Funding Retrospective: Smart City Challenge

Nov 11 2020

Lessons to Funders from the Smart Columbus Program

In 2015, Vulcan Inc. and the Paul G Allen Family Foundation launched the Smart City Challenge, an ambitious project to help galvanize U.S. cities to electrify transportation systems and develop greener infrastructure. We were optimistic that with the right support and incentives, cities could be the incubators for effective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that by demonstrating the power of public/private partnerships we could support the creation of successful models that other cities could replicate. We chose to frame the funding as a challenge to galvanize innovative thinking from cities across the country and selected a finalist, the City of Columbus in Ohio. With our partners at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we helped Columbus put their Smart Columbus plan to action and help them realize their electrification goals.

After four years of running the Smart Columbus program, the city has taken huge steps toward achieving those goals. The City of Columbus has reduced their GHG emissions by 2.73% since 2016, directly engaged more than 100,000 residents, and surpassed their goals in electric vehicle (EV) purchases. The best practices Columbus developed and lessons they learned throughout the program were shared in the Smart Columbus playbook. This online resource is available to other cities, businesses, and organizations interested in how to electrify their own transportation systems.

As a funder, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation believes our role is to help amplify the efforts of our grantees, and to think about how successes can be scaled long after grants are closed out. This is the first of several funding retrospectives, which we hope will help other funders who are thinking about new ways to support grantees and spur innovation.

The most important lessons from launching the Smart City Challenge:

  • Credibility
  • Staffing
  • Criteria 
  • Secondary Funding


The public/private partnership between the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation helped bring energy and credibility to the prize challenge. 

The unique combination of an established, well-known government funder such as U.S. DOT and a non-traditional private foundation drew attention to the challenge prize, helping to elicit 78 proposals. 

Staffing requirements for challenge prizes increase significantly during the application review and selection process and according to the volume of applications. 

We worked with a non-profit consultancy firm that brought project management and subject matter expertise to the design phase, and hired a full-time, dedicated project manager once the challenge prize was launched. We found the staffing requirements ramped up significantly during the selection process and then dwindled once a beneficiary is identified. It was effective to work with outside consultants to absorb additional workload during busy phases while maintaining an internal project manager and cross-functional team to keep the project moving forward and facilitate input from internal stakeholders. 

Establishing the selection process and criteria before launching the challenge sets clear expectations for applicants and keeps funders aligned on goals and objectives. 

We worked with our funding partners to establish a quantitative selection process and made that publicly available prior to receiving applications in order to maintain the integrity of the prize challenge and to limit the likelihood of conflicting, subjective scoring among partners. It is also helpful to reach agreement among funders about the potential of multiple high-quality applications and have alignment about the number of prizes awarded.
While dedicating the full grant to one award maximizes the depth of impact within one city, there is an opportunity to increase the reach of your impact by creating structured, future engagement opportunities for all applicants. 

The challenge prize creates significant energy around a cause, and it is possible to capitalize on that momentum and encourage applicants who did not win to act on their proposals, possibly through secondary grants or initiatives to support other applicants in subsequent or complimentary activities. 

The most important lessons from funding Smart Columbus:

  • Frontload planning
  • Consider grantee capacity and budget limitations
  • Understand sector opportunities and constraints
  • Establish realistic reporting requirements
  • Plan strategy refreshes for multi-year funding
  • Direct your philanthropy toward unique experiences that grantees could not access without funding

Frontloading the initial planning work ends up helping the grantee.

Frontloading the initial planning work (developing goals, strategy, and evaluation/reporting framework) makes the program easier to implement and manage, but requires a significant time investment before work can begin. The initial planning work took longer than expected due to challenges in identifying a consultant with the appropriate skills set, the time needed to bring partners along, and the rhythm of work in local government. However, the benefit of this approach was that, with all the program goals, strategies, and reporting framework agreed to up front, management of the grant during implementation was relatively straightforward and less of a lift for the grantee.

It is important to consider grantee capacity and supplement as necessary to meet shared goals. 

Upon initiating the planning phase, communicate with the city up front about the resources available for consultant support and technical assistance (whether up to a dollar amount of within a time period) so that they may budget accordingly. Managing expectations up front and being open to funding additional technical support as needed, can help public sector partners who are often locked into annual budgets.

When working with the public sector, understanding the system in which grantees are operating is critical for program success.  

Public sector programs are often approved through legislative process, and it’s important to align the project start date with the legislative or other approval calendar. Governments also have firm policies around payment and reimbursements, and if your project requires the city to channel funding to sub-vendors or sub-grantees, it is important to think through the mechanism and timing required to do so when scheduling grant payments.

Reporting and evaluation requirements should have a clear use case for the grantee and funder, with careful consideration of balance between the efforts required for reporting versus the benefit from consuming reports. 

Columbus developed a robust performance measurement plan (their electrification plan), which gave the program credibility with the scientific community and made it easier to work with academic partners and institutions. While this robust measurement framework had a clear use-case, a review of our internal reporting requirements indicated that there was significant overlap between reports due to the frequent schedule of reporting, and that reporting on the complex and detailed measurement framework in its entirety meant that each report required significant time and effort. For multi-year projects, it may be suitable to require quarterly reports during the first year, and then to switch over to “maintenance” reporting during subsequent years with a few key indicators and more qualitative check-ins with the grantee. This allows the grantee to minimize costs associated with reporting and allocate that funding toward programming.

Planning ahead for an annual strategy refresh created an opportunity to reset the strategy and plan for the upcoming year based on progress and learnings to date.

We created this opportunity for adaptive management by renewing the grant agreement on an annual basis, but this reset could also be achieved through periodic convenings or other structured activities that create space for reflecting and adapting plans.

Finally, philanthropy can harness its unique, highly flexible funding power to help by doing what other funders cannot do.

Many local governments have strict accountability measures around spending which often restrict travel or other opportunities for experiential learning. Through the Smart Columbus program, Columbus city officials were able to travel to meet with European city officials on the forefront of electrification, and to experience their solutions firsthand. They were able to bring these best practices back to Columbus, and those have now been tested in the U.S. and captured in the playbook for the benefit of other U.S. cities.

It is important that funders have the opportunity to learn from each other, just as the Smart Columbus playbook is giving other cities in the U.S. the opportunity to benefit from what Columbus learned.

We believe funders must prioritize helping grantees build out programs that not only support their goals, but are scalable and sharable. Stay tuned, next month we will be sharing a funding retrospective on our COVID-19 Emergency Response funding.