A lot of things about Raising Places are unconventional. That’s partly because our team at Greater Good Studio has a penchant for tinkering with the status quo. In our quest to make all experiences more human-centered, we can’t help but question some of the practices we’ve seen in grant-making, which can lead to imbalanced power, mission creep, and wasted time.

And so in an effort to make the Raising Places application process more relevant and valuable, for both applicants and us, we’ve used three unconventional approaches that, we believe, are already yielding results.

1. We had as few requirements as possible

A strategic approach to grantmaking requires that grantees are aligned with the funder's overarching priorities. Unfortunately, this strategy can lead to prescriptive requirements — in terms of programs, partners and outcomes — that aren’t always relevant to communities on the ground.

The main difference with Raising Places is that rather than seeking a particular program or outcome, we have looked for partners to join us in a collaborative process. That process will include community engagement, creative ideation and rounds of iteration and feedback. This requires a wholly different mindset when the question is not “what have they done,” but rather, “what could we do together?”

Because we were looking for partners, not typical grantees, our approach has been to leave any decision up to applicants that would best be answered with “it depends on the community.” For example, we decided each community had to have a clearly-defined geographic area, so that we could inspire changes to the built environment and physically see the results of our work. But we allowed applicants to define the size and geography of their communities, because a standard size or population would be too big in some places, too small in others.

‍Photos courtesy of Bryan MacCormack, 2017

Similarly, we stated in the Call for Proposals that each applicant had to have a trusted and committed convening organization, as well as a dedicated and well-positioned design team (a cross-sector group of local leaders to engage in the process). But our hypothesis was that if we allowed applicants to define the organizations and individuals represented on their cross-sector teams, as well as the assets and challenges they felt were most important, we would be starting from a place of relevance, no matter where we go.

If we allow applicants to define their own teams and local challenges, we will be starting from a place of relevance, no matter where we go.

I’ll admit, this type of openness caught many applicants by surprise. One person wanted to know how exactly we were defining “healthy, thriving kids.” We received questions about what size population could be considered a “community.” And many people sought more clarity on our description of a team comprised of local leaders with the perspectives of “better childhoods” and “better communities."

But most applicants ultimately realized that these decisions rested with them, and that the best thing they could do for their application was really know their own communities. So one applicant might have chosen a city of 60,000 people, with corporations, city government, the police department, and youth workers on the design team, and a focus on the issues of social isolation, neighborhood violence and loss of cultural heritage. Another applicant might have identified a 10-block corridor with 600 people, a design team comprised of small business owners, funders, county government and school administrators, and a focus on healthy food options, unsafe housing and youth substance abuse. All of these challenges are real, and they all pose barriers to children growing up healthy and thriving. Furthermore, all of these teams have the potential to make real impact in their chosen communities.

‍Photos courtesy of Bryan MacCormack, 2017

By having applicants tell us, rather than the other way around, we’ve attracted an extremely diverse group. We received 155 applications from communities across the US, large and small, coast to coast, urban, suburban, rural and tribal. Conveners ranged from national organizations to one person non-profits from fields as diverse as healthcare, economic development, education, art and agriculture. Design team members included everyone from town mayors to community organizers. And no matter which communities are selected, we know we’ll be working at the forefront of each one's needs, with teams that are diverse, committed and in the driver’s seat.

2. We worked to add value to everyone’s experience

A typical grant application asks the author to answer a series of questions, write a proposal, and maybe upload some documents, such as audited financials or a strategic plan. While this information is often critical, it can also be very time-consuming, both for grantees to write and for funders to read! We had a fierce desire to not waste people’s time, and knowing that the call for proposals would reach a lot of people, we ran the risk of wasting a lot of people’s time.

So the question became, how might this process build the capacity of its applicants and jumpstart their work, regardless of being selected? We’d been inspired by stories of other application processes that sparked new partnerships and projects, even if organizations were not ultimately awarded the grant. We saw the opportunity to share tools from human-centered design, which would spark dialogue and discovery, building collaborative fabric in each community. At the same time, this would help us evaluate each team’s capacity to embrace the project’s human-centered design process.

How might this process build the capacity of its applicants, so it’s valuable even for those who are not selected?

And so, we created a workshop as part of the application requirements. We provided an agenda and description of activities. Partly this was to evaluate the convener’s ability to, well, convene. They had to bring together a team comprised of 10-12 cross-sector leaders. But more importantly, it was to (kindly) force people to discuss local challenges, uncover their differences and find common ground -- even if they had a history of working together.

‍Photo courtesy of Bryan MacCormack, 2017

For example, we asked people to identify assets in their community, which not only showed us whether the team had strong local roots; it also enabled them to share and recognize a collective set of strengths they may not have previously considered. We asked them to generate a wide range of barriers to local children thriving, then vote on the top three. This helped us assess whether the team could think broadly (beyond silos) as well as align using discussion and the democratic process. But it also helped team members to understand each other’s priorities, and recognize that they would have to work together in order to address common challenges sustainably.

Many applicants told us they found value in their workshop. One said they’ve already used the format with their other efforts. Another said it taught them things they didn’t know about their own neighbors. Many said it inspired excitement and optimism. But our favorite piece of feedback came from a prospective future participant:

"I would like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to submit our application to Raising Places. We were all very enthusiastic about the process when we held our workshop. During the workshop, however, we discovered that although we have many deeply committed and responsive individuals eager to help in the effort, we are not yet ready to submit an application. We discovered that more work on cross-sector collaboration is needed, and more emphasis on building the foundation for a whole community effort, in order to determine common priorities, and even geographic areas. The whole experience has been both profound and eye-opening for our group, and we are very excited to continue the process of discovery that began with the workshop, pursuing ways to improve cross-sector communication, and forging the closer relationships that we need."

Evaluating teams’ abilities to embrace human-centered design was extremely helpful for our review process. But catalyzing the demand of place-focused and kid-focused professionals across the country to better communicate and collaborate was an even bigger win. Because those ripple effects will spread wider and last longer than our 18-month project.

3. We spent quality time together

Picture a typical site visit. The dynamic can often be pretty one-sided. Program officers ask questions. Grantees do everything they can to share their successes and minimize their failures. If they get the grant, presumably, they’ll check in on a regular basis, but ultimately this is a transaction. And so a lot of candid information, which could enable better and more targeted support, is held back.

We wanted our site visits to be different for two reasons. First, we needed to learn a lot more than just the convener’s track record. We wanted to know about their personal and institutional connections to the community, their ability to work with and not for people, and their reputation and network within and beyond the chosen geography. We placed equal importance on criteria related to the design team: their group dynamics, ability to respond to feedback, empathize with children, and be vulnerable with one another. You simply cannot learn these things from an interview.

‍Photo courtesy of Greater Good Studio, 2017

Secondly, we viewed the site visits as the start of a long-term relationship. The convener serves as our co-facilitator to the labs process, and the design team members are our ultimate recruiters, field workers and ambassadors. We weren’t just evaluating sites for a program rollout; we were recruiting co-pilots for a shoulder-to-shoulder, transformational journey. It was just as important that community teams were aware of their roles, and excited to learn with us, as it was that we were excited to learn with them.

We weren’t just evaluating sites for a program rollout; we were recruiting co-pilots for a shoulder-to-shoulder, transformational journey.

The site visits taught us an incredible amount of information. We learned about convener connections through lunch at local establishments, casual encounters on the street, and the way people lingered (or left abruptly) at the end of a meeting. We learned about design team engagement through storytelling exercises, brainstorming activities and the ways people introduced themselves to each other. And we gave folks a glimpse of the journey ahead, teaching human-centered design mindsets by prompting them to observe the world from a child’s perspective, and talking candidly about potential challenges with communications, team composition and local momentum.

Overall, we believe this process has brought value to both our team and applicants. We have been able to evaluate based on a relevant set of criteria, including such intangibles as learning mindset, connection to community and team dynamics, and are thrilled to announce a cohort of highly qualified, diverse and engaged community teams in the coming weeks. (Sign up for our newsletter to receive this exciting update, and continue learning with us!)

But even more importantly, applicants have been able to make key decisions about what matters in their community, find clarity and consensus on local priorities, and build the collaborative infrastructure to continue working, across sectors, to create places where all children and families can thrive.

We’d love to hear from you: whether as a grant-maker or applicant, tell us about your best application experience!