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Embracing Equity: A Retrospective on Program Application and Selection

To better understand how we’re doing things differently, we interviewed a handful of our organization’s leaders across different sectors. From policy to participatory investing, we pulled four anchors that ground our collective insights and best practices for program application and selection.

Authors: Joi Edwards, Manager of Storytelling and Insights

Shifting power to communities starts with rethinking the way that we assess, capture, and quantify expertise, value, and potential.

For Black, Indigenous, and Latin communities, equal opportunity has always come at a cost. Though subjected to  centuries of economic, political, and social exclusion, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or Persons of Color) leaders continue to catalyze movements that transform this country for the better. 

The past few years have illuminated for many white folks in the nonprofit sector what most BIPOC practitioners have known for decades: leaders with lived experience make the work better. However, simply appreciating this reality is not enough. As the sector slowly shifts to support more folks on the frontlines, we’ve been exploring how to move the needle on those investments and expedite that support for communities that cannot afford to wait. 

At Common Future, we believe those closest to the problems are the ones with the solutions. When incubating initiatives, we place leaders with bold visions and untapped solutions at the center, disrupting systemic barriers while uplifting the ideas that can build a better economy.

To better understand how we’re doing things differently, we interviewed a handful of our organization’s leaders across different sectors. From policy to participatory investing, we pulled four anchors that ground our collective insights and best practices for program application and selection:

  1. Reinforce Inclusivity, Not Just Accessibility
  2. Know Your Program’s Needs and Goals
  3. Appoint and Rightly Position Decision Makers
  4. Consider the Consequences

Reinforce Inclusivity, Not Just Accessibility

These days, participatory models are commonplace. However, they can still be arduous, extractive, or ineffective if implemented before really doing the work. Participatory models were designed to give more decision-making power to communities, many of whom divested from, and denied access to the rooms where important decisions are being made. 

In Anthony Jack’s The Privileged Poor, the Harvard professor explores how dismantling barriers to access alone is not enough. He illustrates what the data clearly demonstrates: “access ain’t inclusion”. For nonprofits, instead of centering our solutions on how we share power, we should be centering our solutions around who is without power altogether, and why. Only then can we determine what support is needed, and what we can do to ensure they get it. 

Cristina Lara-Agudelo, Manager of Funder Learning, shared, “We should identify the assets of each entity we are bringing together, and align the participatory process around those entities”. 

Understanding the needs of the community members that you bring into this process is crucial. During the pre-application phase, when we think about what it really means to place power where it rightfully belongs, we suggest:

  • Hold participatory sessions with strategic community actors and valued partners before opening up applications to the public. This can enhance the outcomes of the applicant experience. Bringing in community practitioners to increase the viability and credibility of the co-creative process. 
  • Center Practitioners. Uplifting community actors and participating entities by centering their voice and experiences as expertise and specialized knowledge positions them in a place of power. Going one step further to co-identify where and how they can be most impactful during the participatory process. 
  • Provide different methods for people to engage. Some may be unfamiliar with funders, requests for funding, grant applications, etc. Listening to and navigating these needs during the participatory process adds immeasurable programmatic and strategic value. 
  • Co-create the milestones and metrics. Success metrics should be set by the communities that the applicants subsequently serve. The design of application and selection processes could also be designed by folks receiving the applications. Try asking them what information they can actually provide, and determine what information best conveys the value they are providing. 
  • Offer Support Early On. Consider running office hours where applicants can receive support on navigating the scoring rubric, preparing for the process, or express accommodations or other needs can help ensure applicants are seen and heard.

Know Your Program’s Needs and Goals

For nonprofits and the entrepreneurs we support, fundraising is a full-time job. And for the majority of founders in our network, it’s one of many. Competing for financial support means that entrepreneurs are constantly at risk of getting pulled into the throes of free labor—grinding at the behest of potential funders who haven’t put money down because they are banking on data they don’t actually need. This reinforces the conditions that center the historically privileged and the needs of financial institutions, as applications for programs often require excessive effort, ultimately demanding more time than they are actually worth

Our newest accelerator, led by Andrea Perdomo, Director of Portfolio Advancement, is non-traditional by design. Unlike most traditional accelerators, Andrea wanted to build a human-centered accelerator that uplifts radical ideas, community-centered models, and BIPOC-led organizations seeking support with connections, capital and capacity. 

In this program, and others within our impact strategy, suggesting an allotted time for applicants to spend on the application, sharing recruitment and program timelines, and offering peer-led and executive level support to applicants during the application process are a few of the practices that we have found can offset the exclusionary nature of traditional search and selection. Transparency allows for applicants to not only prepare with confidence, but it gives them an opportunity to request accommodations. 

Designing the program application and selection process is wholly reliant on who the program is for, and what you can offer them. When it comes to ensuring that we search, evaluate, and select entrepreneurs we believe we’re best positioned to support, here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Transparency Leads to Trust. Publishing the scoring rubric and disclosing how the scoring rubric is going to be used (during which phases, do applicants get re-scored, etc.), sharing interview prompts, evaluation stages, information they may need to complete the application all contribute to establishing trust.
  • Understand the Barriers. It’s important to use people-first language. Traditionally excluded communities tend to self-select out of opportunities, and we need to acknowledge our role in perpetuating these biases. The process must be inviting to people who could be a good fit but they just don’t know it.
  • Be Clear About Offerings. When we mitigate potential confusion, we can also ensure that pipeline partners are actually referring the right applicants to your programs.
  • Redefine Fit. Instead of only exploring if a person/applicant organization is the right fit for us—and by fit, we mean organizations which are both working to close the racial wealth gap and BIPOC-led—we also explore if we’re the right organization for them. We want folks to gain valuable knowledge, receive the right support, make authentic connections, and truly benefit from program offerings. We want to be the right fit for them.
  • When you measure success, measure what matters. We focus on finding applicants that align with our initiatives and can truly benefit from our programs, as opposed to hitting a numerical target. Not only does focusing on the number of applicants undermine the efficacy of the program, but it also creates a resource scarcity, particularly when it comes to funding. This would only extract the power we’re intending to shift. What’s built for 10 cannot effectively support 20. 

Appoint and Rightly Position Decision Makers

We know that positioning those with lived experiences in places of power and influence within our organization (and backing them) not only upholds justice, it is justice. 

In many divested communities, the leaders within them solve problems using what they have on hand. Entrepreneurs and community leaders, particularly those with diverse identities, are not experts just because of who they are. They are experts because of what they know. What makes their work truly transformative is that they’ve gained a wealth of experience just by navigating systems intentionally built to shut them out. 

Our team shared their take on what it means to use decision-making as a vessel for justice:

  • Advisory Committees: Select a Committee of Diverse Experts. Having a robust and diverse advisory team as thought partners, with an advisor that’s part of the community increases the chances of equitable decision-making. Community advisors can hold conversations that you might not be able to hold.
  • Build A Knowledgeable Team. Using a panel or a peer-led evaluation is most effective when everyone on the panel is an expert in their respective fields. 

Consider the Consequences

Change moves at the speed of trust. For those of us working alongside community actors to shift power, resources, and wealth, we must account for the needs of practitioners bringing unique assets to the table. 

This requires real thinking around how we can ensure that applicants feel as prepared and supported as possible before, during, and after the application and selection process comes to a close. When we employ the strategies that work to repair trust and rethink harmful systems, we are likely to find that it will require more time, effort, and agility from our team and likely, our organization at-large. 

  • Support Those You Didn’t Select. Before even engaging externally we engage internally across silos. We ask, Who do we want to support? Who truly needs the support we can offer? What qualifies us to support them? 
    Regardless of the type of program, it’s best practice to be quick to share decisions. Providing applicants with an in-depth reason for why they were not selected is helpful as they move forward. Sharing connections or resources that can support them or their work can also go a long way.
  • Find the Balance Between Equity and Bandwidth. Expanding access to your initiatives and programs may require more time and more resources from your team and external partners. Accounting for the time that effective evaluation demands, providing specialized support, and committing to placing value on feedback loops and accountability measures can conflict with your team’s bandwidth. 

We envision an economy that works for all of us. This requires bolder thinking and intentional strategies that truly bring voice, visibility, and virtuous autonomy to those forging new pathways that challenge our systems and ways of thinking about shared wealth and ownership. We’re committed to advancing racial justice and charting new paths alongside the community-owned institutions building an economy that works for all of us

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