Create Solutions for Public Good

How crowdsourcing can used to obtain tangible results for large, intractable problems


If you’re familiar with crowdsourcing, then you already know it is a great business tool.  Companies and other organizations routinely use it to yield tangible, actionable solutions to problems ranging from identifying new resources to designing new processes.  But what if your problem isn’t easily defined, or has multiple possible paths forward? What if the problem is considered unsolvable? Not only can crowdsourcing still be useful, but it can actually help clarify the problem itself. Not-for-profit organizations routinely address these types of problems where even succinctly stating the problem itself can be a daunting challenge.  Indeed, many aspirational goals are not easily defined problems or readily addressed. In this example, we look at how a not-for-profit organization might use crowdsourcing to address the issue of easy and affordable access to healthcare. 


Access to affordable healthcare is an international, ongoing, and persistent problem.  Like the issues associated with switching to environmentally responsible energy sources, the path forward is likely to be a suite of different solutions, with different solutions better suited to different situations.  How might a not-for-profit organization identify those different productive ways to address the access to affordable healthcare issue? Crowdsourcing can help by clarifying the problem and by allowing multiple paths to be developed simultaneously.  


Not-for-profits have slightly different concerns from commercial businesses.  They have to ensure responsible use of their funds, maintain a coherent slate of projects that are in alignment with the organization’s mission, and more carefully manage public perception.  Again, crowdsourcing can provide risk mitigation factors and can provide ancillary benefits like promoting awareness for a cause, or raising the organization’s profile.


Directing the Crowd


Everyone agrees that easy access to affordable healthcare is important and desirable.  But the definitions of easy and affordable are highly contextual. Standards of living and standards of care vary widely depending on which country you reside in, whether you live in an urban environment or a rural one, etc.  How do you even start to winnow down the possible definitions for the phrase “easy access to affordable healthcare”? The answer is to ask the crowd. By breaking a thorny problem into smaller pieces you manage risk, get insights into different elements of the problem, and are able to incorporate lessons learned from earlier steps.


A crowdsourcing project to identify paths towards easy access to affordable healthcare could look like this:


Round One - Ideation

  1. Open Call - This is like a Request for Proposal (RFP), where you outline the project’s objectives and set clear specifications for what the end result should deliver.  For this Ideation round, you describe the problem: lack of easy access to affordable healthcare. Then you describe what winning, impactful outcomes could look like, without prescribing how to arrive at such an outcome.

  2. Response - Anyone who meets your open call criteria can submit a response for your review. In this first round, you ask for an abstract outlining the broad strokes of a proposed approach that meets your parameters for the target demographic, impact, outcomes, and/or cost.

  3. Round One Winner - After reviewing all your submissions, you select 5 of the most compelling submissions as Round One winners of the ideation phase. You award a small prize of several thousand dollars to each winner. 


Round One allows your not-for-profit organization to see how the larger community interprets “easy access” and “affordable care”.  This type of ideation challenge typically generates many responses, which themselves tend to cover a wide range of thoughtfulness, suitability, and completeness relative to the challenge’s objective.  You award the 5 most compelling submissions each a prize of several thousand dollars. Review of all the submissions will always reveal several trends, with approaches naturally falling into certain categories.  Your organization selects one or two categories that are closest aligned to your mission and goals. These categories become the core topics for Round Two. In this example, you note that the large majority of proposals look at integrating technology into healthcare as a way of bringing down costs and providing virtual access to remote locations.  Additionally, the second largest group of proposals is clustered around preventative care. These two topics become the core of Round Two.


Round Two - Teambuilding and Demonstration  

  1. Open Call - In this Demonstration round, you are asking for proposals targeted to one of your two main areas: preventative care and integration of technology.  You note that many of the submissions to Round One touched on one or both of these areas but did not provide a complete solution. You suggest that some groups might wish to team up, using HeroX’s teaming feature, to yield a more complete and competitive solution. 

  2. Response - Anyone who meets your open call criteria (whether or not they participated in Round One) can submit a response for your review.  In this round, you ask for a more comprehensive white paper that addresses specifics such as: cost, what implementation would look like, how it could be demonstrated, how success could be measured, integration of elements (if submission is from a team), etc.

  3. Shortlist - After reviewing all your submissions, you select the top 3 as winners who advance to the final stage.  Each winner receives $100,000 to implement their proposed approach and provide a demonstration.

  4. Final Winner - At the end of development/implementation period, each group provides a live demonstration of their approach.  Depending on the nature of the different approaches, this could be a live event with a community of other stakeholders present or it could be a private session with only the evaluation panel.  The winner is selected and awarded a development grant to further develop and/or commercialize the approach.

In Round 2, you again start with an open call for approaches that are targeted towards one of your two topics.  You are looking for a fuller, more comprehensive proposals that can show how an approach could be implemented in the field.  By encouraging teaming, Round 1 participants and others can collaborate to create more complete and actionable proposals. Careful selection of both submission requirements and evaluation criteria ensures that the open call will result in high quality submissions. The 3 groups with the most promising submissions each receive $100,00 to develop and demonstrate their approaches. To further mitigate risk, the funds are delivered in allotments based on progress against a mutually agreed upon project plan. At the end of the development period, you experience and evaluate live demonstrations from each group.  This could be a live event with co-sponsors from related areas, creating greater exposure for both the participants and your organization. Round 2 ends with the selection of a final winner, who receives additional development funds to further develop the approach with a long-term goal of commercialization or broad deployment.


Listening to the Crowd


In this example, we show how a complicated, intractable problem can still be crowdsourced.  By listening to the crowd and seeing how they interpret a problem, there is almost always a way to reduce a seemingly nebulous problem down to project that will produce meaningful results.  Everyone benefits from these types of interactions.  


For you and your organization:

  • You gain insight into the problem at hand, and many of the submissions that don’t win may still provide new avenues of thought

  • You demonstrate to your community and supporting base responsible use of funds which leads to actionable results - this, in turn, may lead to enhanced donations

  • Your organization's brand is established or reinforced as a leader in the field

  • Your organization raises public awareness for the issue

  • Your organization can point to concrete results that address perennial problems

For the participants:

  • All respondents have a sense of doing good and being part of a larger, important effort

  • Allowing Round 1 participants to also participate in Round 2 increases the sense of investment in the cause and allows them to fine-tune their approaches

  • Allowing and encouraging teaming expands everyone’s networks, creating new connections and resulting in better submissions

  • Participants have the opportunity to present their ideas and technologies to potential sponsors.


Crowdsourcing isn’t just a tool - it’s a multi-tool.  Different elements of crowdsourcing can be applied to different stages of the problem.  In this example, crowdsourcing was first used to help narrow down the broader problem to specific ones of a more manageable scope.  Then it was used to help create and develop complete solutions - recognizing that there is no single global solution to the larger issue.  


Read the NIST Differential Privacy Case Study to see an example of how NIST used the approach discussed in this blueprint to address a problem that had previously been thought unsolvable.

To see examples of other types of problems that can be crowdsourced, visit our Resources page at  If you have specific questions and would like to speak with an expert — email us at


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Eloise Young

Crowdsourcing Specialist

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