Best Practices for Processing Funding Applications at Scale
By Ayat Amin
Oct. 27, 2020, 5:22 p.m.
Covid-19 has brought a spike in demand for fast relief, which has presented a challenge for all — including economic development organizations across the US. Over the past year, we at The Opportunity Exchange have helped facilitate the disbursement of over $3m of funding to approximately 750 small businesses across the US. Through this work, we have seen how the communities which proactively incorporated technology into their Covid-19 response were able to distribute funds faster than those that relied on more traditional approaches. In this article, we have compiled the most important lessons we learned from our partners in Ohio, Maryland, and Florida on their fund distribution processes, but these lessons can be applied more broadly as these insights are specifically tailored to help you improve any data collection process to be quicker and more efficient. 1. Designing digital application forms Use a digital intake form If you aren’t already, use a digital intake form for applications. In contrast to PDFs, digital intake forms save time by automatically pooling information from applications into a central database. That data can then be easily aggregated and analyzed. General form-building tools such as Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, or Airtable can help accomplish this, as can more specialized applications such as The Opportunity Exchange’s Loan Tool. Standardize your application Dedicate extra time at the start to design your digital intake form properly. A well-designed form will produce more standardized data, which can exponentially reduce the analysis time. Here are our recommendations: Avoid open text fields Open text fields increase the time needed to extract the required information. For example, we recently saw an application form that asked users for their business address without validation. Our team had to clean the data so that “ohio” matched with “Ohio” and “OH”. Instead, a simple dropdown of state options could have extracted the same information while saving the team valuable time that could have been used to distribute money faster. To ensure that multiple-choice fields are comprehensive, we recommend including an “Other – fill in your answer” option, to account for users excluded from the multiple-choice list. There are situations where an open text field is needed to capture more granular information. In those cases, we recommend using a multiple-choice field first to organize high-level categories, followed by the open text field. Use input validation Another time-saving tip is to use automatic input validation on your intake form. For example, when asking questions with numeric answers, you can use validation to check that the answer inputted is the number “30” rather than “thirty”. Such simple validation measures standardize the inputs, reducing time spent on data cleaning and analysis. 2. Analysing applications Now that you’ve been able to standardize the data coming in, here are suggestions to optimize the work of reviewing all the applications. Utilize a threshold review A threshold review is when applications are filtered against certain qualifying conditions. For example, in Cuyahoga County (Ohio), they used a threshold review for the Covid-19 relief loans to automatically filter out businesses that didn’t meet all of the application requirements (such as not being a small business). These businesses were tagged as disqualified and did not enter the more detailed review process. This saved the team valuable time, as approximately 50% of incoming applications were screened out by these eligibility filters. Create a scoring algorithm Spend time early on to create an algorithm that ranks applications. This sounds more complicated than it actually is. Creating a scoring algorithm allows your team to prioritize applications based on characteristics that most align with your organizational goals. In Cuyahoga County, there was a focus on prioritizing minority-owned businesses as well as businesses most negatively impacted by Covid-19. The result was a weighting algorithm which ranked these priorities and gave applications a score. With limited funding available, this allowed the team to approve funding for the most mission-aligned applicants first, then work their way down the list until available funding resources were depleted. There are two important things to remember when it comes to designing your scoring algorithm. First, automated scoring of applications is best accomplished if the data is standardised, hence the importance of survey design discussed in Part 1. Second, the results of the algorithm should be manually reviewed by a team for accuracy before funds are distributed. Distribute work between multiple organizations Because distributing funding is such a demanding process, a lot of public bodies are collaborating with other community organizations to increase capacity. In these cases, technology is a great tool for efficiently distributing the work of processing applications. For example, Baltimore Development Corporation partnered with eight local organizations that offer support to businesses to help distribute Covid-19 relief funding. The team used Airtable, which is an online tool for collaborative spreadsheets. They organized the spreadsheets so that every organization had their own tab with a list of businesses they currently offer support to. They maintained transparency by allowing all organizations permission to see each other's tab, but not to edit the information. To avoid duplicated reviews, new applications were sent to an unaffiliated tab where a dedicated team member assigned the applicant to an organization based on each organization's preferences and capacity. The key lesson here is that to make coordination across multiple teams effective, use structures that improve transparency, and reduce duplication. 3. Implications Over the past year, we have helped facilitate the disbursement of over $3m of funding to approximately 750 small businesses across the US. Although these insights emerged from the heightened demands of the pandemic, they are relevant to any data gathering process. Governments everywhere should use this crisis as an opportunity to adopt new technologies for faster and more efficient processes. Doing so will improve their ability to meet the needs of their constituents, even after Covid-19 passes. Have questions about your organization's fund distribution process? Reach out to us with your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.