Four tips for submitting a successful Knight Cities Challenge application

communities / Article

October 28, 2016 by Yvette Bowden


Ash trees being milled for the program. They had to be removed from city of Boulder property because they are infested with emerald ash borer. Once treated and dried, this wood will be made into art and functional pieces. Photo courtesy city of Boulder.

The Knight Cities Challenge is open through noon ET Nov. 3, 2016 seeking the best ideas to make one or more of the 26 Knight communities more successful. Yvette Bowden is the director of Boulder (Colorado) Parks & Recreation, a 2016 winner of the challenge, for Tree Debris to Opportunity, which trains members of the community to transform diseased and infested trees into furniture and art. 

It’s been six months since we found out that “Tree Debris to Opportunity” (#TREEOPP) was a winner in the 2016 Knight Cities Challenge and a year since we submitted our application. It’s been quite a ride. I’m hoping the following tips help you navigate to the next winning idea:

  • Believe your idea is powerful: Ideas are just the potential of something in your mind. Step out in confidence for your city. I searched the internet for days before mentioning the idea to anyone.  Surely someone else has already thought of this. Turns out, they hadn’t thought about it with my spin on it.
  • Get hashtag buddies: Much cooler people than me sat around over coffee finding ever-shorter ways to distill the idea into a Twitter post and a hashtag. It was fun, a little silly but really beneficial. We started by explaining the concept in 1 minute or less, moved to 30 seconds, then to a hashtag. The brainstorming from that 1 hour is now the basis for our elevator speech, grant proposals and press releases.
  • Pay attention to the giving intent: Knight Foundation is seeking ideas that help cities attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunity or promote civic engagement. Your idea need not hit all three areas but it must speak powerfully to at least one. Be specific on how you would measure success and engage others.  Shout out milestones to be achieved and make it fun.
  • Explain why, why now and why here: Be specific in providing context. You have to do some homework here. Check out data and trends from your local community foundation, city reports and the like to describe the current challenge or issue you hope to address.
<p><em>Boulder Forester Tom Read teaches the first class of Bridge House apprentices about emerald ash borer and the impacts to Boulder&rsquo;s urban canopy. Over 15 percent of Boulder&rsquo;s urban trees are ash, all of which are at risk. Photo courtesy city of Boulder.</em></p>

Boulder Forester Tom Read teaches the first class of Bridge House apprentices about emerald ash borer and the impacts to Boulder’s urban canopy. Over 15 percent of Boulder’s urban trees are ash, all of which are at risk. Photo courtesy city of Boulder.

If you get into the next round … YAY – celebrate! Here are a few more suggestions.

  • Envision winning and develop a plan to succeed: Who are your partnering with? Check your assumed costs. Budget to tell your story.
  • Speak to impact, replicability and sustainability: Mean it. With each selection round, you’ll have to be more specific here.
  • Go find people who are even more excited than you to give your idea voice, words and visuals for the application.
  • Use bullets and shorter sentences where possible: The application committee has lots of submissions to review (more than 4,500 for the last round). Document your passion simply and powerfully. Answer the questions directly.
  • Be strategic in soliciting letters of support: Who else cares about this? How can they be part of the solution? How does your idea help them solve another challenge? 
  • Deadlines and word counts (ugh!):  Really, take them seriously. I went through at least eight rounds of self-editing, and please spell check for everyone’s sake. 
<p><em>Photo courtesy city of Boulder.</em></p>

Photo courtesy city of Boulder.

The city of Boulder and our partner, BridgeHouse, have been milling downed trees and conducting classes for two months. We’re looking forward to our first product sales in December and we are hopeful for the eight apprentices who are turning their lives around. All of this is possible because Knight Foundation championed our idea. For more information on our journey, check out

Good luck!

For more on the Knight Cities Challenge and to apply, visit Follow @knightfdn and #knightcities on Twitter. 

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