In my first blog about the Stone Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water, I mentioned that NPC has learned a huge amount about running prize schemes. The first lesson was the need to have clear and tightly defined criteria. You can read more about this here.

Our second lesson is the importance of field visits when deciding on a Prize winner. For the Foundation,  the final funding decision in the normal grant-making process comes after several weeks (if not months) of conversations and meetings with potential grantees, and more often than not field visits as well. The Prize scheme was very different. By the time the expert panel selected the final short-list of seven candidates, we hadn’t had a single conversation with any of the organisations. The only information available to us was gathered from their first and second round application forms.

The process of identifying the final short-listed candidates was quite scientific. First, 20 candidates were asked to complete a second round application form. To whittle down the candidates further, we held a short-listing meeting, attended by the foundation’s trustees, NPC and members of the prize’s expert panel. We discussed each of the candidates in turn and then held a vote to decide  who should proceed to the third and final round. There were seven clear leaders, which we rated from 1 to 7 based on the number of votes.

The trustees visited the seven candidates, spending around two days with each—visiting project sites and meeting both the charities’ staff and beneficiaries. They took with them a list of questions based on concerns raised by the expert panel during the short-listing process. The trustees found the field trips incredibly interesting (if slightly grueling!) and said it gave them a real flavour for what the charities are doing and their strengths and challenges.

After the visits, the trustees ranked the candidates again based on the prize criteria. We compared this to the initial ranking and were surprised to find that the order had completely switched around—without exception. Factors that appeared strong in an application, sometimes became more of a concern when seen in real life, and vice versa.

The trustees felt that one of the greatest benefits of the visits was in getting to meet the staff, in particular, the leadership team. An initiative that seemed quite early stage and risky when sitting in a boardroom in London, felt less risky after the trustees had the opportunity to meet the superb team running the operation on the ground.

As someone who works for the foundation on a day to day basis, I think another advantage to visiting the organisations is the relationships it enables the foundation to build with the short-listed candidates. Having met with the staff, there is a much closer working relationship between us—we know more about them and the context in which they operate, and they hopefully understand a bit more about the foundation and how it can further support them.

Field visits are important when making any funding decision, but as the nature of a prize scheme means that the application process can be quite impersonal, the insight they provide through being able to meet the people behind the application forms and see the work on the ground is absolutely vital.

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