As part of the Stevens Initiative’s second award competition, the Initiative issued a call for Letters of Interest (LOIs) from organizations proposing to conduct virtual exchange programs that would connect young people in the United States, the Middle East, and North Africa. The LOIs were reviewed by an independent review committee and some of the organizations were invited to submit full applications. Based on the review committee’s recommendations, a small number of the organizations that submitted full applications were granted awards.
The Initiative reviewed the LOIs from organizations that were not invited to submit full applications and is sharing a summary below of the factors that were most commonly cited by the review committee. The guidelines and priorities of the next Stevens Initiative award competition – to be announced this summer – may differ from those of past competitions. We hope this information is helpful as you refine your virtual exchange programs and plans, and we encourage you to carefully review the guidelines and priorities of the next award competition rather than relying on the information below in shaping your proposal.
General eligibility issues
- Not virtual exchange
- Some proposals seemed to lack, or did not adequately demonstrate, that the program would utilize or include virtual exchange. The Stevens Initiative supports programs that use technology to connect young people in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa in sustained, facilitated, educational activities. Programs that do not foster direct connections between young people in these regions/countries are not eligible for funding.
- The applicant is not the organization leading the project
- In some proposals, the applying organization seems to be doing significantly less work than one of its proposed partner organizations. This is not a good match with the reporting and compliance obligations of Stevens Initiative award recipients.
- Requesting an ineligible amount of funding
- Several organizations requested more than 40% of their previous year operating budget, which was a limit imposed by the Stevens Initiative to ensure that the proposed work and compliance and reporting requirements are feasible for the applying organization.
- Some organizations requested an amount of funding that was more or less than the permitted range.
- Not an eligible organization
- U.S. organizations submitting a proposal must be tax-exempt non-profit organizations. If an entity that does not meet this criterion wishes to be part of a proposal to the Stevens Initiative, it must work with an eligible organization that would submit the proposal. In some cases, organizations work with a fiscal sponsor that is eligible; the fiscal sponsor would submit the proposal.
- The organization has not demonstrated adequate capacity
- Some organizations seemed to lack the staff capacity to carry out the proposed work, given the scope or complexity of what was proposed and keeping in mind the compliance and reporting requirements for Stevens Initiative awards.
- The program grows too rapidly
- Several proposals – especially those for new programs – envision faster semester-to-semester growth or larger youth participant cohorts than seems feasible. Large funding requests are often not sufficient to deliver large projects or rapid growth; developing the many components of a successful virtual exchange – solidifying international partnerships, preparing the platform and technology, developing the curriculum, training educators or facilitators, instituting a monitoring and evaluation plan, and so on – takes time, even with adequate funding.
- The dispersion of locations is too broad
- Several proposals described reaching young people in over 10 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, or a similar number of locations across the United States. This design makes it very challenging to create uniformly strong implementing partnerships or to ensure adequate support for activities in each location.
- The number of participants imperils program quality
- A few organizations proposed to reach tens of thousands of young people. A program of this size, given the permissible budget range, would likely not allow for sustaining communication among participants over several sessions or for adequate supervision or facilitation.
- The program reach is too small
- Some proposals envisioned a few dozen young people directly participating in an intensive virtual and/or in-person exchange, in some cases followed by having that small group conduct outreach to a larger number of young people in their countries or communities. This model does not provide the larger group of young people with the direct engagement and interaction with peers in other countries that is central to the model of virtual exchange that the Initiative intends to support.
- When the number of proposed program participants is too low, the cost per participant tends to be higher than in comparable virtual exchange programs. Small programs are not able to benefit from economies of scale.
- Some programs seemed to operate on a small scale and use a model that is resource intensive, with no apparent plans to benefit from economies of scale.
- Vague or Complex program plan
- In several proposals, the program details were too general and did not convey a clear, realistic plan for how the program would be structured and carried out.
- Several proposals included a variety of activities and modes of engagement that are not adequately explained or justified and would present challenges in implementation.
- Multiple levels and phases of activity make implementation a challenge. Delays in the planning stages would make it difficult for the following stages of the program to occur successfully.
- Some programs proposed to use several technology platforms, possibly complicating the coordinator, educator, facilitator, and youth participant experience.
- Lack of information about partnerships
- Several proposals did not list the intended implementing partners in the Middle East or North Africa, or in some cases in the United States. While full information about finalized partnerships was not required, often the lack of information raised questions about whether the program was feasible.
- Vague or unclear youth participant experience
- The youth participant experience – what it would be like to participate in the program – is not sufficiently clear from reading the proposal.
- Vague or overly broad topic
- In several proposals, the topic of the exchange was vague or overly broad. The exchange proposed to cover several disparate topics, suggesting that the experience with each topic would not be sufficiently deep to lead to significant discussion or learning. Often, proposals included a set of key words (such as religion, women, environment, culture, education, etc.) without explaining the connection between the topics or what would be covered within these very broad topics in a concise and cohesive manner.
- Several proposals describe methods (such as dialogue or project work) or intended outcomes (empathy, global learning) but do not explain which subjects will be covered through these methods or to achieve these outcomes. Empathy in particular is mentioned as the focus of several proposals, without an explanation of the subjects that would be covered in order to help young people build empathy with their peers from other places and backgrounds.
- Some proposals indicated that the program will address one of the competition priorities (e.g. STEM) without adequate explanation of how the priority will be addressed.
- Lack of curricular structure
- Some proposals indicated that the program lacked curricular structure. While flexibility is an important ingredient of strong programs, a degree of structure helps educators, facilitators, and youth participants proceed through a meaningful exchange experience.
- Large funding request despite building on considerable existing assets
- Some proposals referred to existing assets (curriculum, educators/facilitators, partnerships, technology platform, etc.) and did not justify the large requested budget in light of these assets.
- Inadequately explained intention to develop technology
- Some proposals emphasized using time and resources to build new technology or platforms. Proposals that include substantial investments in new technology need to demonstrate that there are no alternatives that currently exist or that can be adapted for virtual exchange implementation.
- Participants in one region are not described
- Several proposals failed to explain who the youth participants would be either in the United States or in the Middle East or North Africa. Some of these proposals seemed to lack an international youth exchange element entirely. Some made only general reference to one side of the exchange and do not seem to have an adequate plan (such as partnerships with specific implementing institutions) to reach youth in that region/country.
- The appeal to participants or their need for the program is not described
- In several proposals, the intended appeal to youth in one or both regions/countries was not clear. Sometimes, the appeal was described and compelling for youth in one region/country but that appeal would likely be less strong for youth in the other region/country, and this disparity is not acknowledged or addressed. In some programs, youth in one region/country seem to be involved solely or primarily as a means to educate or train their peers in the other region/country (rather than as part of an equitable, mutually beneficial virtual exchange activity), which is not the intention of Stevens Initiative programs.
- The context of the youth participants in each region/country is quite different, raising questions about how the activity will meet both of their interests and needs and be suited to their circumstances. Several programs, for example, proposed to include students in one country/region who would receive credit for participating, and to include young people who would volunteer to participate in the other country/region outside of the education system (without receiving credit). It can be frustrating for engaged participants when their peers do not have the same level of motivation to attend or invest in the activities.
- Some organizations proposed to involve young people outside of the formal education system without adequately explaining how their continued participation and completion of the program would be overseen and incentivized.
- The age range is too broad or not adequately explained/justified
- Several organizations proposed to include students at all eligible age levels in the program (middle school through graduate school), without explaining the distinct roles and opportunities that would be available to youth at each level, how the activities would be appropriate and appealing for youth at each level, or how the organization would manage the technical complexity involved.
- Participant diversity receives inadequate attention, especially in proposals that indicate they will include refugees or other marginalized groups
- Participant diversity is not discussed or is mentioned superficially and not explained. Reaching marginalized populations, including refugees, is an implementation challenge that requires considerable planning. The applicant’s plan to overcome challenges in reaching diverse participants should be clear in the proposal.
- Insufficient emphasis on youth engagement
- Some proposals put more emphasis on (and describe in greater detail) the educator or facilitator training than on the youth virtual exchange program that should be the centerpiece or culmination of the program.
- Too much emphasis on in-person exchange
- While in-person exchange was eligible as part of a hybrid in-person and virtual program, some proposals seemed to focus an inequitable amount of time and resources on the in-person exchange.
- Virtual exchange is not the focus
- Virtual exchange seems to have been added to an existing course or exchange program and it does not clearly fit with or enrich work that seems to be the real focus of the funding request.
- Emphasis on instructions rather than exchange
- Some proposals put more emphasis on using technology to facilitate online lectures or educator presentation than to enable communication and collaboration among youth participants.