Pepsi Charity Contest: Our Experience Submitting an Idea

Pepsi Refresh is the latest venture in a string of high-profile voting based grant giving. It is great to see big corporations getting more involved in the social sector and the more contests we have like this, the better. We are still in the very early stages of these contests and people are still figuring out the kinks in the system. There have been couple of issues in the current Pepsi Refresh campaign – one discussing perceived bias towards celebrity-sponsored nonprofits and another exploring whether it is proxy voting is considered “cheating.” However, we must also credit companies for coming forward and trying out various models.

This month Jolkona Foundation submitted an idea for the May voting period. I thought this was a good opportunity to write a blog post about our experience. This is not meant as a representation of what all non-profits do, rather it is a view of our journey thus far in submitting our idea to the Pepsi Refresh Challenge.

Background info on Pepsi Refresh

For those who are not aware, Pepsi Refresh ( is a contest being put on by Pepsi where it gives away large grants to US-based proposals that earn the most number of votes from the public. It is a monthly contest and so at the beginning of every month they put up a new list of projects for people to vote on.  Organizations are invited to submit a proposal the month before the voting. Submission closes either on the 15th of the month or once 1000 proposals are received for that month. Then a panel of judges review the proposals for objectionable ones and the approved ones make it to the voting stage. The grants are awarded to the top voted ideas breakdown as follows:

  • 10 X $5,000 grants
  • 10 X $25,000 grants
  • 10 X $50,000 grants
  • 2 X $250,0000 grants

That’s a cool $1,300,000 given out by Pepsi every month and Pepsi should be commended for giving out that much to support the community. In the current month, there are 1143 ideas (yes, it is more than the 1000 ideas limit because Pepsi pushes some of the ideas from previous months into the next month). If Pepsi, evenly distributed the purse across all the ideas, each one would get $1137. It is important to remember this figure and I will refer to it again later in the post.

Our experience

We came up with the proposal idea for Jolkona in late January/early February. We put the proposal together quickly and tried to submit the idea (February 10th) but, it turns out submissions were already closed because they already had their 1000 ideas for March. We decided to spend the next 3 weeks improving the proposal and then, submitting it for April voting. Jolkona Foundation is an all-volunteer organization, but we pulled together our limited resources and spent a lot of time improving the proposal. Here is a list of what we did:

  1. We found a video crew and actors to help us create a video. All the people involved volunteered their hours to put this short 2 minute video together.
  2. We built a prototype design to showcase our idea in the video. Again, we got a volunteer designer to help for this purpose.
  3. We planned an event in April where we would invite people to learn more about our proposal and hopefully, get their votes.
  4. We reviewed the application over and over again to make sure we had the right information and that it met all the requirements  in terms of character limits.
  5. We finished everything by February 24th to make sure we were ready for April submission. The responsibility fell on me to submit the idea on February 28th at 9 PM (PST) – the time submissions open.

Everything is ready for submission…

Given that we had put everything together that we wanted to, the only thing left for us to do was wait for the submissions to open. February was the month of the Winter Olympics. Given that we are based in Seattle and everything was ready for the submission, my wife and I decided to check out the Olympics during the last weekend.  After a long fun day in Vancouver, we come back to our room late Saturday night (February 27th) and decided to fill out the Pepsi Refresh proposal form and save it, so that all we have to do is hit the “Submit” button when the submissions opened. So, we filled out the entire form (you have to fill out 4 pages of fields before you can save – bad design). But when we clicked on “Save,” it wouldn’t allow us to save anything because we were outside the United States. We tried a few times and our frustration grew more and more. We even tried VPN’s but when we tried that the form gave errors. After trying for over 90 minutes late at night, we gave up…

So we thought that we would need to get back to the US before 9 PM so that we could send in our proposal as soon as the submissions open. Then, on Sunday morning (February 28th) we noticed that the system would be down from 5 PM to 9 PM for maintenance. We wanted to save our proposal before submitting, which is necessary if you want to have a chance at being the first 1000 ideas to be submitted, so we decided that we needed to be back in Washington well before 5 PM. Sunday was the last day of the Olympics, other than the closing ceremony, it was the day of the dream hockey final – Canada vs. USA. Our plan was to watch the game and then head out as soon as possible. It was a good plan until US tied with 0:04 seconds left in the game. We stuck around until 3:15 PM, but could not stay any longer. We didn’t want to risk the border traffic and not make it back in time to  save  the proposal. Canada won the game in overtime while we were in our car heading back to the border.

Luckily the traffic was light and we crossed the border in time. We walked into the first coffee shop we could find off I-5 and saved our proposal. The clock showed 4:57 PM. Phew!

The proposal is saved; all we do now is hit “Submit”

Back in Seattle, I thought: It’s 8:30 PM, the site is still down for maintenance and I can’t even log into my account to see my saved proposal. 8:45 PM – site is still down. 8:50 PM, 8:55 PM, 8:57 PM…still site is down. 9 PM and I hit “refresh,” Site is still down. I continue to refresh every 10 seconds. 9:04 PM – site is still down. I continue trying, by this time the site was alternating between long response times (and no result) or site is down for maintenance messages.

9:06 PM – I am logged in, but my proposal looks radically different. Oh wait, that is not my account. It’s France’s account. I log out and I am right back into the switches between maintenance messages and long response time. 9:09 PM – I am back into France’s account. Crap! I log out and keep trying.

9:11 PM – I get into my account for the first time. I hit “Submit.”

9:12 PM – “The submission for this month is closed because we have reached our maximum number of submissions.” At this point I was livid and at 9:15 PM I sent an email to Pepsi Refresh pointing out this issue to them:

Pepsi’s reaction

I had been following the discussion around Pepsi Refresh on Beth Kanter’s blog. On Monday morning, March 1st, I posted a comment on Beth’s blog since Pepsi seemed to respond to the conversations on that blog and not my direct comment. Pepsi did reply to my comment on Beth’s blog and you can see the exchange between Bonin Bough (Pepsi’s representative) and myself here.

I finally got this reply on March 22nd:

The folks at Pepsi were kind enough to ensure that we can submit our proposal for the May vote.

The impact of this experience on Jolkona Foundation

Here is a recap of the issues we faced:

  1. It took a long time to think through a proposal  and put it together.
  2. The form could have been designed better – why do I have to fill everything out before I can even save?
  3. The amount of information required is the same irrespective of the grant amount being sought. Why does someone asking for $5K have to submit the same amount of information as someone asking for $250K?
  4. On a related note, why is there no grant option between $50K and $250K? That seems like a large gap and I know we would have liked a $100K option for our  proposal.
  5. It wasn’t obvious that you had to be located within the US to even submit the forms.
  6. I had to change our personal plans in order to submit the form in time – for a chance at funding for our small organization.
  7. Contest owners should understand the capabilities of the technologies they are using. The site should be able to handle a large amount of submissions and it should DEFINITELY not log you into someone else’s account.
  8. It took us a few cycles of going back and forth before getting this issue resolved.

That was our experience in just submitting the proposal and we don’t even know if we will be selected for voting in May. If we are selected, then comes the most challenging part – gathering the votes. Like many other organizations, we are strapped for resources. So, when contests like Pepsi Refresh come along, we do our best in trying to put together a plan to get some of the money available in the contest. We divert resources from other projects for a chance to win some funding. Every additional issue mentioned above made us put in that much more effort in submitting the proposal. I am sure this was not the intention of Pepsi and Pepsi could not predict these sorts of challenge for everyone. However, it is important to acknowledge that most nonprofits are already stretched trying to provide their services. Contests like Pepsi Refresh try to make lives easier for the non-profits, but it is not clear that contests are designed to lessen the burden on the non-profits.

The Key Takeway is…

It is important to understand the opportunity cost of these contests. Note that at the beginning I mentioned that if Pepsi just distributed the money evenly, each proposal would get $1137. If Pepsi gave it $10,000 per organization it could give it to 130 organizations a month (1560 organizations over the entire year). For an organization like us, $10,000 is a lot of money and we could do a lot with it. It is important to ask the question whether the contest is designed to create more value than that simple distribution. We applied for the $50K grand. The amount of effort we put in to just get a shot at being listed on the site is justified if we win the $50K. Assuming there are at least 350 proposals for $50K grants, the chances of winning the $50K is less than 3%. So, we went through all that for a less than 3% chance at getting funding for $50K. We must ask ourselves how much effort should a non-profit put into these kinds of contests? Is it really the best use of their resources?

All of us want to help those who need it the most. Most non-profit organizations do an amazing job with the very limited resources. If we are trying to help the non-profits to do more of what they are doing, then we should design programs and contests with non-profits’ needs as the main motivation. I am optimistic that these contests will improve over time. I am hoping that this candid sharing of our experience will help Pepsi Refresh and future contest organizers.

Please feel free to leave us your thoughts and comments.


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  2. Alan Muskat / May 1, 2010

    Thanks for sharing your experience. We are a project of The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC). We just went through a similar experience applying for the $250k slot. At around 6pm EST on April 30th it took an hour of trying to get the application to accept our video. I called and they said they were having trouble. Around 11pm it took several attempts before I could open our application. At 12:02 by my clock it said to come back at 6 am. I came back at 5:50 and sure enough they re-opened at 6am only to say said they already had 1,000 submissions. Maybe that was already the case at 12:02 and I didn’t catch that part.

    I don’t know if we’ll bother trying again next month. I would say the site is well designed, the application process was also otherwise smooth (I believe it auto-saves, BTW), the call-in center was responsive and helpful, at least till they closed (at 8, I believe), but all in all it seems we’re better off doing our own fundraising.

  3. Angie / May 14, 2010

    This is what I have learned from this process in May. Most of the votes are internal. There are a lot of alliances going on. Rather than getting new votes, projects are just exchanging voting lists with each other. Someone sent me a sampling of email addresses that they wanted to exchange for ours. I checked them out, at least 30% of them were made up and invalid email addresses.

    I think Pepsi could have leveled the playing field and deterred a lot of bot voting if they had simply made a rule of only one vote per computer per day.

    I honestly don’t think Pepsi will validate any of the email addresses, so there is no deterrent from such behavior other than your own ethics. Besides even if they tried to validate them, the winning teams wills imply say that they believed the email addresses to be correct. How can Pepsi take away a grant if the applicants plea innocence. It would be a PR nightmare.

    And, if this was to be used for community good ~~ why is a large organization that has access to a lot of votes allowed to participate against a small group of people who have an idea that will just truly change their town?

    I think in the end, pepsi has not done too many people any favors.

  4. Adnan / May 21, 2010

    These are great comments. We will also have to think very seriously about whether we take part in any more of these social media contests.

  5. Chrissie / May 31, 2010

    Hi there,

    We have been trying to submit to the Pepsi Refresh Challenge for the past three months with no luck. Each time the website is under maintenance until midnight and then we press to log in and the submissions are full. Tonight we had everything ready to go, pressed submit right at midnight and the server timed out. By the time we refreshed the page the submissions were full…again. Did you guys figure out a way to get your idea submitted?
    Thanks for any help you can provide!
    Chrissie @ Try Change LLC.

  6. Nicole / October 4, 2010

    My company went through many of the challenges shown here until we were finally accepted into this voting cycle. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, we held the 17th position for the first 3 days of voting and just recently plunged down to #77. We are now looking into why there was such a shift when we didn’t see a budge on 17 for days. Now we are reading about organizations that are “fixing” the voting and it all seems a bit scandalous. Nonetheless, we are still in the running so please vote for us! My company provides scholarships for military spouses, veterans, wounded warriors, their caregivers, and reserve/guard members for healthcare careers.

  7. Sharon Leach / November 1, 2010

    We have tried to submit our idea for the last couple of months. We have run into the same problems as the rest of you. We actually had our idea accepted for April but never got any higher than 167th. We will try again in December.

  8. Francesca Bruschke / October 12, 2011

    I am continuously browsing online for posts that can help me. Thank you!

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