is to test your idea with a wide variety of people and practice making your “pitch.” This will help to refine your idea and allow you to master your presentation.


Do a little research. As you look to apply your idea, see if anything similar exists already, here in our region or in other communities. It will also be important that you have a good understanding of the problem that your idea solves.


Determine what type of innovation you are proposing. Consider the following categories of innovation, adapted from the Harvard Business Review.

  • Core – These types of innovation optimize existing services or functions. These innovations are usually incremental and leverage existing assets to yield a meaningful improvement in results. Often the new idea, if successful, will become incorporated as a standard within the organization.
  • Expansion – These types of innovation enhance or expand existing services and may have some characteristics of core and transformational innovations. Expansion innovations may use existing assets to engage with clients differently or use volunteers in a new way. These might also be initiatives from another arena that have not been applied to your organization or within your community.
  • Transformational – These innovations represent a breakthrough or significantly change how a service or function is delivered. The initiative disrupts the norm and suggests new ways of meeting a need or engaging clients that requires the organization to develop new capacities and/or bring on new skills.


How will United Way support these projects?

United Way of Greater Atlanta will provide ongoing project monitoring to ensure progress is made towards project deliverables. We’ll also help to identify coaches and other capacity building strategies that will help the organization embed a culture of innovation.