Tips and insights on applying for the Knight Cities Challenge

communities / Article

The Knight Cities Challenge will award $5 million for the best ideas to make the 26 Knight communities more successful. Applications are open through noon ET, Tuesday, Oct. 27. Apply at

Knight Foundation’s Vice President of Community and National Initiatives Carol Coletta took to the popular social media platform Reddit this past Friday to answer questions about the Knight Cities Challenge.

Kicking off the chat, Coletta told participants that the challenge is seeking the best ideas that support civic innovators who help attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of civic engagement in one or more of the 26 Knight communities.

“We want projects that teach us something important,” she said, opening the floor to comments, questions and feedback about the challenge.

Below is a lightly edited summary of the some of the most popular questions and Coletta’s answers. 

Question: When you talk about getting ideas from people you wouldn’t normally hear from, what specifically are you doing to solicit ideas from people in marginalized communities normally not involved in governance?

Coletta: That’s exactly why we do the challenge. We want to make it easy to submit ideas. Three questions. Three answers. Pretty simple. And we are focusing outreach on communities that are the least likely to apply. If you have ideas for us to do a more effective job, I welcome them.

Q: Are you open to funding existing projects that are making a pivot?

Coletta: Yes, as long as the idea relates directly to driving talent, opportunity and engagement.

Q: Will you accept multi-year ideas?

Coletta: Multi-year ideas work, but in the challenge we only fund for 18 months.

Q: Are you working to make other cities aware of successful projects?

Coletta: One of the benefits of being a Knight Cities Challenge winner is being part of a network of civic innovators across the country. They are sharing info and cross-fertilizing knowledge and experience. We are aggressively sharing info on the winners.

Q: The applications are very short descriptions. How can an organization shine in explaining something in such a short span? What tips do you have?

Coletta: Get a disinterested friend to read it and tell you if (a) she understands it and (b) if she’s interested and wants to read more. Remember that you have to capture someone's attention in 10 seconds.

Q: What processes do you undertake to ensure quality of leadership, and how do applicants demonstrate their ability to accomplish the proposed tasks?

Coletta: We’ve added a question in the first-round application this year to ask about the team responsible for executing the idea. In round two, we’ll ask for more details and look for some evidence that the individual, team or org. can do what they say they will do.

Q: Can 501(c)(4) organizations apply? 

Coletta: Yes. Also individuals, businesses, nonprofits and governments can apply. It’s very flexible.

Q: I see that last year’s winners are categorized by city. Do proposals need to focus specifically on one city or is Knight looking for ideas that can be replicated across cities? Also, is there a preference for programs in any particular city or cities among these 26? Coletta: We’re looking for both. Choosing among the 26 communities is like asking a parent to choose a favorite kid. Not going there!

Q: What advice would you have for a young student interested in civic engineering and civic engagement? What should they be reading and what projects should they be pursuing to hone their understanding of how cities work and how they can be more successful? 

Coletta: Follow the Knight Cities podcast, of course! Read Planetizen, CityLab and Next City. City Observatory is also phenomenal. And volunteer to work with someone local you admire who is working on your city.

Coletta’s answers to many additional questions are available via the chat’s full transcript. More information about how the challenge works is also available via the challenge website.

If you have additional questions, we’ll be hosting dozens of in-person events throughout October. See this updated calendar to find a session you can attend. Our next virtual opportunity to ask questions will be with George Abbott, special assistant to the vice president for community and national initiatives, from 5-6 p.m. ET on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. RSVP via Webex.

For the latest information on the challenge, be sure to follow @knightfdn and #knightcities on Twitter or sign up for our email newsletter. You can send questions to [email protected]. And you can peruse the winners of the first Knight Cities Challenge and apply – by noon ET on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015 – at

Elizabeth Miller Tilis is a digital communications consultant based in Kansas City, Mo. Email her at [email protected].

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