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Designing a Responsive Granting Process

November 25, 2013

(Parker Mitchell co-founded and for ten years was co-CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada. He recently moved to New York and joined, as an expert-in-residence, the Blue Ridge Foundation, which funds and incubates new technology-based ventures that advance opportunity and upward mobility. This post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's GrantCraft blog.)

Headshot_parker_mitchellWe began with two questions:

  • Are leading nonprofits fully making use of the explosion of digital and online platforms to find new ways to up-end their program models, scale, and radically remake their programs so that they are more effective?
  • And if not, could we bring the investing principles of the technology world to help leading nonprofits find the time, money, and resources to experiment with digital platforms to change their program model?

Three months ago, Blue Ridge Foundation New York teamed up with leading software firm ThoughtWorks and the Parsons School of Design to create a grant program for poverty-related nonprofits that would try to bridge the effective organization/technology adoption gap.

We began by offering a package of support that included a combination of funding, incubation services, in-kind software support and design, and design thinking consulting. Each package was worth roughly $150,000. But we also knew we didn't have all the answers and wanted to design a transparent, responsive granting process that would help us pin-point nonprofits’ digital technology needs.

What is this gap, and why should funders care?

There are many organizations on the front lines of poverty-related challenges that are deeply familiar with the nuances of the problems they are working to address -- whether it’s helping low-income students get to and through college, reducing recidivism, or teaching parenting techniques that foster strong early childhood development -- and have sophisticated practices and models that they use in their day-to-day work.

With the explosion of mobile and online applications and platforms, however, we now have a great opportunity for many of these programs to be offered and supported more cheaply, effectively, and at greater scale. But as most of us know, nonprofits and the people they serve rarely have adequate resources to work through how advances in mobile technology could lead to new and improved program models. They're constrained by inadequate funding and/or are trying to make things work on a shoestring budget. They also are limited in their ability to experiment, as they often must stick to specific activities and report "expected" results in order to attract additional support. Innovation, on the other hand, involves learning through trying, being responsive to feedback, and iterating along the way.

We believed that finding a way to support and encourage nonprofits to take intelligent risks around new technology -- even if it led them to disrupt their existing program models -- would be great for them, and for the sector. So how did we do that?

The responsive granting process

We began with a simple principle. Rather than design a granting process that enabled us, the funder, to select "winners" quickly and with a minimum of fuss, we would seek to add value to every applying organization at every stage of the process.

This was high-touch, but it also allowed us to learn more about nonprofits' technology needs as we moved through the process. Specifically, it meant:

Simple and staged application. We began by asking organizations for a four-paragraph expression of interest and then offered them feedback on whether that was in-line with what we were looking for. The actual application requested three to five pages outlining a concept idea in detail. We then selected ten finalists. (The complete application package is available here.)

Consultations. Blue Ridge's expert-in-residence made himself available for 25-minute consultations with any interested nonprofit. Over seventy organizations chose to have and benefited from such a conversation -- which also helped us determine their needs and improve what we were offering.

Workshops. Carlos Teixeira, a design strategies expert, and his graduate students from the Parsons School of Design Strategies conducted two Phase Zero Design Workshops in which a total of a hundred and thirty participants went through a series of exercises with tools and frameworks that helped them chart user journeys for their stakeholders and identify potential pain points and opportunities. A dozen ThoughtWorks engineers were on hand to offer feedback on how new software products or platforms could help them.

Feedback. We solicited anonymous feedback from every organization that participated in a workshop about the value of the workshop and of the process to that point. Thus far, we've received over one hundred responses, with an average score of 4.1 out of 5 for the process as a whole.

Results of the responsive process

The responsive granting process is person-intensive and also requires flexibility on the part of the funder. As a result of our conversations with potential grantees, feedback, and organizational needs assessments, we added two components to the process -- and were left with a question:

1. Finalists' program. We are offering ten finalist organizations the chance for a deeper engagement with ThoughtWorks to scope the size of their idea and develop an advanced application that is funding-ready. We'll select two winners in December, and the other eight organizations who aren't offered a grant will be invited to turn to other funders for support.

2. Non-finalist workshops. For the 90 percent of organizations that are not selected as finalists, we will offer thematic advice on the initial steps of their idea -- many of which can be leveraged using existing platforms -- or bootstrap a prototype that they can use for testing. Examples include a workshop on selecting a platform for testing SMS marketing, testing new cloud-based databases, and different options for online community creation.

3. Solution suitability question. Many organizations' needs are better served by using existing platforms rather than custom software, which is what our software firm specializes in. We will continue to talk with these organizations (and others) about how to serve their platform needs.

I hope this gives you a few ideas about what a responsive granting process looks like. My colleagues and I would be happy to chat with any foundation that wants to know more.

-- Parker Mitchell

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