(Liveblog) Equality Can’t Wait Challenge Q&A

On Tuesday, August 4th, the organizers of the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge hosted a Q&A via Zoom webinar. The discussion focused on the contest itself: what it was, how to enter, and more. Starting with an introductory presentation on the Challenge application and finishing with a lengthy Q&A, this webinar focused on audience participation and a clear explanation of the contest rules and goals.

What is the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge?

The Equality Can’t Wait Challenge is a $40 million venture funded by Melinda Gates (through Pivotal Ventures), MacKenzie Scott, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and facilitated through Lever For Change, Pivotal Ventures, and Common Pool. Designed as a peer-reviewed and panel-evaluated contest, the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge will offer grants of at least $10 million to at least three winning projects that help expand women’s power and influence in the United States by 2030.

Originally touted as a $30 million competition, the Challenge recently expanded to $40 million following contributions from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

Talia Gibas, Program Officer at Common Pool, opened the webinar by introducing the Challenge and its registration deadline of Tuesday, September 1st at 5pm Pacific. While finished applications are not due until September 22nd, only registered applicants are allowed to submit applications.

Thursday, September 10th at 8am Pacific will be the next webinar, which will be for registered applicants only, and will include a demonstration of the application platform.

Pivotal Ventures on Shifts in American Culture

Next, Talia introduced Nicole Bates, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives at Pivotal Ventures, sponsor of the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge.

As background for the Challenge, Nicole pointed to the shifts in American culture we’re seeing around women’s success: women of color running for office, blockbuster movies with female leads, and institutional change born out of the #MeToo movement, to name a few examples.

“We often think about the fact that despite being half of the population, women remain underrepresented when decisions are made and in all aspects of American life,” she said. “According to the research, it’s going to be decades or even centuries before we see women with equal power and influence, and we’re not okay with that timeline.”

She continued by addressing the difficulties COVID-19 has presented for the gender equality movement. The pandemic has highlighted the existing disparities for gender and race, and the challenge does not seek to solve these problems overnight, but seeks to “go big and go now” to start making progress.

“We are looking to put significant resources behind ‘big, bold ideas related to women’s power and influence that are often overlooked and underfunded.’”

Lowering Barriers, Filling Key Sectors, and Taking Action

The three pillars of the challenge are Barriers, Key Sectors, and Taking Action.

  • Barriers at home and at work affect women more and differently than they affect men, and can take women off their professional trajectories.
  • Key sectors have disproportionate impact on society (like tech, academia, investing, etc.), and women are underrepresented in them.
  • It’s time to take action by supporting organizations and individuals as they work to change outdated systems, institutions, and beliefs.

“It’s not just about the winners or the finalists,” said Nicole. “We’re looking to build community.”

The Challenge will help applicants share their proposals with funders, each other, and other stakeholders, and a secondary goal of the Challenge is to create a funding network within the Challenge participants. The goal is for not only the winners to succeed, but for people who are part of this funding community to find success too.

“Thank you for dreaming big with us. I can’t wait to see what emerges from this process.”

Challenge Rules and Scoring Criteria

Next, Jenna Schornack from Lever For Change joined the call to speak to the specific rules and the scoring criteria of the Challenge. She recommended that interested applicants fill out an “Organizational Readiness” form to determine their eligibility.

Talia further explained, “If you answer ‘no’ to any of the questions [in the Organizational Readiness form], we encourage you to perhaps seek a partner to make your application more competitive, or seek other sources of funding for your project. If you answer ‘yes’ to every question, we encourage you to submit an application.”

Up to ten finalists will be chosen from the application pool, with each receiving $100,000 in funding. Then, using this funding, the finalists can re-evaluate their proposals and resubmit, and up to three winners will receive the $10 million grants.

Jenna shared more information about the specific scoring criteria for the applications. The four criteria are scored from 0-5:

  • Transformative: Measuring how likely the solution is to significantly accelerate women’s power and influence in the next ten years.
  • Equitable: Measuring how equitably the solution benefits different types of women—women of color, LGBT women, women in poverty, and other marginalized groups.
  • Innovative: The proposed solution will work more efficiently and/or effectively than current solutions, and is ready to rapidly scale up for maximum impact.
  • Feasability: This measures how realistic the solution is, including items like budgets, barriers to success, and expected costs.

With so many people participating in the peer-to-peer review and evaluation panel, how does the challenge ensure the process is fair?

Talia encouraged the values of openness, transparency, and fairness for the application process. As the next step, she suggested reading the Application section of the website, which breaks down the prompts, questions, and word count limits of the ten sections of the application.

In terms of evaluation, Talia recommended going over the Scoring Rubric (available on the website as well) to determine the competitiveness of applications and learn what a high or low score means for each application. “Reverse-engineering” applications by studying the high score definitions on the rubric is a good way to make applications more competitive.

Talia covered the formal review process, which starts with a peer-to-peer review after the application deadline. Each applicant will review and score five other applications – this is a required step to remain eligible for the application – and after that, a subset of top-scoring applications will move on to form an evaluation panel. This panel will then review the applications to give feedback to all applicants, not just the applications selected as finalists.

First, the peer-to-peer review requires five separate applications. Not every applicant and not every judge will look at every application. This keeps “hard graders” and more lenient judges balanced, and keeps the playing field level. (There’s more information about the algorithms and statistics in the “A Level Playing Field” section on the website.)

The website also has a hefty portion about the specific rules of the competition, including the terms and conditions.

Looking Toward Summer 2021

The Timeline section of the website breaks down the registration and application deadlines, as well as the timelines for peer-to-peer review, review by the evaluation panel, and the selection of winners.

  • September 1, 2020: Registration Deadline
  • September 22, 2020: Application Deadline
  • September 23 – October 14, 2020: Administrative Review
  • October 15 – November 9, 2020: Peer-to-Peer Review
  • November 10 – 12, 2020: Peer-to-Peer Review (Cont.)
  • November – December, 2020: Evaluation Panel Review
  • December 2020 – February 2021: Selection of Finalists
  • Spring 2021: Project Development
  • Summer 2021: Award Announcements

Talia encouraged applicants to stay informed with the News & Updates section, as well as the list of Frequently Asked Questions on the homepage.

Audience Q&A

Next, the team opened up the discussion to the audience in the Q&A section of the webinar.

Can for-profit companies compete?

For-profit organizations CANNOT serve as the lead applicants for the challenge, but they CAN partner with eligible nonprofits as part of the proposed solutions.

What time horizon should be reflected in the application?

The grant money will be dispersed over five years, so applications should include five years’ worth of projections and expectations for how the grant money will be used.

IS THE CHALLENGE seeking applications in any particular sector?

Applications are accepted in all sectors, but proposals focusing on the women’s power and influence (WPI) indicators listed on the website are preferred. These include:

  • Wages and wealth
  • Unpaid care
  • Share of leadership roles
  • Content creation
  • Public perceptions

Applications should also consider the three strategic approaches identified as critical by the Challenge organizers:

  • Dismantling the barriers that hold women back
  • Fast tracking women in critical sectors (public office, tech, academia, media and entertainment, finance, and entrepreneurship)
  • Calling society to action

Why is the process so long?

Grants will not be awarded since Summer of 2021. This is because of the size of the grants—giving applicants time to think big with their proposals—and to give applicants feedback. The creation of the community through peer-to-peer review is a critical part of the process, as is feedback from multiple sources. All 10 finalists will engage in a 3-month capacity building period, where they will receive technical advice and other feedback in order to re-submit their proposals to compete for the $10 million grants.

Has anything changed in THE CHALLENGE’S outlook and priorities since COVID has worsened?

This Challenge is not a response to COVID or a funding mechanism directly suited for COVID-19 relief. However, the organizers understand that the pandemic may have impacted applicants’ strategies. The organizers do not expect any changes to the timeline due to COVID and are not currently planning any application extensions.

Is there a limit to the number of geographic areas PROPOSED SOLUTIONS can serve?

There is no limit, so long as they are within the United States. The application asks for only five of the current geographic areas served, and five future areas, if applicable. There is no need to fill out all five.

Is climate change resiliency considered one of the key sectors?

Yes, the Challenge is open to proposals fast-tracking women into ANY sector beyond the ones named in this webinar or on the website. “We are also interested in key pathways into robust sectors with pathways for women,” said Talia.

Will start-up nonprofits without a significant operating budget be considered as competitive as more established nonprofits?

Yes. However, Talia encourages applicants to review the scoring rubric, since the entire application is taken into consideration, including the feasibility and scalability of the proposed projects.

What are special considerations for groups applying as coalitions?

All groups as coalitions are required to upload a signed MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) as part of the application. These are not necessary for contractors, but they are required for partners and collaborations. Talia encouraged coalitions to review the Requirements Regarding Any Proposed Collaboration, which go into greater detail about partnered applications.

When do the programs need to wrap up? Is there a minimum or maximum amount of time to implement the program?

There is no minimum or maximum, but the budget and proposal should reflect the five years of the grant funding window.

What is the Challenge looking for in terms of Scalability?

Scale could include expanding to new populations or geographies, or deeper impact in one particular geography. The goal is to see the project grow from a baseline to a scaled, deeper, larger impact. The goal isn’t to benefit any particular state or geographical area within the United States, but to show that the solutions are truly scalable and could be used as a model by other organizations and entities.

Can organizations apply as part of multiple coalitions?

Yes, but there can be no overlap of team members. So, large organizations or universities with multiple departments and branches can apply as part of multiple proposals, but specific team members cannot be on more than one application.

Can partners be outside of the US?

Yes, but the lead applicant must be a US-based organization, and the geographical area served must be within the US.

Can graphics, images, and attachments be added to the application?

No, there is no way to upload graphics or charts. For the Theory of Change section, the application should be kept short (150 words or less). Finalists may be asked for deeper information, but the initial application should just be high-level. Additionally, because of the peer review process, applicants are encouraged to stay away from jargon and use language everyone can understand.

Is the intention to benefit different groups equitably, or benefit specific groups that have been historically under-represented?

The goal of the challenge is equity—so, supporting women from marginalized and vulnerable communities.

“Particularly, women of color and the groups that we indicated are left out of expanding women’s power and influence,” said Talia. “We want to make sure that they are included in this process, and that any proposal submitted takes their needs into account.”

How will the $40 million in total be allocated?

There will be a minimum of three grants of $10 million each, paid out over five years. The additional $10 million will be allocated among finalists, determined at the award decision stage. (The finalists will receive partial funding while they re-work their applications, which will be considered in the final stage of the competition for the $10 million grants.)

How are ideas protected? (How is confidentiality protected during peer review?)

The ideas are not confidential, so if there is anything that needs to be confidential, the organizers request that those details are not added to the application.

What is required in terms of the video portion of the application?

“The video is just an opportunity for you to share more about your idea that is not in a written narrative,” said Talia. There is no expectation for heavy production or high quality, and can just be shot on an iPhone or laptop. There are guidelines for the videos on the website (including the strict 90 second time limit) and applicants are encouraged to review those.

Can proposals include solutions for women internationally?

Proposals should be focused on women in the United States. This means that proposals for international programs that include the United States cannot be accepted, but proposals that focus on the United States and could be scaled for other countries are acceptable.

What is the $100,000 for finalists used for?

All selected finalists for the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge will receive $100,000 in funding during the resubmission phase, while they collect feedback from peer reviewers and the evaluation panel. During this phase, finalists should use that funding to re-evaluate and edit their proposals, in order to resubmit for the final grant window.

The webinar wrapped up with many thanks to the participants, and an exciting look toward the future of the Challenge. For additional information, the organizers encouraged participants to email questions@equalitycantwaitchallenge.org to have their questions answered!

To learn more about the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge and submit an application, visit their website at equalitycantwaitchallenge.org.


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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