This fellowship program provides early-stage support to innovators who are exploring problem spaces and conceiving new solutions to help people exert agency over their lives. This call is issued by South Park Commons, a global community of technologists and builders, in partnership with The Agency Fund, a new philanthropic initiative.
The South Park Commons community is a home for people who are in the early stages of their life’s next work — people turning the chaos of possibility into the clarity of conviction. We believe that SPC’s culture of exploration, experimentation, and collaborative support can be effective for social innovators, especially when targeted at the early stages of ideation and validation. The Agency Fund invests in ideas and organizations that leverage data, research, and technology to support people in the navigation of difficult lives. Together, we look forward to finding, funding, and accelerating a cohort of ambitious social innovators.
The lottery of birth is deeply unfair. Yet even people in poverty strive to live with self-determination, dignity, and hope. The greater our agency, the less we are defined by the circumstances we were born into.
What do people need to exert agency over their lives? There is evidence that tailored insights, like customized advice and personalized coaching, can assist in the navigation of difficult economic and life choices. Rigorous research indicates that such support can improve subjective indicators like self-efficacy and life satisfaction, along with objective outcomes like income,¹⁻⁴ health status,⁵ and educational attainment.⁶
Technology has a role to play in helping large numbers of people access customized insights and coaching. For example, recommender systems and personalization engines already support consumers navigating online choices — from purchasing decisions and investment options, to finding the right service provider. The expansion of mobile technology, along with the falling cost of data in low-income settings, makes it possible to bring evidence-based guidance to people in poverty as well. A number of organizations are already pioneering this. For example:
- Non-profit Precision Development provides smallholder farmers in India and Africa with agricultural advisory services that are tailored to local agronomic conditions.⁷
- Non-profit ConsiliumBots helps Latin American students and their families navigate the public education options that are available to them.⁸
- Shujaaz, a social venture, builds digital tools that help East African micro-entrepreneurs seek and share advice on informal street hustles.
We are interested in these and similar approaches that leverage data, research, and technology to empower people in the navigation of difficult lives.
What We Fund
The fellowship comes with a fixed contribution of $65k and access to the South Park Commons (SPC) community. Fellows who spend time in the San Francisco area may also have access to a shared work space at no cost.
As a fellow, you will participate in an 8-week program with a cohort of other fellows. The program includes a weekly reading group and discussion session, progress updates, and guest speakers. You will also have access to a dedicated mentor or thought partner to provide support as you explore. As you progress through the remainder of the fellowship, we would expect you to launch a prototype, collect feedback, and begin to validate your approach.
The output of the fellowship, expected after ~7 months, is one or more of the following:
- A prototyped tool
- A research paper describing your findings
- A proposal for your next round of funding, for consideration by the Agency Fund or other funders
This fellowship is intended for ambitious people with concrete ambitions toward creating a new non-profit organization, social venture, or program.
When & How to Apply
Submit your application here. Submissions for the first cohort will be open until October 8th, 2021 at 11:59 pm Pacific time.
APPLY HERE: https://airtable.com/shrDbdRKHNetDN3fM
- Banerjee, A. et al. (2015). A multifaceted program causes lasting progress for the very poor: Evidence from six countries. Science 348(6236)
- Banerjee, A. et al. (2018): Unpacking a multi-faceted program to build sustainable income for the very poor. NBER Working Paper 24271
- Brooks, W., Donovan, K, Johnson, T. R. (2018): Mentors or teachers? Microenterprise training in Kenya. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 10(4)
- Sedlmayr, R., Shah, A., Sulaiman, M. (2020): Cash-plus: Poverty impacts of alternative transfer-based approaches. Journal of Development Economics 144:102418
- Dupas, P. (2011). Do teenagers respond to HIV risk information? Evidence from a field experiment in Kenya. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 3(1)
- Jensen, R. (2012). Do labor market opportunities affect young women’s work and family decisions? Experimental evidence from India. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 127(2)
- Fabregas, R., Kremer, M., Schilbach, F. (2019). Realizing the potential of digital development: The case of agricultural advice. Science 366(6471)
- Arteaga, F., Kapor, A. J., Neilson, C. A., Zimmerman, S. D. (2021). Smart Matching Platforms and Heterogeneous Beliefs in Centralized School Choice. NBER Working Paper 28946
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Who should apply for this fellowship?
We look for applicants who want to make social innovation their life’s work. We would like to encourage people from underrepresented communities to apply for this fellowship. Examples of strong profiles might be:
- A quantitative social scientist (e.g. development economist) who wants to build and experiment in the real world.
- A psychologist with specific domain expertise that could achieve greater real-world relevance when deployed through a mobile app or other digital service.
- A professional (e.g. social worker, extension agent, career counselor, government officer) with a clear vision of a product or service that would be empowering to the communities they work in.
- A software engineer or product manager with industry experience who wants to build apps and services for disadvantaged communities.
- A computer / data scientist who is looking for help defining a social problem that would benefit from their expertise.
What are your evaluation criteria?
The strongest applicants for this fellowship will:
- Present a compelling example of a specific informational or social barrier that keeps people from realizing their full potential, as well as a potentially scalable approach to overcome this barrier.
- Come with a deep understanding of, and life experience in, the context they are looking to work in.
- Demonstrate that they operate at the cutting edge of social or technological innovation.
Can I apply on behalf of an organization, or together with a colleague / co-founder?
Teams can apply. If a fellowship is awarded to a team, up to 3 team members can become fellows (and members of SPC). However, just $65,000 per team will be awarded, and it must be disbursed to a single person or entity.
Can I maintain an affiliation with an existing organization (e.g. a non-profit, university, or company)?
You can maintain an affiliation, but you are not required to have affiliation with an organization to be eligible for the fellowship. You can apply as a private individual.
Is there a focus on specific geographies or development outcomes?
No. However, we are focused on ideas that support the decision-making of people who experience significant disadvantages. So all else equal, work in low-income settings is preferred.
Are you seeking investable business ideas?
This call seeks socially impactful innovations. Potential profitability is not relevant. However, concrete ideas for how to resource an innovation at scale — e.g. through revenue models, government partnerships, or philanthropy — are a plus.
Can I simultaneously apply for an SPC-Agency Fund fellowship and for project support from the Agency Fund?
Yes, you can — there is no harm in applying to both, and being accepted or rejected for one does not mean you will have the same outcome on the other application. However, it may be difficult to get both awards at the same exact time: fellowships are best suited for the ideation/conceptualization stage and innovation projects are best suited for the proof-of-concept stage and beyond.
As a fellow, will I need to execute on the exact idea I presented in my application?
The fellowship is an opportunity to explore new ideas and work toward validation. You can change your approach, as long as you are advancing the objective of the fellowship.
Do fellows need a U.S. work permit or other authorization to visit the U.S.?
No. You are not even required to travel to the U.S. All fellowship activities can be completed remotely.
What if I have something valuable to contribute, but I need help to make it work?
Please apply. We can help you find co-founders, mentors, and relevant technical expertise. We want to create synergies with other actors in the ecosystem and work with you to make promising applications fundable.
How many fellows will be selected, and by whom?
We expect to select 4–5 fellows for this first cohort, but the number could be higher or lower depending on the strength of the submissions. Applications will be reviewed by a committee of members from South Park Commons and the Agency Fund.
When will I hear back about my application?
Fellowship decisions will be announced in late October, and the fellowship will begin shortly thereafter.
What part of the fellowship can I use for living expenses, what part for work expenses?
This is up to you and your tax advisor. We do not stipulate how funds must be used.
What activities are included in the 8-week fellowship program and thereafter?
We expect fellows to set aside approximately 5 hours per week for the below activities, over the course of the 8-week intensive program. The remaining 5 months of the fellowship will be spent working on your ideas, with periodic check-ins and feedback from our team. At the end of the 7 months we expect a prototyped tool or research paper or a grant proposal for the Agency Fund.
Social Impact Forum
- 8 week Curriculum — program run by the Agency Fund and SPC Community with other domain experts centered around a proprietary curriculum. The curriculum will focus on a) relevant research in development economics and psychology; (b) background on relevant actors in the Agency Fund ecosystem; and (c) skills in priority areas, which might span from tech literacy to organizational development.
- Speaker Series — we invite experts to attend our weekly Forum, to join us for dinners, and for one-off events.
- Milestone based workshops — work with Agency Fund, SPC partners, and peer fellows to hit milestones in the ideation, validation, and prototyping phases. These sessions help share goals, build momentum, and drive accountability.
- Access to mentorship — 1:1 meetings with your mentor who is an expert in your area of interest. Examples can be found at https://www.agency.fund/team
- Access to domain experts and the SPC network across a variety of fields in development economics, public health, impact investing, machine learning, mobile, blockchain, fintech, social networks, energy, developer tools, and more.
- Credits for technologies like AWS, Google Cloud, Brex, Pulley, and other companies