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Managing an innovation challenge is hard.

You’re juggling confused applicants, a slew of expert reviewers, and endless email threads, all while trying to identify the best possible submissions to your challenge. (You know, the ones that are going to change the world!)

Of course, you’re great at this, but wouldn’t you like to breathe a little easier during application and selection season? If so, you need an intake and evaluation system that will take care of the little things so that you can focus on your program.

Sound useful? Read on.


1. Build a better application form

Whether you’re issuing a call for proposals or accepting submissions on a carefully crafted application, you know how hard it can be to sift through hundreds of submissions, some of which will inevitably lack vital information, run over space limits, or miss the mark completely. Instead, consider building an online form that responds dynamically to the applicant, requesting information based on their previous responses and hiding irrelevant questions. You’ll get all of the information you need, nothing more and nothing less.

Plus, using a flexible online form means that you’ll never have to disqualify someone for sending a file type you can’t open.

Look for: An online form builder with conditional logic

Using an online form means that you’ll collect information in a digital format (making it more usable and portable throughout the process), while setting up conditional logic in your form ensures that you’re only showing questions to applicants who need to answer.

In practice, your form should change to fit the applicant, yielding better and more useful information for the judging and selection process and enabling you to identify the most qualified innovators quickly.

2. A central location for all relevant information and forms

Inevitably, someone is going to submit a proposal that isn’t formatted correctly, leaves out vital information, or completely misses the deadline (see point 1). Skip this unnecessary drama by building a great form and providing all the vital information upfront, in a central location, like the landing page for your application.

Look for: Online forms + a clean landing page

Ideally, your applicants should be able to find answers to all of their questions in one place.

This means providing a deadline in local time (especially if you expect international applicants), a Q&A section, and easy to locate application instructions. Each feature, in turn, improves the quality (and even the quantity) of applications you receive, since you’ll be building a pool of applicants who understand the process, are qualified to compete in your challenge, and have the context they need to craft a great proposal.

3. A simple review workflow

If you’re still using spreadsheets and emails to sift through responses to your challenge, you’re probably sick of long email threads that go nowhere and spreadsheets that always seem to be out of date or missing important information.

Not only are the usual methods cumbersome and confusing, but they also compromise the integrity of the ratings you collect, since your reviewers are likely to miss an email with important instructions or work on a spreadsheet that doesn’t contain the latest information.

Look for: Intuitive workflow tools that allow (or encourage!) streamlining and automation

Instead of spitting out a spreadsheet after application intake, your solution should offer a way to interact with applications in the original system. Ideally, you should be able to collect ratings inside of the platform, without resorting to a confusing system of spreadsheets and manual data entry or tabulation.

Bonus points for automatic routing, labeling, and messaging, since all of these options will eliminate administrative tasks and free up your attention for the important task of identifying the best innovators.

4. Collaboration tools

One of the issues with passing around a spreadsheet through email is version control. Another is the distinct lack of collaboration in this method. If you’re collecting feedback in an asynchronous manner, feedback will inevitably slip through the cracks, silencing vital input from the team members you valued enough to invite to the table.

Obviously, in-person or face-to-face feedback sessions are impractical for most challenges, so collecting reviews in a single platform or system is vital. Spreadsheets simply have to go.

Look for: Features that collect subjective or qualitative feedback, while facilitating team discussions

The answer to obnoxious email chains and out-of-date spreadsheets is a set of workflow tools that encourage collaboration. Any platform worth its salt will offer fields for comments, ideally attaching those comments directly to the application in question. (Some form building solutions offer an option for hidden fields, which presents one workaround for collecting feedback inside of the application.)

Even better, your intake solution should also offer a powerful set of rating tools, so that you can tie feedback directly to particular questions, as well as a comments section, auditable activity log, and the option to assign different applications to different reviewers. In this connected and central ecosystem, your team will be able to discuss submissions, keep track of their assigned ratings, and give timely and useful feedback.

5. Easy follow-up with applicants

After reviewing applications, you likely send batches of emails to successful and unsuccessful applicants alike. Perhaps you’re sending personalized emails and adding every email address manually. Or maybe you’ve created segmented lists and email templates to simplify your process a bit.

Either way, you’re left with endless email threads, which can be difficult to keep track of and almost guarantee that someone or something will slip through the cracks.

Look for: A built in messaging tool

Ideally, your platform should offer a messaging tool with automation options to simplify follow-up with your applicants. With these tools, you can segment your list based on selection criteria, use mail merge variables to personalize messages, and set emails to send when triggered by certain actions, like a particular rating score or a label added to an application.

With automated messages, you can easily request additional information, let an applicant know that they’ve been disqualified, or invite the best applicants to the next stage of the challenge. As a bonus, you won’t have to keep track of separate lists for each category, since you can send message based on specified criteria rather than a bespoke list.

6. Clarity!

We’ve already talked about how spreadsheets and email chains can complicate your review process, but what about their role in clouding the selection process?

Reviewing challenge applications isn’t black and white; aside from quantifiable data (eg. Rate the viability of this project, on a scale from 1-10.), you’re also asking your expert reviewers for nuanced feedback based on their program knowledge.

You trust your reviewers, so you should use a solution that presents their ratings to you simply, alongside their qualitative feedback, without the need for complex algorithms.

Look for: Open dashboards and simple analytics

Instead of creating complex formulas or pulling ratings into pivot tables, the ideal solution will allow you to weight your rating fields once and view scores from your reviewers in real time. In addition, it should offer an intuitive dashboard, with labels and sorting, so that you can keep track of feedback that isn’t quantifiable but is still vital to decision-making. This way, you can evaluate quantitative and qualitative feedback side by side and make informed decisions without juggling multiple spreadsheets or documents.

With both of these features, you’ll be able to simplify your process even further. Want to identify every applicant who scored above a 80%? Need to keep an eye out for a specific keyword? A great solution will let you establish shortcuts that automate all the little stuff so that you can focus on your job. (It’s hard enough as it is!)


Want to see how the U.S. Agency for International Development has used Screendoor to streamline the Securing Water for Food challenge? Check out their story here.

If you’re ready to revolutionize your innovation challenge workflow, check out Screendoor, a best-in-class intake and evaluation solution built for challenge managers just like you.

Becca is the marketing lead at The Department of Better Technology.

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