This blog post is SICI’s September 2021 newsletter. Sign up here to have our newsletter delivered to your inbox at the end of every month.

About a year ago, we put out a newsletter on the topic of transparent gatekeeping, reflecting on ways that institutions like SICI might shed more light on the application and selection processes that pervade and shape the social innovation space. This month, in the spirit of continued transparency (and because the work is most certainly not done!), we are circling back to share takeaways from our own internal efforts as well as some new directions for 2021.

As implied in the note last year, we suspect the element of mystery surrounding social impact applications is, at least in part, the result of institutional efforts to protect against risk. The two most common risks we’ve heard are: 1) concerns that providing applicants with a thorough description of ideal responses could enable them to “game-the-system”; and 2) concerns that sharing how and why selection decisions were made increases the chance of damaging blowback from the disgruntled public. We’ll take these one at a time.

Happily, and contrary to concerns about admitting false positives, the cohort we selected last year was probably SICI’s highest performing to date. They continue to receive social impact recognition and awards, outperformed all prior years with respect to fundraising (by 7%), and demonstrated remarkable intellectual growth with respect to pre/post comparisons of their social impact strategies. This was despite the odds stacked against them due to COVID (e.g. the accelerator being fully online, participants and relatives getting ill, disruptions to work, funders shifting priorities, etc.).

On the other side of the coin, with respect to applicants who were not accepted, the transparency and feedback we offered resulted in an outpouring of positive interactions with our community. Here are just two replies to our “rejection” notifications:

“Thank you for the message. I am especially grateful for the direct feedback given; it certainly strengthens my effort in this social innovation, one which I am committed and passionate about. Wish you and the eventual Cheng Fellow cohort all the best!”

“What a thoughtful way to respond to candidates not selected. I really appreciate it and will look forward to engaging with SICI in other ways this year.”

Spurred on by these encouraging signs, we made yet another round of revisions in 2021.

We made question guidance clearer in the application:

  • We added more detail and removed jargon to help applicants from all backgrounds envision a successful response.

We eliminated loose ends from the application:

We shared all evaluation criteria with applicants:

  • We refined our rubric again to ensure the criteria was up to date with our latest thinking.
  • We emailed all finalists in advance with the evaluation criteria used at the interview stage.
  • We made sure there were no aspects of our evaluation that weren’t communicated to applicants in advance.

We hope these changes enable SICI to continue our march towards full transparency and accountability and we know the lessons learned will make us more effective in our role as gatekeepers.

Doing this work has also made us more aware of efforts at SICI that don’t yet have quite the same level of rigor with respect to transparency and power sharing. For example, we are exploring how we might translate lessons from selection into our current hiring process (see jobs below!). We are motivated and look forward to sharing back again soon.

Together with you,

Brittany Butler
Executive Director, SICI
Adjunct Lecturer, HKS

Ally Philip 
Assistant Director of Programs, SICI