The prize process
You might think it simple, this task of ours. We just have to find some deserving person running a great project that is helping to lessen the environmental impact of the way we eat. This process, however, is far from simple.
To do it in the right way means starting a process that takes more than a year and involves
our entire team and a host of diverse experts around the globe. The main complication? We are not satisfied simply giving the award to someone who did something great ten years ago that definitely works. Rather we are ceaselessly searching for those who would change
the world now and in the future if only they had the chance.
The first step
To kick the process off, we need nominations. These we gather in a very democratic way, with most of our roughly 1000 nominees submitted through our website by interested people who think they know of a deserving organization.We’ve made the form as simple as possible: just tell us the name of the organization, and if you know it, their website address.
We quite purposefully don’t want any description of what the nominee does or why they’re being nominated. This might seem counterintuitive at first. Wouldn’t it be better if nominators supplied us with as much information as possible? Actually, no. We ask for as little information as possible for three specific reasons.
The first and most important reason is that we want to remove all barriers to nominating. We have seen that with every extra second it takes or every extra click someone needs to make, a few more people give up and fail to complete what they started. We’ll never know what they wanted to tell us. And just imagine if an unnecessarily complicated nominating process was the deciding factor between the success or failure of an idea that could ultimately change the world.
The second reason has to do with bias. This early in the process we don’t want to know what someone does well, according to someone else, or why someone thinks the nominee should win, and we most certainly don’t want to know much about the person who is nominating either. We need to make it as easy as possible for us to look at each single nominee with equal interest and an open mind. And because we are all too human, this becomes more difficult if we get biased information from the beginning — especially if a nomination is submitted by someone working for an organization that we know and trust, or if a nominator is simply very good at expressing themselves in writing and produces statement on a nominee that is more persuasive than others. The risk is not that we end up with someone winning that isn’t good enough. Later stages of the process will prevent that. But rather the risk is that someone who is a potential game changer might not get the chance because they were put aside early because their nomination didn’t stand out. Or that we end up spending unnecessary resources on investigating initiatives that someone made sound really
worthy but that aren’t really that good. In short, we want to find out for ourselves who we believe in, because that is the fairest way.
The third reason is that it is very impractical to receive lots of unverified information about nominees. We have to independently verify any information that enters our nomination process. It would be nearly impossible to check lots of unverified information when we take in a thousand nominees per year. It would take much more time to verify what someone else believes is important than it does for us to just gather the information we actually need ourselves. It is also possible to nominate yourself for the Food Planet Prize. The only difference between a third-party nomination is that we will ask you for a bit more information about your organization. But even then, at this stage we still don’t want to know why you think you should win. You will go through the same vetting process as someone nominated by someone else. And as a side note for those of you who are interested in being nominated, it makes no difference if you’re nominated by someone else or you nominate yourself. No need to ask your mom/cousin/ friend to nominate you. If you think you should win, just nominate yourself already.
When a nomination comes in, our next step is to make sure that it is about a real organization or individual, and that what they are doing is somehow applicable to the purpose of the foundation: “to lessen the environmental impact of how we eat and produce our food”.
The vetting stage
At this stage we lose 15-20 % of the nominations because they are not eligible for some reason. It can be prank nominations from Seymour Butts, people just asking us to give them the money already, and random oddballs who clearly had no idea what we are all about when they started writing. This amount of extra work at the beginning of the process is a small
price for us to pay for keeping those aforementioned barriers to entry very low.
When a nominee is deemed eligible, we then register them, meaning that we fill in a form detailing all the specifics of the organization and what they do. We research the initiative online and summarize briefly what they claim to do and what we think about that. Lastly, we answer a form containing 18 questions measuring the nominee against the purpose of the Curt Bergfors Foundation. Each question produces a score between 1-5 that, when combined, gives a total score for each new nominee. Each nominee will also receive an email saying something like. ”Hey, you. You have been nominated for this thing, we might be in touch in the next few months if we need more information”. This usually ends up in people’s spam folders together with the other “you can win $2 million USD if you do this” emails that we all receive.
After a completed registration, each nominee goes into our nominations matrix, which is a list that has 400 spots. Each spot has a specific mix of criteria tied to it, distributed evenly across the following fields: Geographic origin, food systems sector, type of innovation, and whether the nominee operates a for-profit or nonprofit organization (both types are eligible).
To take an example: one nominee might be a North American primary producer, with a social innovation, that is working as a for-profit company. If there is then more than one initiative in the nominations flow which fits that same designation, it means that by the time we confirm our top 400 list for the next year, only the one we believe in the most will remain on the list and proceed to the next stage. Some categories are more crowded than others, so this is the first really difficult stage of the vetting process, where we have to take out some alternatives
that might seem really qualified. I
n other less popular categories there might be only one nominee, and sometimes none. However, we never rotate great overflow nominees in from
crowded categories into less crowded ones just to fill the list. The whole purpose with having this matrix is to push ourselves to represent the whole world, the whole food system, and all types of innovations and organizations as equally as we can. And to not get lazy and stick to a system that favors what we already know and like. We firmly believe that those truly disruptive initiatives that the world most needs are often hiding where we least expect them.
The long list
When our top 400 is full, our nominations team then puts more effort into researching these remaining initiatives and starts the process of turning them into our long list: 50 strong nominees. The spots on this long list will mathematically have the same distribution of criteria as on the list of 400, just with fewer spots. So if Europe has a total of 80 spots on the 400 list, then only ten of the 50 spots on the long list will be available for European initiatives.
On the top 400 list, equal representation is the most important goal. But on this new 50-organization long list, the perceived quality of the nominees takes precedence over equal representation. In practice this means that you won’t make it onto the long list just because you were the only nominee in a specific designation, unless you are in fact truly worthy. It also means that if there are two outstanding nominees from the same category (meaning one would be eliminated), and there is a gap, or a very weak candidate under another designation, we do allow ourselves, on rare occasions, to give that spot to the other outstanding nominee. Put simply, we allow ourselves the freedom to be a little bit more flexible at this stage than in the beginning.
When the long list is filled we present it to the foundation prize committee, which consists of the jury co-chairs and the chair of the foundation board itself.
The nominations team then asks the prize committee whether, given the information we have at this stage, the committee can see any reason why any of the fifty should not be on the long list. If the answer is yes, then we’ll make changes until the committee and the nominations team firmly agree on the top fifty and the long list is considered confirmed. This is a crucial step as it is our first moment in which different set of eyes will have reviewed the work of the nominations team. It is a moment that marks a nominee not just as a nominee, but as an initiative of interest in the eyes of the foundation itself.
The nominations team will then start reaching out to all the nominees on the confirmed long list to explain to them what this means, and ask for more information directly from them.
At this stage we have a solid enough idea of the merits of an initiative and now we want to start gathering their own thoughts about what they do. We ask things like what they would do if they won the prize, what backing their claims of success or promise have, and many other similar things.
Our findings for each nominee are compiled into an internal document a few pages long, which is designed to explain what problems each nominee is trying to solve and give some background on the problem itself. We also include information on the nominee itself, how they are proposing to achieve their goals, and our thoughts on the extent of their potential impact.
The short list
When this research step is concluded, the nominations team produces a short list of ten remaining candidates. The list of ten still has a consolidated distribution matrix attached to it, to ensure a good spread. But as with the long list, quality is put first and equal representation second. This works well since we are very strict with the representation at the beginning, which usually bears fruit at this stage of the process. However, some years it can also mean that one part of the world has no one on the short list, or that a particular part of the food system gets more represented than another. This is fine with us, as long as it doesn’t turn into a constant or a very strong trend. As long as it fluctuates every year so that we over time we fulfill our goal to represent the whole world and all parts of the food system. The nominations team will then propose their tentative top ten together with all documentation to the prize committee with a single question “Is every nominee on this list worthy of being on the Food Planet Prize short list?”
If any disagreement pops up, the same applies as it does for the discussions of the long list. The committee and the nominations team must completely agree on the list before we can move on to the next step.
When the short list finally has been confirmed, we begin by commissioning one or two expert reviews of each candidate. In the case where a scientific review is needed, we hire a leading academic expert in the relevant field to produce this for us. In the case where we need a practical expert opinion, we hire the best person we can find on a case-by-case basis. The identity of our reviewers is kept secret and all communication between the expert and the foundation is carried out directly and discreetly through our team to ensure full integrity of the evaluation. The academic expert will usually both look at the scientific support for various claims made by the nominee and present a personal judgment of the quality of the work and the team running the project. An example of when we might hire a practical expert is when a nominee is a for-profit company, and we would usually seek out someone who has either experience of doing business in a similar way, or running companies of a similar kind but in a different field, or in some cases people who are used to assessing other companies for potential funding. These practical experts produce a review that serves as a reality check on the likelihood of success of the idea and the format chosen to run it.
In some cases, we do both kinds of reviews.
On top of this we commission Ernst & Young to conduct a full due diligence and compliance report on each nominee. This is essentially a way for us. to make sure that the organization and the peoplenbehind it are suitable for receiving the kind ofnmoney that the prize awards, and to ensure as muchnas possible that the potential nominees act in their everyday work in a way that the foundation can stand behind.
Lastly, we commission one investigative journalist and a photographer to go and visit each shortlisted nominee to produce a long-form reportage about what they do. This is not a fluffy inflight magazine feelgood article, but a very important part of our process where we get an unbiased and curious individual on the ground, asking the right but sometimes difficult questions.
The final stage
When the full material is compiled, we pass it on to the prize committee with a new question. “Is each one of these nominees a worthy winner of the Food Planet Prize?”
If the answer is no, that candidate cannot proceed and will be removed from the running. At this stage we do not rotate any new nominees in to fill gaps. Even though we aim for ten shortlisted initiatives to be presented to the jury, most years we end up with one or more less than that. When the prize committee has made its decision, the remaining nominees and all their documentation are given to the board of the foundation and they are asked the same question. “Is each one of these nominees a worthy winner of the Food Planet Prize?”
Why do we also ask the board of the foundation this question? It is because of the way the rules governing our activities are structured. Only the board can formally decide upon a winner of the prize, and if the board already knows that they for some reason cannot approve any one of the short-listed nominees, we don’t want to present that nominee to the jury and risk wasting everyone’s time.
When the board has approved the short list, the material is finally prepared for, and sent over to, the Food Planet Prize jury.
This is our final check where we get different eyes on our potential winners and filter them through the perspectives and experiences of this very diverse group of skilled people. Every stage up until this one has been about us trying to figure out which ideas have the greatest potential according to the purpose of the foundation. The next step has nothing at all to do with our perspective as a foundation, but rather has everything to do with us trusting others to be collectively smarter and wiser than us.
Just as the nominees have been selected to represent different parts of the world and the entire food system, we try to do the same with the jury. We have, as an example, an equal split between those working in theory with the food system (academia, policy, etc.) and those working practically within it (farmers and those who process, distribute and sell food). It is completely unique in a process like this, to have the vote of, for example, Johan Rockström (one of the world’s foremost climate scientists) weighed equally as the opinion of a vegetable farmer, or a winemaker. We conduct three jury meetings. The final one is held onsite in Stockholm in the morning of the day when the winner is announced, and at the end of it we hold a vote where we ask all jurors one simple question: ”Which of these nominees do you personally believe the most in?” We do not ask them to interpret the purpose of the foundation, or to worry too much about how they think we would want them to vote. If the nominations team and the foundation have done their job well up until this point, the jury should not even have to think about practicalities like that, but really only answer that simple question, allowing them to provide their unique personal perspective.
After the vote has been conducted, the result is presented to the board of the foundation as a recommendation. You might see the board’s official choice of winner as a simple formality since they have already pre-approved the finalists as worthy winners. But legally speaking, the board has to accept the recommendation and decide on the winner, and each board member is personally responsible for their decision. Which is why this 13-month process of finding the best possible winner is always very exciting, all the way to the very last day.