Sharing Our Learnings

September 16, 2022

At Lever for Change, we help donors find and fund bold solutions to the world’s biggest problems. We provide philanthropic expertise, no matter the experience, staffing levels, or interests of our clients. Our team connects donors with our growing network of problem solvers through customized challenges. The finalists become members of our Bold Solutions Network. We work with Network members to ensure they are well-positioned to absorb philanthropic resources at scale and amplify their impact. Learning is vital to everything we do.

Kristen J. Molyneaux, Ph.D
Caption: Kristen J. Molyneaux, Ph.D

Lever for Change exists and operates within the larger context of philanthropy, a field that is changing fast, in many ways, all over the globe. The challenges that we design and manage generate lots of information, knowledge, and feedback. As we refine and test our approach, our team constantly iterates to improve the quality of our services and adapt our model to the evolving complexity of the issues we seek to solve.

We continue to learn about how to build collaborations across organizations and donors, how to provide meaningful support for our Bold Solutions Network members, and how we can best share the field-level impact. These activities provide our team with a shared awareness of ongoing developments in our field and help ensure that that we are a learning organization.

Our Annual Learning and Evaluation report for 2021 was prepared by our learning partner TCC Group. The report data was drawn from the survey responses of 1,557 applicants and 531 judges from across our competitions including: Economic Opportunity Challenge (completed in 2020), Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award, Lonestar Prize, 2030 Climate Challenge, Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, Stronger Democracy Award, and Racial Equity 2030, as well as from our Bold Solutions Network members. Additionally, interviews were conducted with donors/ donor representatives. Donors who sponsored these challenges uniformly agreed that Lever for Change was adaptive, responsive, engaging and provided exceptional "back-office” support.

A women stands in front of colleagues giving a data presentation

Over the course of 2021, we made several pivots due to feedback received, including:

  1. Identification of new diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants to address findings that finalists, and particularly international finalists, did not always feel that they were receiving tailored or relevant feedback.
  2. Development of internal data capture and monitoring processes to address insufficient diversity in our judge pool. These new tools help us to recruit a diverse pool of judges and to see gaps in our recruitment efforts. We are now able to focus recruitment of new judges on areas where the pool may be lacking diversity across multiple domains such as: race/ethnicity, gender, disability, LGBTQ+ status, geolocation, etc. in real time.
  3. Encouraging donors to provide larger planning grants. We have received feedback from some finalists that the work required to participate in the finalist stage represents a significant financial commitment. To that end, we have partnered with our donors sponsoring Racial Equity 2030 and Build a World of Play to provide $1 million planning grants for each finalist which is significantly more than other previous planning grants given in sizes that ranged from $10,000-$200,000. We continue to assess the right amount for planning grants that help offset the cost of participation.

As part of our ongoing efforts to learn and grow as an organization, TCC and our staff co-created recommendations for 2022-2023.

As we refine and test our approach, our team constantly iterates to improve the quality of our services and adapt our model to the evolving complexity of the issues we seek to solve.

Kristen J. Molyneaux, Ph.D

Critical Pivots to be Considered in 2022 & 2023:

1. Improve applicant and finalist experience.

Approximately 80% of finalists felt that being a finalist in a challenge designed and managed by Lever for Change added value for their team. They mentioned that the process helped them to “solidify” their program model, to strengthen their value proposition, and to provide an “anchor point” or a plan that would help them move forward with their ideas. However, they also highlighted areas where Lever for Change could improve our processes to better support finalists and align expectations. Our goal is to continue to streamline processes where possible while maintaining fidelity and the elements of the challenge that do bring value to teams:

  • Revisit and streamline revised proposal guidelines and re-evaluate how and when finalists engage with donors.
  • Require donors to provide planning grants to help offset the cost of participation for finalists in large-scale challenges.
  • Build more robust finalist and secondary marketing strategies to support finalists’ ongoing fundraising needs and drive more capital for the secondary market.
  • Set new target metrics to ensure distribution of funding across all Bold Solutions Network members.
2. Increase our understanding of donors’ needs and encourage them to take risks in service of our goal of finding and funding “bold and uncommon” projects.

We continue to seek ways to encourage bolder proposals from challenge applicants and to encourage donors to take risks for bolder giving. We have found that every donor is different with respect to the advice they seek from our team, and in their appetite and tolerance for risk, but our growing set of examples of large grants and bold giving can help embolden new donor sponsors.

To address these issues, we plan to:

  • Increase donor education (already initiated) to build donor confidence about risk-taking.
  • Move donor conversations about risks earlier in our process.
  • Explore whether post-grant management services would encourage more risk-taking.
  • Scrutinize eligibility rules and award criteria to assure that bold and uncommon projects will be competitive.
3. Ensure diverse representation in judges, applicant pool, and finalist pool.

Between 2020 and 2021, we surveyed the 843 judges who have participated in Lever for Change competitions, with a response rate of 63%. Respondents identified as 47% Caucasian/ White, 23% as African American/ Black, 12% as Asian/ Asian-American, 10% as Latina/o/x, 5% as Middle Eastern/ North African, and 2% as Indigenous.

Even though there is more work to be done, we believe these numbers are trending in the right direction. We have had instances where the judging panel was not diverse at the time of launch and recognize that this might have sent a negative signal to potential applicants.

The TCC report found that lead applicants who were Black or African American were underrepresented in the finalist population. Smaller organizations were also underrepresented in the finalist organizations when compared to the overall applicant organization population. These two observations may be correlated. Of note, underrepresented teams (lead applicants who were Black or African American or teams of less than five members) did not report experiencing our challenges more negatively than other groups.

To address these overarching issues, we plan to:

  • Ensure each competition has a diverse judging pool at the time of the challenge launch.
  • Continue to design challenges that encourage a diverse set of applicant organizations to apply and build robust outreach efforts to encourage participation.
  • Collect demographic information on finalist organizations and set benchmarks focused on diversifying finalists for each challenge.
  • Encourage donors to take diversity into consideration when choosing finalists and support decision making activities that can contribute to a diverse selection of finalists and awardees.

The above list is illustrative and not exhaustive of adaptations we will implement in 2022-2023. We remain committed to learning as an organization and improving our services in service of our mission to help accelerate social change. Sign up for our newsletter and stay tuned for more information about our challenges and learnings.

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