Human-Centered Design (HCD) in funding is the practice of designing a funding program or process around the intended users. In practice, this involves leveraging feedback processes, e.g. participatory qualitative and quantitative research, to better understand and design for the people at the heart of the funding process: the applicant. (Read our ‘Co-design Impact Metrics’ resource for more information on HCD.)

The following three mini-studies look at how each featured funder implemented a human-centered design approach in their processes.

Becoming a Responsible Funder -  Prototype Fund (Germany)

Founded in 2016, the Prototype Fund is a program supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) that is managed at the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany. As the name suggests, Prototype Fund supports technology projects during their early development stage, with the goals of ‘keeping innovation processes as well as infrastructure open and accessible.’

As a new funder in the technology funding landscape, the team behind Prototype Fund was eager to learn and improve their funding practices. They wanted to become a more responsible funder, using a strategic approach to building relationships with the community and shaping the program as a positive contributor to the public interest technology space. To shape their approach the Prototype Fund sought external evaluation and feedback in 2019 from both grantees and researchers. They then held an internal design workshop focusing on impact, process, and strategy. By using a human-centered design (HCD) process to gather insights, the team was able to reassess their mission and impact logic, optimize their internal processes, and identify tactical and strategic changes for future programming. In a reflective blog post, the team shared their learnings and takeaways from their practices of co-designing and power-sharing, emphasizing the importance of listening and opening the metric design process to grantees. Thanks to feedback and assessment from their community, the Prototype Fund not only realized the impact of their funding but also was able to redesign their impact measurement in a more sustainable and meaningful way.

Read more about their journey here.

Things Could Be Easier - Open Technology Fund (USA)

The Open Technology Fund (OTF) was created in 2012 as a pilot program within Radio Free Asia before becoming an independent non-profit organization in 2019. OTF hosts multiple funding programs committed to advancing global internet freedom and human rights, with a focus on countering repressive censorship and surveillance.

In December 2019, OTF reached out to an external research team (Simply Secure) to conduct user research and provide design solutions to their Internet Freedom Fund (IFF) application platform and process. The team used a HCD process to gather information and get in touch with the needs and values of both the internal team and the community they serve. In the research phase, they conducted interviews, shadowed the application process, and audited the current process. They then synthesized their findings and identified insights about the perception of OTF, the content on the website and application guidebook, and the application and review processes. From here, the OTF team iterated on the application design, assessment rubrics, and processes.

This process resulted in many concrete improvements in OTF’s fund structure and process. The application for the primary fund was completely redesigned, including improvements aimed at better supporting at-risk applicants, as well as streamlining the information needed to review and evaluate the application. Multiple funds were unified into a “single-button-apply” application, allowing candidate organizations and individuals to focus on conveying their idea and the funding need, rather than navigate many different funds. Instead of a deadline-driven process, all applications are now reviewed on a rolling basis as they are received, allowing more timely applications and responses and giving the internal team more flexibility with their application review and feedback timeline. Changes in the internal processes mean that the evaluation rubric is now better aligned with the program’s desired impact, which also helps the internal team get on the same page about the review process and have a better decision-making framework.

Nat Kretchun, OTF’s Vice President for Programs, called this research and design project “far more introspective and deeper than we anticipated initially, but in a very positive way.” He saw value in the use of this structured process to take a close look at “meta-issues that we rarely talked about,” giving the team a framework to be “more internally critical and self-reflective in what we were using as rubrics and how we were judging some applications based on the nature of the questions.”

Read more about the changes in the application process for these OTF programs here.

On Trust and Transparency - Luminate (UK)

Luminate, formerly the Governance and Citizen Engagement initiative at the Omidyar Network, was founded in 2018 as a global philanthropic organization with the goal of empowering people and institutions to work together to build just and fair societies. In 2018, Luminate approached Simply Secure as an external research partner to delve into the complex environment and relationships of the funding experience, leveraging a human-centered research approach. Their goal was to better understand an organization’s experience throughout the funding process. Nine insights and thirty-four recommendations emerged from the work, which you can explore on the report website or by reading the report, "On Trust & Transparency: Perspectives from Luminate’s portfolio."

The research and the resulting report brought up many concrete recommendations for ways Luminate, and by extension, other funders can better support the organizations they serve. For example, a transparent application process and increased clarity about the relationships with grantmakers help organizations apply, report, and communicate more efficiently with Luminate. A lightweight reporting process allows organizations to focus on their impact instead of on metrics. Overall, many of the research findings were pragmatic suggestions to help align processes with their desired impacts.

The themes surfaced in this research also described and explored the unspoken power relationships that come into play between funder and grantee throughout the funding relationship. The report included insights around the effect that Luminate’s due diligence process can have on the applicant’s professional network; the unclear line between a request and a requirement from a funder; and funders’ difficulty providing professional development that is sensitive to race and gender issues. Overall, the research findings made clear that funders need to be actively aware of the ways that power and privilege play out in their work in order to actually have the trusting, eye-level relationship with their grantees that they strive for.

In order to gain this level of insight, Simply Secure took particular care to safeguard the identities of the organizations interviewed and establish robust data protection and confidentiality framework. Though these processes added additional overhead to the project, they enabled the Luminate team to gain the deep insights characteristic of a HCD process even though the interview topics were highly sensitive and could have put the organizations’ funding relationships at risk if discussed openly.