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Five Key Lessons About Making Application Processes More Equitable

July 13, 2022

One of the joys and challenges of my work at the intersection of philanthropy and Jewish life is that I am always on a learning journey. Every day, I am reminded of what it takes to improve philanthropic systems so that they work for everyone, not only for the privileged few. In my work at Slingshot, I’m grateful for the philanthropic leaders who are pushing Slingshot to reimagine philanthropy [that is] rooted in principles of openness, equity, and care.

As Slingshot has grown, we have become increasingly aware of the barriers that prevent innovative projects from flourishing. In the fall of 2021, as we prepared to select our third cohort of ‘10 to Watch,' we took a close look at how our own practices, such as a lengthy application process, biases in our language, and complex selection criteria, might limit or exclude the people and projects we aim to support.

So we made a bold change. Given the strains on time and resources that may disproportionately affect marginalized communities — including Jews of color, Jews with disabilities, LGBTQ Jews, and Jews who do not live in urban centers — we did not require ‘10 to Watch’ applicants to fill out a standard application form. Instead, we invited applicants to submit a piece they had already written — such as an existing report, a recent grant proposal, or an annual report — to demonstrate the power, purpose, and relevance of their work. Our hope was that this approach would ease the burden on applicants and make it possible for more organizations and projects to apply. Here is what we discovered:

Greater access leads to greater diversity.

Unlike the first two years of ‘10 to Watch,’ we received a much higher percentage of applications from historically marginalized communities during the 2022 cycle. For example, 17% of applicants focused on Jews of Color, which roughly mirrors the percentage of Jews of Color in the United States today. We are heartened by the ways in which ‘10 to Watch’ applications are beginning to reflect a more holistic and inclusive portrait of Jewish life in North America. Our selection committee reflects that portrait as well. This year’s selection committee included 44 young Jewish philanthropists — 27 of whom were new — who hailed from all over the United States. Jews of Color comprised 11% of our committee and we intentionally convened a committee that reflected religious, sexual, and gender diversity.  

A flexible and open process widens the lens on Jewish programs. 

This year’s pool of applicants encompassed a broad range of programmatic areas — including addiction, mental illness, and infertility; arts and culture; the leadership of Orthodox women, Latinx-Jewish identity, weight stigma, and much more. Until relatively recently, many of these issues were not part of the Jewish communal consciousness and, today, they remain sorely under-resourced. We are very pleased that organizations whose missions do not fit the “traditional” programmatic mold in Jewish life took a meaningful step to be recognized within the ecosystem of Jewish innovation. 

An equitable application process strengthens the sector as a whole.

When we decided to take a more equitable approach to our ‘10 to Watch’ application process, some people expressed concern that the quality of applicants would decline. Not so! This year’s cohort of applicants introduced us to a richer quality of programs and ideas than we expected, and we were deeply impressed by the seriousness with which applicants invested in our process. In our prior and more prescriptive model for applications, we inadvertently limited the scope, scale, and quality of projects to be considered for ‘10 to Watch.’ Now, we are no longer getting in our own way.

Open communication between evaluators and applicants makes a difference.

During our application process, selection committee members had the opportunity to ask questions of the applicants, rather than simply review their written materials. Taking a dialogical approach enabled us to better understand the applicants themselves and the motivations that drive their work.

Be clear and transparent to set up applicants for success.

Our decision to implement a less prescriptive and more equitable application model yielded a positive outcome. At the same time, we recognize the importance of maintaining consistent expectations. We also take seriously our responsibility to guide applicants so that they can shine. For example, we provided a template document to help guide people who didn’t have something already written. We also made our staff available for 1-on-1 conversations with potential applicants to answer questions or offer advice. In doing so, we gave honest assessments about whether an initiative was the right fit for ‘10 to Watch,’ and for initiatives that weren’t, we helped identify other opportunities that might be a better fit. Finally, we offered every organization that did not make it on the list an opportunity to receive personalized feedback. 

As we continue to strengthen our commitment to equity, we know that every decision we make regarding applications, recruitment and communication will have long-term implications for what the Jewish communal landscape will look like — and how we invest in its future.

Rachel Hodes is Slingshot's Chief Program Officer. This piece first appeared in eJP on June 22, 2022.