Launch the Challenge

Now that you have designed the challenge, it’s time to create and launch the application process! As with the challenge itself, you will need to complete some application design elements during project startup.

Translate your profiles of ideal participants into clear eligibility requirements. Ensure that potential applicants understand the eligibility criteria and whether they qualify to participate in the challenge.

Rather than focusing solely on an idea’s merit, consider evaluating innovators’ capacity and commitment to become challenge participants. Adaptation, change, and collaboration are crucial aspects of innovation and systems change, so consider alternative methods to assess participants.

Keep the application process simple and limit the required information. Reduce the time burden on participants, your team, and the judges. If your organization needs additional documentation for legal or compliance purposes, consider requesting it only after selecting tentative winners or short-listed candidates.

While many innovation competitions emphasize confidentiality, collaboration, and feedback are essential for systems change. Maximize transparency during the application process and establish a community norm of sharing ideas and information. While some aspects may require confidentiality, strive to create a culture of openness.

Given the volume of information to collect and manage, choose or build an application system that allows easy access for participants and judges. If your program has multiple stages, having a unified platform becomes critical.

Invest extra effort in clearly communicating the nature of the challenge. For example, you must explicitly instruct innovators *not* to submit stand-alone solutions or solutions they are already implementing. To actively recruit participants, utilize multiple channels, such as traditional media, social media, relevant newsletters or publications, and word of mouth. Don’t just rely on passive communication! Refresh your recruitment strategy from Phase I.

Anticipate questions and support applicants during the application process. Consider creating FAQ documentation, a help desk, webinars, or coffee chats to explain the challenge and address common queries.

Determine the criteria judges will use to evaluate submissions. Clearly define the parameters and qualities judges should consider when assessing the solutions.

Select judges based on their relevance to the challenge and ensure they possess the qualifications to understand participants’ organizations or innovations. Consider who applicants see as having potentially valuable insights. Orient the judges about the program and the specific evaluation criteria. Plan to review judges’ feedback before sharing it with participants and consider how to adjust for outliers in scores and feedback.

Innovation competitions often choose to use external judges for various reasons – the ability to bring in additional expertise, create an unbiased process, and increase the program’s prestige. Rarely do challenge implementers worry about the relevance of judges’ participation and feedback. 

Judging is rarely smooth at any stage of innovation competitions. It can take time to recruit the right judges. Often, there will be innovators who feel that a judge lacks critical qualifications to understand their organization or innovation. And sometimes, they may be correct! 

Orientation for judges about the program is a critical first step to ensure they provide relevant feedback. Additionally, plan to review judges’ feedback before sharing. Have feedback go through coaches or mentors who can put it into perspective for the innovators. Finally, plan to adjust for outliers in scores and feedback in the case of a mismatch between innovators and judges. 

MacArthur’s 100 and Change Competition surfaced similar challenges in judging

“A third set of decisions had to do with the reviewing and decision process. How could we best ensure that the process was open, fair, and transparent? This involved striking a balance between different possibilities. For example, confidential reviews can increase candor and lead to smart decisions, but they also conflict with our commitment to an open process. Similarly, the strict application of administrative requirements tends toward fairness, but it can also lead to otherwise unqualified applications moving on to judges, with good ideas occasionally failing to advance due to fixable technicalities.

We also sought to balance decision authority and influence between outside judges (who looked at all qualifying proposals), outside expert reviewers (who looked at high-scoring proposals), foundation staff (who worked with both sets of reviewers, as well as applicants), and MacArthur’s board (which made the final determination). To help do this, we normalized the scores awarded to applications according to whether they had been judged by relatively optimistic or skeptical individuals. In the end, though, the choice of awards rested with the MacArthur Foundation’s board.”

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Decisions that will set your direction

  • Rather than asking for stand-alone ideas, what alternative methods might you use to vet possible challenge participants?
  • What role will external judges play in selecting challenge participants? How can you ensure judges’ feedback will be relevant and helpful to applicants?
  • What channels will you use to communicate information about the challenge launch and application?
  • What platform will work best for your team to manage application materials and the flow of information?

People you will need to find your way

  • Challenge Manager

You might engage a project manager from day 1. If not, however, by launch, you’ll need to designate one central manager for challenge activities and as a central point of contact for applicants.

  • Communications Specialist

Rely on a communications specialist to craft clear, engaging communications and create a strategy for dissemination.

  • Superconnectors & Local Experts

You must return to your Superconnectors and local experts from Phase I to support recruitment efforts for participants and judges.

  • Veterans of Innovation Competitions

Like the challenge design, ask veterans of previous innovation competitions to review your application process and provide advice.

  • External Judges

You’ll need to recruit external judges based on the length of review, technical expertise, and experience required.

Review your plan for these critical elements

  • Are your application requirements simple and non-burdensome? Have you done an additional round of review to eliminate requirements or designate information that your team could collect later from selected participants rather than all applicants?
  • Do you have a strong outreach and recruitment plan in addition to a multi-channel communication plan?
  • Do you have a plan for supporting applicants throughout the application process?
  • Have you built in time to orient judges?

See the warning signs first

  • Test your application system before committing to it.  Make sure it’s user-friendly for the challenge manager, applicants, and judges.
  • Actively recruit participants, but don’t pressure them to apply or do multiple follow-ups. Follow-ups may create undue expectations from them that they have been pre-selected.
  • Provide sufficient lead time (4-6 weeks) to share promotional materials with channel partners so you can be included in their newsletters and social media outreach.
  • Be clear about the challenge’s objectives, your value proposition to participants, and the necessary time commitment to participate. Ultimately, this is more respectful of peoples’ time and effort.

In AI4R, we embraced a flexible and experimental approach to the program’s design. While it’s critical for programs to pivot as you go, that somewhat limits your ability to communicate with participants upfront what the process will look like and the requirements.  It’s important to find a balance. 

Similarly, programs should be clear upfront about their value proposition – i.e., is this a capacity-building program with little funding? Or a funding program with some ancillary support activities? The WFP Innovation Accelerator came to a similar conclusion: 
We have found that it is important to clarify what your programmes offer and how to create the most value for start-ups and innovators participating in them. We are organizing and standardizing our efforts and building more communal elements to ensure the offering is easy to access for other organizations, companies, NGOs, and individuals eager to contribute to our mission. Start-ups by design have limited time and need to focus. To positively contribute to the innovation ecosystem, we believe in transparent communication about potential funding opportunities and what is included (and what is not) in our programmes, so that ventures and start-ups can make an educated choice if they should apply to our programmes.”

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These resources can help you on your journey

Check our Example Challenge Infosession for a template slide deck for prospective applicant webinars.

AI4Resilience used judges to curate a smaller pool of solutions and innovators at multiple stages. Review the AI4Resilience Judges’ Guide as an example of the explanation and orientation provided.

  • Judges’ Guide (GKI’s Accelerating Innovation for Resilience Bangladesh)

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