Common Application Feedback: Virtual Exchange Grant Competition

Learn more about the 2023 Virtual Exchange Grant Competition here.

Each Virtual Exchange Grant Competition calls for applications from institutions proposing to conduct virtual exchange programs connecting young people in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa. Applications are reviewed by an independent review committee, and a small number of institutions that submit full applications are awarded grants.

Following each competition, the Initiative reviews unsuccessful applications and shares a summary of feedback most commonly cited by the independent review committee of experts. The guidelines and priorities of each grant competition may differ from those of past competitions. The information below may be helpful for refining virtual exchange programs and plans, but interested institutions should carefully review the guidelines and priorities of each competition rather than relying solely on this information when developing a proposal.

Often there was not one scoring factor or criterion that made a proposal unsuccessful; typically, several factors contribute to a proposal receiving a score below the threshold for funding.

Feedback from the 2023 Virtual Exchange Grant Competition

Cost per Participant

  • Some applications had a cost per participant outside of the range for their category. This includes calculation errors in which the amount requested divided by the number of intended participants was higher than the allowable range, and incorrectly listed in the proposal. Proposals with a cost per participant outside the allowable range provided for the grant size (seeding, mid-sized, established) were deemed ineligible for consideration.

Insufficient Detail in Proposal

  • Programmatic components
    • Some proposals lacked detail about the nature of the cross-cultural communication and/or collaboration intended in the program and the activity plan or curriculum. Proposals without these details or with unclear explanations received lower scores in the “Content and Plan for Activities” category.
  • Partnerships
    • Proposals that did not name potential partners or did not demonstrate strong, feasible partnerships in the proposal package were less likely to receive high scores in the “Partnerships” and “Feasibility” categories.
  • Facilitation
    • Some proposals did not sufficiently detail how facilitators or other responsible adults would be recruited and/or prepared to support the implementation of the virtual exchange.

Targeted Participants

  • Unclear alignment with participant priorities in call for proposals

Archived Feedback

Insufficient Detail in Proposal: Most unsuccessful applications received feedback about unclear plans or insufficient details about how an applicant would achieve a certain outcome. The most common areas in which the review committee felt proposals were lacking information were: 

  • Programmatic components
    • Some proposals lacked details about components of the proposed virtual exchange program, including the nature of the activities and curriculum, the learning goals and objectives, or the facilitation plan. Proposals that lacked sufficient detail about how institutional partners or individual participants would be recruited tended to receive lower scores. 
  • Proposed technology
    • Some organizations proposed to use innovative technology such as artificial intelligence or virtual reality but failed to adequately explain how the use of these technologies would be feasible for all partners and participants. 
  • Partnerships
    • Proposals lacked details about partnership structures, and some failed to explicitly identify partners, which hindered the committee’s ability to assess the feasibility of the proposal’s recruitment goals.
  • Value for participants
    • Some proposals lacked detail about or failed to demonstrate a convincing case for what would motivate a participant to join or finish the proposed program. 
  • Demonstrated ability to scale
    • Some applicants requesting larger scaling grants did not include sufficiently clear plans to reach large numbers of participants or significantly more partners and participants than they had reached to date. Some scaling proposals lacked sufficient detail about the program’s track record, raising questions about the organization’s capacity to expand its programming.

Program Design

  • Reasonable engagement strategies
    • Some proposed programs failed to adequately account for the substantial time commitment required of participants, who are typically busy with schoolwork, extracurriculars, family obligations, and so on.
  • The connective nature of activities
    • Review committee members felt that some proposed programs would be significantly improved if youth participants had more opportunities for synchronous (real-time) communication so that they could get to know each other over the course of the program.
  • Unclear contribution to the field of virtual exchange
    • Review committee members felt that several seeding applications did not adequately demonstrate that the proposed program would reach new audiences or fill a gap in the virtual exchange field. 

Program Imbalances

  • Inadequate efforts to balance the experience for both U.S. and MENA participants
    • Programs that are not designed with equal consideration of the needs and interests of participants in all countries are much less likely to be funded. The intended impact on young people in different countries does not need to be identical, but the proposal must demonstrate that the program has been designed to be accessible, valuable to, and engaging for all participants in ways that are suited to their circumstances. For example, some programs proposed activities involving one group of participants being positioned mainly to “teach” the other group of participants rather than having both groups of participants collaborate and learn together. 
    • Some proposals had a significant disparity between the intended number of U.S. and MENA participants. This kind of imbalance often leads to young people from the region with more participants having fewer opportunities to interact with participants from the other region. Such a disparity can also run the risk of participants from the region with fewer participants feeling “othered” or expected to represent all perspectives people from that region might express.
    • The review committee felt some proposed programs were not equally accessible to all participants. This was particularly concerning given the potential for virtual exchange, if conducted well, to provide international engagement opportunities for young people from populations that are typically underrepresented in exchange programs. Some proposals did not specify how they would address access issues for participants, including language barriers and insufficient access to technology required to participate in the exchange.
  • Inequitable program structures
    • Reviewers felt it was apparent that some proposals, particularly those from U.S.-based organizations, did not include international partners in the program design. Reviewers felt these proposals were less balanced and did not account for all participants’ needs as well as proposals that demonstrated collaboration between U.S. and MENA partners on all aspects of program design and implementation. 

Addressing Challenges

  • Some proposals lacked acknowledgement of or plans to mitigate potential challenges in implementing the program. For example, these proposals often failed to address:
    • Language barriers, especially among younger participants from the MENA region who may lack sufficient English language proficiency
    • Differences in time zones, academic calendars, and major holidays
    • Access to technology and Internet
    • Recruitment and retention challenges, such as the likelihood that some organizations or individuals may not follow through on their interest in joining the program or may drop out in the early stages if they encounter disruptions in their other work or studies or if participation proves more difficult than they had anticipated

Targeted Participants

  • Wide age ranges
    • The age range of intended participants was large and not adequately justified in some proposals, leading to concerns about the program’s value for and ability to appropriately meet the needs of all participants. For example, a proposal that intends to connect high school students and university students to collaborate on projects must demonstrate that the program would be appealing and appropriate for young people at these different stages of education and development. This proposal would also need to clearly explain how adults would properly facilitate and supervise communication to keep participants safe, particularly if minors and young adults would interact with each other.. 
  • Unclear alignment with participant priorities in call for proposals
    • Proposals that claimed to reach participants from prioritized groups or populations but did not provide clear and feasible plans or partners to do so were much less likely to get points for this criterion or to be recommended for funding. 


  • Aspects of the budget were not clearly justified
    • Review committee members felt that some proposals outlined insufficient benefits for participants in comparison to the proposed cost per participant. For example, some proposals shared a high cost-per-participant and only a few hours of international synchronous and/or asynchronous communication over the course of participation, and didn’t adequately explain why the cost was justified given the low amount of international contact.

Reasons for Ineligibility

  • Falling significantly outside the permissible range for total amount requested or cost per participant for the relevant grant type.
  • Failing to answer required parts of the application or provide required documents.
  • Requesting support for participants outside of the United States (U.S.) and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
  • Requesting more money than would be allowed according to the Initiative’s rules for how much of the institution’s recent operating budget can be requested.

General Proposal Critiques and Errors

  • Missing information or errors in proposal writing
    • Common errors included inconsistency in the number of participants or incorrect cost per participant calculations in different parts of the application. Several proposals left prompts blank, including the Participant Perspective section. There were also instances of missing or corrupted attachments.
  • Insufficient detail
    • The explanation of the program was overly broad, and the impact and outcomes were unclear.
    • Some applications said they would address priority areas but did not explain or provide evidence for how these priorities would be met, such as proposing an open enrollment program without any details about how prospective participants would be reached, reviewed, and encouraged to complete the program.

Budget and Program Costs

  • Insufficient justification for budgeted expenses
    • Budgets included costs that did not appear to be necessary or reasonable. While there are inherent uncertainties in budgets, budgets should not include costs that are not clearly necessary for program implementation.
    • Some proposals included high costs without sufficient justification and rationale. For example, if there are high travel costs, the proposal should clearly explain why the travel and related expenses are necessary for program implementation. Additionally, personnel roles should be clearly explained and justified, especially for full-time positions.
  • One-sided budget
    • Budgets did not reflect the amount of collaboration and effort required by partners, particularly by partners in the MENA region in the case of applications from U.S.-based institutions. For example, if nearly all the requested funds stay with the prime subrecipient, but partners will be doing significant work, the budget may not be considering the needs of partners.
    • Level of effort (LOE) was not adequate to run a program in both the U.S. and MENA region.

Facilitation Plans

  • Insufficient detail
    • Plans for facilitator recruitment and for training and facilitator roles were not specified or lacked sufficient detail. Plans for recruitment and training were inadequate.
  • Imbalanced structure
    • Some proposals had drastically imbalanced numbers of U.S. and MENA region facilitators.
    • The proposal failed to address how language barriers or other key factors of international communication would be addressed.
  • Insufficient number of facilitators or type of facilitation
    • Not enough facilitators to adequately support the number of proposed participants.
    • Some programs sought to be participant-driven or to replace human facilitation with automation. These issues raised concerns about whether participants would be safe and supported to have a consistently high-quality experience.


  • Unclear recruitment plan
    • The recruitment plans lacked necessary detail or were unrealistic. Some plans did not specify how participants would join the program, or which groups of young people would be invited to join the program.
    • Several proposals did not provide enough detail for plans to recruit and meaningfully include young people from diverse backgrounds.
  • S.-centric recruitment
    • Several proposals failed to include a recruitment plan for MENA participants, which suggests the program may not be designed to be mutually beneficial to young people in the MENA region as well as to young people in the U.S.
  • Sustainability challenges
    • Some proposals relied on one individual or a very small number of individuals, particularly in the MENA region, to recruit participants, prompting concern about what would happen if these individuals faced obstacles to their work.


  • Lack of MENA partners
    • Several proposals outlined work in the MENA region but failed to specify any partners in the region. In some cases, partners were mentioned but hadn’t been pursued or confirmed, or the proposal failed to provide sufficient detail about them.
  • Unclear partnerships
    • Proposals that did not include enough detail about partnerships raised concern about whether the program was viable in all countries or communities where implementation was proposed. For example, it may have been unclear what role the partners would have in design and implementation of the program.

Participant Experience

  • Unclear participant experience
    • Some proposals left the Participant Perspective section blank or did not adequately portray the program from the participant perspective. It was unclear in some instances what the virtual exchange program would add to participants’ experience.
    • The planned collaboration between participants and the resulting impact of the collaboration was not clear.
  • Issues with subject matter and exchange activities
    • The planned program seemed to miss an opportunity to include hands-on activities such as problem-solving or other forms of collaboration.
    • The program topic was too simple and didn’t seem to provide a compelling incentive for participation for the intended participants. In some cases, proposals were stronger when they described the arc of activities each participant would engage in, building up to a fulfilling final activity or project.

Priority Populations and Inclusivity

  • Inadequate plans for equity and access
    • Proposals did not include clear plans to empower participants or address needs of participants from diverse backgrounds, leading to doubt over the ability to reach and meaningfully include young people from these populations. For example, proposals that stated an intention to reach women and underrepresented groups did not detail how they planned to overcome common barriers to participation, including language accessibility or internet costs.
  • Inadequate plans to include priority participants
    • Outlined plans for recruitment did not include reaching participants from priority populations. Some proposals failed to address whether there would be gender parity, issues of access and proposed solutions (i.e. internet access for those without), or geographic reach (i.e. reaching rural areas).
    • Some institutions’ proposed participant selection processes raised concerns about fairness and inclusivity; highly competitive processes that rely on traditional measures of academic achievement or on a high level of written English proficiency could disadvantage participants from groups that have historically been excluded from international education and exchange.

Program Design

  • Lack of necessary details
    • Some proposals lacked clear descriptions of curriculum, day to day activities of participants, contact hours, and planned participant collaboration. Some program plans did not detail the length of the program, what a typical program session would entail, the expected time commitment for participants, or whether there was a clear project or deliverable.
  • Unclear value proposition or incentives for participant retention
    • In some instances, the appeal or relevance of the program or the program topic for participants was not sufficiently clear or articulated. Programs that would have occurred outside credit-bearing academic courses often didn’t provide enough explanation of the incentives participants would have to complete the program.
    • Some proposals did not outline how they would address attrition (participants dropping out) over the course of the program. In some cases, it was unclear what participants would gain or achieve from participation.

Sustainability and Scalability

  • Unclear plans for scaling
    • It was not clear how receiving a grant would help the program evolve and grow, rather than just maintaining current impact and reach. For programs that were looking to expand upon previous virtual experience, the value and plan for expansion should have been more clearly articulated, highlighting future scalability.
  • Unclear sustainability
    • Unclear whether the program would be sustainable beyond the Stevens Initiative grant. Long-term goals and plans following the period of performance were not articulated.


  • Proposals did not include enough detail for how programs would adapt to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. They did not include contingencies, precautions, or back-up plans. For example, planned travel or in-person training did not have back-up plans in case gathering in person was not an option.
  • Proposals that relied heavily on technology within a classroom left themselves vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic. Additionally, programs relying on one tech platform, with no backup plans mentioned, were also vulnerable to tech challenges.
  • Virtual exchange seemed like a filler for pandemic circumstances without clear intention to sustain the program beyond that. Furthermore, some plans seemed to focus on translating an in-person experience to the virtual context without accounting for the differences in these settings.

Virtual Exchange Component

  • Vague or unclear exchange activities
    • The logistics and content of the exchange were not clear in critical areas, which left reviewers struggling to envision what the actual exchange activities would entail.
    • Proposals lacked information about their virtual exchange experience or their plans to bring in necessary expertise.
    • Unclear how the program would balance asynchronous activities with synchronous, especially considering time differences.
  • Exchange aspect not substantive
    • Not clear that substantive communication or collaboration between young people in different countries would take place. Some proposals emphasized a description of program content without providing a clear picture of what the exchange would involve.
    • For programs intending to have small group work, group sizes of 20+ in a virtual setting did not contribute to intended design.


  • Incentive structure
    • Unequal value for participants in the U.S. and MENA region. For example, participants on one side proposed to be paid to serve as tutors to the participants on the other side. Paying participants is not a model the Initiative can support through its grants.
  • Unclear credentials or benefit to participants upon completion of program
    • Some proposals missed an opportunity to explain how they would meet the interests young people have in many contexts for credentials that demonstrate their employability.
  • Disproportionate focus on U.S. or MENA
    • In some proposals, the participant overview focused on American youth or MENA youth rather than adequately describing participants in both places.
    • Some programs had imbalanced descriptions of their benefits, for example, by describing the benefits for youth in either the U.S. or MENA region without mentioning the benefits for youth in the other region.
  • Imbalances in number of participants or facilitators
    • Several proposals had vastly different numbers of participants or facilitators in the U.S. or MENA region without justifying the disparity.