Innovations Pre-Granting: Ideation Challenges

Using The Crowd to Develop Grant Strategy

This is the first of three posts in a series focusing on innovations pre-granting. Other series in the publication look at specific types of innovations during and after the awarding process. Our introduction to the publication explains the importance of open grantmaking innovations and why they matter for improving the legitimacy and effectiveness of grant-based public investments. Head back to the table of contents for an at-a-glance look at the whole publication.

Summary: Institutions can use “the crowd” to brainstorm ideas for the design or goal of the grant itself. In other words, outsiders can be useful for helping in formulating defining the problemsquestions institutions ought to use their funding to solve answer or the problems they should focus on solving.

When a government agency seeks to improve how it uses its grant funding, the hard work begins long before the judging process. Grantmaking practitioners know that the quality of a grant’s design (e.g. the problem definition, the application process, the communication and outreach strategy) can determine the quality of applicants and the success of the projects that are ultimately funded. During this pre-judging stage, the objective is to identify the most worthwhile problems toward which to direct grant funding, as well as the best mechanisms for addressing those problems. Openness to outside input, in particular, has the potential to bring to bear greater expertise — including both on-the-ground know-how and more formal training — when determining where and how to fund.

Grantmaking institutions have begun to to solicit ideas from outside their walls very early in the process, turning to “the crowd” for help to inform how they design the grant opportunity in the first place. Crowdsourcing the grant design has the potential to bring in new ideas and better information from more diverse sources before a single application has been sent in.

In 2010, for example, Harvard University launched its Type 1 Diabetes Challenge to get creative suggestions for combating the disease and to open up how universities generate their research questions. Typically, an academic decides on the direction for theirhis or her lab and seeks out funding in support of the pre-existing idea. In an effort to expand participation beyond the usual prospects and uncover new ideas for fighting Type 1 Diabetes prior to investing full-fledged research funding, Harvard sponsored a $30,000 prize-backed challenge to come up with promising approaches that could become the basis for a larger, subsequent research grant. The challenge did not ask people to come up with answers, as is typically the case in grantmaking projects. Rather, contributors — the prize competitors — supplied the questions. This enabled people to propose ideas whether or not they had the resources or desire to solve the problem they proposed.

After six weeks, 150 solid research hypotheses were submitted, encompassing a broad range of approaches from different disciplines. One winner out of the twelve selected was a college chemistry major who believed there ought to be more focus on the chemical origins of the disease. As she put it, “I was drawn to the fact that the challenge promised to create a dialogue spanning scientific disciplines and based on the merit of people’s ideas. Opportunities like this are extremely rare.” Another winning applicant was herself a diabetes patient. The Leona Helmsley Trust then offered $1 million in grant funding to encourage qualified biomedical researchers to create experiments based on these newly-generated research questions, including the approaches suggested by the college student and the diabetes patient.

Using a similar model, other foundations such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded $15,000 for good ideas for what to fund in connection with research for the White House Smart Disclosure Initiative. “Smart Disclosure” refers to creating tools to help consumers make better and safer decisions using data that government collects from companies and then publishes openly in machine-readable formats. The challenge asked people to answer five questions to help guide future Smart Disclosure research. Good proposals received between $5K and $15K dollars and did not require the submitter to implement the research. Rather, inspired by these suggestions, Sloan and Russell Sage plan on pursuing further grantmaking.

The public sector has also begun replicating this model of separating idea generation in advance of grant implementation. In 2013, NSF held the Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) Ideas Challenge to get good ideas from diverse sources for grantmaking in the agricultural sciences, with a focus on improving the lives of millions of smallholder farmers in the developing world. Crucially, the submissions needed to be challenges in need of solving, rather than a solution to some pre-selected challenge. Examples of winning challenge ideas include: “Develop knowledge, methods, and tools to identify drought-productive microbiomes and facilitate their use by smallholder farmers” and “Develop means for ‘root swelling’ of small wild roots, leading the way to the creation of hundreds of new root crops that could improve the nutrition and incomes of developing world farmers.” In holding this competition, the NSF is both signaling its own interest in solving the problems it’s selected, and also using its convening power to convince others — including other funders — of the importance of these challenges.

While there is no formal evidence of impact from the BREAD challenge just yet, separating the “idea generation” from the “execution” phase potentially allows more diverse people to suggest ideas and inform how funding agencies frame later grant offerings, even if these first-round applicants may not be eligible for or interested in applying for subsequent funding.

Why Do It:

  • Diversity of iInput: The quality of grant design can determine the quality of grant applicants and recipients. Using “the crowd” to brainstorm offers a way to harness the knowledge, experience, and diversity of a broader group of people to make sure you’re answering the right questions and solving the right problems.
  • Flexibility: This approach offers the flexibility to decide whether to engage those outside the organization in helping to design the grant through an open call to a broad public, or through targeted outreach to a specific audience.
  • Buzz: The publicity and outreach that go into crowdsourcing grant design can, in turn, generate enthusiasm about the grant (or its overarching goals) and attract more applicants.

Why Not Do It:

  • Institutional Constraints: In circumstances where statutes, regulations, or bylaws tightly constrain a government entity’s or organization’s grantmaking activity, there may be insufficient room for outside applicants to shape the parameters of the grant call itself.
  • Time: Crowdsourcing the grant design necessarily turns the grant into a two-stage process (the first focusing on problem-definition and the second on generating solutions), which may be inappropriate if time is of the essence.

Click here for the next post in our series on innovations pre-granting, or head back to the table of contents for an at-a-glance look at the whole publication.