I recently attended a Tech Salon where the subject of grant applications came up. Part of the conversation revolved around the issue that the complexity, format, and investment required in the traditional grant application process acts as a barrier for organizations that lack the resources or experience needed to complete the process in a competitive manner, leading to the exclusion or weeding out of potential target applicants in some cases.
The conversation made me think of a recent grant I was a part of: The Digital Prototype Opportunity. We partnered with Parsons New School and Blue Ridge Foundation to host a grant for $100k in funds + $350k worth of development work. The grant was split across two winners. The grant application was open to organizations who had an existing social impact innovation but wanted to use technology to extend and/or deepen their impact in their social space.
Because there were organizations of varying sizes and capabilities involved, we wanted to try to level the playing field as best we could without negatively impacting the applicants. We started the process with an announcement and invitation to come to our offices for a two-hour workshop where we helped the organizations explore their current process flows and the users they serve, and to identify where they could make the most impact with the addition of technology.
The interest came to around 120 individual organizations. After the first workshop we had the organizations submit a short proposal based around the work done in the workshop or work they’d done based on the format of the workshop we had introduced to them. The proposals we received were, for the most part, to the point and included a direct ask and perceived impact. The workshop had enabled organizations to understand our interest in the “What” and the “Why” over the “How." This allowed applicants to focus their efforts around what they know best: their users and the needs of those users. It would be misleading to say that every single proposal we received stuck to this format — there were of course the occasional 20+ page proposal from the organizations with the professional grant writer — but that was the exception.
Next, we narrowed the group down to ten finalists. Our promise to the finalists was that even if they were not one of the two winners, they would walk away with a fleshed-out proposal with a clear ask, reasoning to back it up, and an understanding of resources, funds and time needed to complete it. In order to make good on this promise, we held a second workshop for the finalist groups. They each got 1:1 assistance, and this time the focus was on framing an MVP and rough scoping the tech, resources and time needed to complete. From there they had the option to refine their proposal, images and diagrams from the workshop.
We ended up with a clear understanding of what was being asked for, why, and what it would take to pull off. It made for a difficult evaluation on our end because there were few applicants we could disqualify for technicalities. For me, that proved the success of the application process. In the end we ended up with two diverse winners and eight finalists with very strong proposals.
I would love to see and to personally attempt to repurpose the format we did at a local level on a larger scale. It will be interesting to see the creative use of partnerships and program management most likely required to grow this model.
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