Recruiting and selecting an amazing group of fellows

2015 Knight-Mozilla Fellows

OpenNews has just announced the 2015 Knight-Mozilla Fellows. This is our fourth cohort of fellows and we've learned a lot the past few years about where to look for people who will challenge and inspire us for the next year (and beyond). So how do we do it? Here’s some details about what we've tried, what we've learned, and the learning we still have to do.

A quick look at the numbers

Each year, we've seen a ~60% increase in overall applications. Last year, I did some analysis to see if this increase was skewed by a particular group, or if were also increasing (or at least holding steady) the diversity of our applicant pool. It seemed that both gender and geographic diversity increased as the applicant pool grew.

This year, we added a question so that applicants could self-identify as a woman, person of color, or member of another group under-represented in technology. We're going to use these self reported identifications going forward in our analysis. We may evolve them a bit due to clarity--for example, "person of color" is a pretty US-centric phrase, and we have applicants from around the world. The third category was an open response and the answers really showed how many different perspectives can be covered in diversity: people identified as being formerly incarcerated, LGBT, self taught, from rural areas. It was great to see this wide diversity of experience.

The numbers - 2015 cohort

  • 416 - Valid applications
  • 104 (25%) -  Identify as a woman
  • 88 (21%) - Identify as a person of color
  • 73 (18%) - Identify as another member of another under-represented group

Where are people from? (some example countries)

  • 42 (10%) - Argentina
  • 139 (33%) - USA
  • 26 (6%) - India
  • 11 (3%) - Kenya
  • 7 (2%) - Germany

How'd people hear about the fellowship?

  • 69 (17%) - Twitter
  • 53 (13%) - Friend
  • 33 (8%) - Email lists
  • 26 (6%) - Mozilla
  • 10 (2%) - La Nacion
  • 10 (2%) - Facebook

In comparing to last year, the overall number of women applicants doubled and the proportion jumped by a quarter. We maintained a similar level of geographic diversity as compared to last year, with 42 applicants from Argentina due to La Nacion's stellar outreach efforts. The proportion of US applicants is actually exactly the same as last year, which is encouraging given that we had fewer fellows based with international news organizations this year.

Our fellow alumni network and events support still keep us connected to communities internationally. This connection is also evident in the ways people listed they heard about the fellowship--friends continue to be a major referrer. Many people contacted their personal networks (thank you!) or shared contacts with us to reach out to about the Fellowship. Also, people heard about the fellowship from a lot of email lists: AdaCamp Alumni, TechLadyMafia, OpenNews’ community list, and a wide variety of local tech, civic hacking, and data viz groups. These outreach efforts to individuals and through wider-reaching lists and Twitter have been a key component of ensuring that amazing people do indeed apply.

Connecting with potential applicants

Last year I also wrote about our recruitment efforts and we followed that advice again this year: build relationships throughout the year and do a lot of direct outreach. Beyond that, I want to call out two important parts of our efforts: responsive communications and a program that is designed to be as accessible as possible.

We do our best each year to give people the information they need to feel able to apply--a sense of the program, an idea of what we're looking for, and a hefty helping of encouragement to, yes, apply. We redoubled these efforts this year. In addition to blog posts from Fellows, news orgs, and working news nerds, we developed a series of blog posts that responded to questions we heard from applicants. What's different about a fellowship? Am I a competitive applicant? What's exciting about working in journalism? Additionally, we held office hours, had Q+A sessions on our community calls, responded to email and tweeted questions, and jumped on quick calls to chat with potential applicants. We tried to make ourselves easy to reach, by whichever method was preferred by the applicant. All of our communications efforts were designed to be open and responsive to the needs of applicants.

Similarly, the fellowship program overall is designed to be accessible. Part of this is baked into the structure of the stipends and supplements for the fellowship--they scale with family size and cover things like moving expenses, health care, and child care costs. We want everyone who is interested in pursuing a fellowship to feel able to do it. We very consciously run the Knight-Mozilla Fellowship in a way that is considerate of people’s needs as humans: we try to make travel easy, food tasty, sleep and rest a feature of all events, and generally support people in doing what they need to do to feel healthy and productive.

Part of creating a program that feels welcoming and accessible is also about culture and expectations. We want people from all types of backgrounds and all different temperaments to be able to participate in the fellowship. We do our best to achieve this by removing as many barriers to entry or biases as we can. For example, some fellowship programs require applicants to pitch a "big idea." But not everyone is good at coming up with big ideas (and the people who are often come from privileged groups). We want to make sure our fellowship is open to people who are good at that and people who are good at other things. Instead of asking for a litany of tech skills, we ask people to talk about projects they've worked on and to describe their role in the project. People who communicate best visually can wow us with a stunning project link, while people who communicate well via text can write an engaging description. These are just some examples that come from active decisions. We challenge ourselves to think: who does this include? Who might it exclude? This skepticism, questioning of our own biases helps create a program that feels accessible to a wide range of people.

Selecting the Fellows

Each year, we get applications from a larger number of people with a staggering variety of skills and experiences. Our job gets harder, but for good reason--the recruitment effort seems to really pay off!

In the selection process, we make sure there are multiple chances for people to shine. Frequently, someone who has an interesting application shows how they are even more brilliant than words on the screen could capture when we get to chat with them. Throughout this process, Dan Sinker and I get to look over all of the applications and participate in all of the interviews. This helps us identify when a prospective fellow who interviews with one organization might be a better fit for another organization. We also have a perspective on the full fellowship cohort--we can see what personalities might fit well together and help make sure the cohort reflects a diversity of experience.

This process is made more difficult by the fact that we have so many tremendously skilled applicants. The first stage in the selection process involves cutting the entire pool down to about 25% of the applications, to a more manageable number of applicants for news organizations to review. A few years ago, this process mostly involved just removing unqualified applicants. But for the past two years, it's been arduous. We make sure at this stage to include in that shortened list a healthy amount of women and people of color applicants as well as to retain a mix of geographic representation. At each stage of the process, we keep track of these areas.

Now, I want to be very clear about something: this proactive attention to ensuring that a diverse pool of applicants is present at every stage of the selection process does NOT mean that unqualified people get pushed through because of some or another "special status." It's just not possible. We have too many applicants who are too awesome to be able to push a less skilled applicant through. At every stage of the process we have to say no to incredibly amazing people, of all backgrounds. And, due to our recruitment efforts, the structure of our program, and being proactive in tracking diversity throughout the selection process, we're also able to say yes to incredibly amazing people, of all backgrounds.

Questions we still have

This is such an amazing process to be able to participate in, and I'm so grateful to all of our applicants as well as to everyone who documents their recruitment and selection work who we have been able to learn from. We are not done learning, not by a long shot.

All those incredibly amazing people we are unable to accept into the program? We need to do a better job at staying connected with them throughout the year. We stay in touch, we connect people with job opportunities or events or other collaborations that may arise, but I know we could be doing more. How do other organizations do this? How do you make sure that when someone raises their hand to get involved, you're actually able to keep up with them in a way that supports their work and leadership development?

As the fellowship program continues, our fellowship alumni community grows. Part of recruitment is also follow through with the current fellows--what happens after their fellowship? How do they stay connected and build on the experiences they had during their fellowship year? I know lots of programs have been at this for decades and must have great suggestions on alumni support.

And finally, I would *love* some advice on program evaluation. I've outlined some of the analysis we've done with the data we have about applicants. I've mentioned how we challenge ourselves to push against our own biases. But, wow, I know there's so much more we could be doing. I bet there are improvements we could make to the selection process, and information we could learn form the applicants that would help us better support them and the community. If you're into data and forms and cognitive biases, yes, let's talk.

A community of fellows

With this announcement, we now have 25 people in the Knight-Mozilla Fellowship community. As our group of fellows has grown, we’ve also seen a growing number of fellowship opportunities in technology Through the Knight-Mozlila Fellowship, we’ve seen the way that a fellowship program can propel individuals to do fantastic work and become leaders, while also serving as a point of connection between news organizations and journalism tech groups around the world. We’ve from other organizations, and we’re excited to share what we’ve done with other fellowship programs as well. We’ve seen that thoughtful outreach works.It is possible to create a space that feels welcoming by designing a program with the needs of many different humans in mind, and that is able to adapt and respond to those needs. And through an intentional selection process, we are able to welcome truly inspiring people to the fellowship.