My worst grant interview

“So you’re just a website?”

Hera Hussain
Jul 22, 2018 · 6 min read
Circa 2016

This year, I’ve had the best experiences with donors, and as I do more donor engagement for Chayn, I find myself going back to the worst grant interview I have ever done. I hope this post brings myself and Chayn’s volunteers the closure we so badly needed at the time.

Let’s start with the one-liners because some of you are scanning this post just for that. The ones who want the read the whole post will stick around for the walk-through for the interview from hell (maybe I’m exaggerating *just* a bit).

Zingers from hell

“So you’re just a website?”

“I’m sorry I don’t understand. So what is a hackathon?” 20 mins later. “If you are not doing hackathons then why are you explaining them?

“So women just read what you have put together? And no experts check your information. Isn’t that dangerous?”

“But women want to talk to someone. I can’t see people reading things online.”

“Isn’t telling women where shelters are dangerous” *after I explained anonymised data*

“How do you talk to volunteers around the world?”

“How do you know women really want your stuff?” *after I explained a majority of our volunteers are survivors*

“I’m having difficulty understanding what you do. All of these tech terms…”

“So you build technology for other charities?” (No!)

The interview was at a plush hotel in Holborn. I walked into the lobby to find a beautiful spread of sweets and tea offered by the sponsor (a popular beauty company). I was quite nervous so I gulped down some tea. I was then asked to participate in filming a video about my own journey in social entrepreneurship and how Chayn came about. If you don’t know what Chayn does, check out our projects. Filming videos are never easy and before an interview, it’s even more nerve-wracking. Funnily, the final video was never shared with me.

Let’s fast forward to the interview. It was a beautiful spacious room with comfortable sofas. There were four judges — an editor, a columnist, a PR representative of the beauty company and a TV documentary presenter. All white women in their late 30s.

In all fairness, the panel wasn’t really rude. It was just so painfully evident that they had not done their research, or any. If someone is selecting 5 finalists from more than 200 applicants, it is not unreasonable to expect the panel to know a bit about you, which is why the first question threw me off:

“So what is Chayn?”

15 mins later.

“So what do you actually do?”

10 mins later.

“How would you explain Chayn to a 5 year old?”

The interview was painful. It was almost as if I had forgotten how to speak English. Nothing I said was getting across. To be fair, I was the only one representing a tech project and it showed. They had not opened Chayn’s website. They had printouts of my application in their hand but their questions made it clear that no one had actually bothered to see the projects for themselves.

After a half an hour spent on definitions and explaining what ‘tech for good’ meant, we got to the stage of talking about what Chayn would do if we did win the grant.

The proposal we had originally submitted was to use the money for translations, but afterwards, our volunteers thought that it would be better to use that money to solve a problem that has vexed us from the first day we went live — helping women find shelters in their city and country. To the credit of the panel, they were open to hearing this idea and recognised this as a problem but then things went downhill pretty fast.

The new proposal was to create an online platform, which lets women search for shelters in their country (sometimes it’s safer to go as far from your hometown as possible) and show approximate locations. Exact locations aren’t shown because abusers can track women there, and it can seriously endanger the residents and staff.

In the UK, I had explained, it was impossible for women to see where shelters are and they have to go through a helpline that tells them if there is space. Sometimes women have to wait for almost two months to get a spot and have to keep calling the helpline. However, in my experience, if you go straight to the shelter, they will not turn you away and often help you get a temporary stay in a hotel for a few nights while they arrange a bed. So, putting approximate addresses and names on a map will help women understand what places they could go if the situation was desperate. If I don’t know where I can run to, why would I run?

Their main concerns were:

  • Putting the address on a map can comprise their safety.
  • Why not let women call the helpline and find out if there are vacancies? It’s not ethical to circumvent this.
  • Why does this need an open source technical solution? Why can’t it be a list?

I explained the different barriers women face in accessing support via traditional channels such as helplines and drop-in clinics and that there are ways of giving proximate location without disclosing complete addresses. I also pointed out the data needs to be stored in an open source database with a friendly interface so other countries and charities can use it too.

At one point, I just sat back and let them all discuss how ‘they’, if they were in an abusive relationship, would not want to search online and would want to talk to a human. My experience of building Chayn and working alongside survivors (up to 70% of our volunteers are survivors of abuse) was just disregarded.

I had brought the conversation to the perspective of migrant women many times but even in that case, the ‘if I was them’ and ‘I would have thought’ reared its head back. It was patronising as a brown woman to be told how survivors of colour in the UK, Pakistan and India would/should think and feel. Though they professed they didn’t know much about tech, they spent a fair time explaining how giving proximate location wasn’t technically possible. So, I just gave up and in my heart, knew I had reached my lowest point possible in an interview.

Before I left, I apologised for the complexity of my pitch because, at this point, I was blaming myself for how the interview had gone. They said they couldn’t believe we had done so much with just volunteers and were very supportive of our ethos.

They asked me how we manage Chayn since we’re global. I told them about the various digital tools and techniques we use to organise ourselves e.g. facebook groups and slack. That’s when this happened….

As I walked out of the fancy hotel, I recorded a video for Chayn explaining how it went. I was watching it today before I wrote this. I had end the video by saying:

“I don’t know… They just didn’t look convinced. I wouldn’t keep our hopes up.”

It didn’t come to anyone’s surprise that we didn’t win the grant. In hindsight, I believe had they done their research into the organisation, the 45 minutes could have been more productive, and less patronising for me. I’m kind of amazed how they even shortlisted us out of 200 ideas, despite not understanding what we do or our impact.

Chayn

News and thoughts from our projects around the globe empowering women against abuse through technology.

Hera Hussain

Written by

Building communities. Feminist. Pakistani. Open/data. Fighting corruption w/ @opencontracting. Founder @chaynHQ gender rights. Forbes & MIT Under 30/35.

Chayn

Chayn

News and thoughts from our projects around the globe empowering women against abuse through technology.