Drupal Association blog: A step-by-step guide to a successful event scholarship program

Drupal CMS

By Von R. Eaton (he/him), Events + Engagement Manager for the Drupal Association. 

Von is a New Jersey-based activist, community engagement professional, and change-maker. He currently does social/cultural change work through his role at the Drupal Association, through his business Von Reyes Consulting, as a Steering Committee member for the organization Philadelphia Asian & Queer, and as a board member of GLSEN Philly. 

Working as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner has led me down many paths across disciplines as DEI efforts are essential in every industry for every role and every project. One of the many ways the Drupal Association promotes equity is through our DrupalCon scholarship program. 

I had the pleasure of speaking with Angie Byron and Henna Singh over at MongoDB recently, where I did a skillshare on how to best implement needs-based event scholarships for historically oppressed communities. One of the best things about my work is connecting with other folks who are committed to making change, and it was such a joy to share space with Henna and Angie. We realized that this scholarship roadmap could be useful for all the event organizers out there who are dedicated to making space for everyone. 

Before you get started on building a scholarship program, you’ll need to make sure you have a team with the right expertise. Consult with a DEI professional (if you do not have one on staff) to ensure that you are addressing the needs of marginalized people in your community. Make sure it is someone well-vetted and knowledgeable and prioritize hiring DEI professionals who themselves are of marginalized identity. Most importantly, make sure you have the budget to pay DEI practitioners what they are worth! This is a specialized field with a high degree of emotional labor involved. 

Step 1: Determine the purpose of your scholarship program 

What is your ultimate goal with providing scholarships for your event? Asking yourself this question first is essential. For each event/industry, your purpose will probably look a little different, but addressing the actual needs of marginalized people should always be at the core. You want to stay away from programs that serve organizations more than they serve scholars. 

Here are my tips and best practices for determining your purpose: 

Do a needs assessment with the key stakeholders in your industry to know who the folks are that need the most support in your industry.

Prioritize the voice and experiences of folks in your industry who are experiencing oppression. 
Diversify your data sources! 

Do a feasibility assessment of what your organization/agency/business can realistically provide to scholars. Try to avoid over-promising, and be transparent with applicants. 
Have peer-reviewed scholarly articles that speak to the areas of need you are addressing (your DEI practitioner can help you with this!).

Step 2: Build your application form

Good data is essential to the success of a scholarship program. Building your application form with your target scholar audience in mind with evidence-based collection tools will ensure that your scholarship program is put into the hands of the right folks. Additionally, your application form is often your first point of contact with potential scholars, and it lets them know what it is you’re trying to achieve. There is a lot of opportunity for providing both education and comfort for your applicants in your form.

Here are my tips and best practices for building a good application form:

Include your purpose at the top of your application form, with a link to further information if you have a separate landing page. 
Include consent-based disclaimers that tell your applications exactly how you will use their information from the beginning. This is important for applicants to feel safe and comfortable applying for scholarships with your organization.

Example: “The following questions are demographic questions that help the Drupal Association meet our goals of increasing diversity, ensuring equity, & fostering inclusion. Please select this box to acknowledge that you understand that these questions are completely confidential, and you will have the agency to publicly share as little or as much as you feel comfortable.”
Example: “Nothing in this application will be shared publicly without your explicit consent. The only people who will see your answers are our internal scholarship review committee, and these answers will not be stored for future use. Please select  this box to acknowledge that you understand that this application is completely confidential.” 

Rather than a blanket question such as: “check this box if you’re oppressed,” ask in-depth questions to learn more about how systemic oppression impacts your applicants’. This helps you gain more insights into your community and how to best help those who need it the most. Demographics that I suggest collecting are: 

Gender
Sexuality 
Race 
Ethnicity 
Nationality 
Immigrant/refugee identity 
Disability 

Display cultural competency and DEI efficacy in the way you ask your questions. This is especially important, and I recommend researching data analysis from social scientists to help guide you. Here are my top tips for doing that: 

 Use text fields for most of your questions so that folks can self-describe. This is more work for you on the back-end as you’ll need to collate the related fields, but it is worth the extra work! 
Include clarifying language in questions that have been historically oppressive in data collection.

Example: Instead of “Name,” use “First Name (what you would like to be called)”. This lets folks know that they are not required to share their legal name with you if that is not the name they use.

Include examples of marginalized identities for demographic questions to both guide the reader and communicate safety and competency to your applicants. 

Example: “Your Gender (self-describe, e.g. cis woman, non-binary, trans man, trans woman, agender, etc.)”
Example: “Your Sexuality (self-describe, e.g. lesbian, bisexual, asexual, etc.)”
Example: “Your Race (self-describe, e.g. Black, Asian, Indigenous, bi/multi-racial, etc.)”  

Explicitly ask if they are financially disadvantaged using a yes/no radio button in the form. If they are not, do not move forward with the application. Save the funds for those who truly need it.

Then, ask a follow-up text field question. An example: “Tell us a little bit about why you are applying for a scholarship. How would receiving a scholarship impact you?”

Ask relevant questions that determine if they fit your demographic, not just for your scholarship but for your event at-large. Ask them what their interests are, what they would most like to do at your event, what are their professional goals, what experience do they already have in your industry, etc. 
Make your questions required unless the question does not provide the applicant a chance to explain. Requiring answers help you as the review committee make the best decision possible! This is the reason you provide disclaimers at the top of your application.
Set a clear and public timeframe for applications. I usually suggest 1-2 months to give folks time to apply but to not have the application flooded and you’re unable to select. 

TLDR: Make as many of your questions required text-fields as possible, do your research on how to ask questions safely/effectively, give the applicant an opportunity to describe themselves, keep confidentiality, set a firm timeframe, and make sure you’re collecting the information you need to make decisions. 

Step 3: Select your scholarship recipients 

You will typically have 3 different types of scholarship applicants: 

Those who fit your criteria (yay!) 
Those who don’t, but applied anyway.
Those who are searching broadly for scholarships online, usually for higher education, and stumble upon your application via a Google search. 

For folks in groups 2 and 3, send a polite decline email thanking them for their time and effort. 

For the folks in group 1, move forward with the selection process! Here are my tips and best practices for selection: 

Ideally, selection is made by a committee of folks with explicit training in diversity, equity, and inclusion. This could be where your DEI consultant comes into play again.

Set up 15-30 minute casual interviews to give folks the opportunity to express themselves and for you as the review team to get to know them as whole human beings. 

Often, as DEI practitioners, we ourselves are marginalized, and it is important to practice self-care in this process. Make the process work for you as much as you make it work for scholars. 
In this vein, provide 3-4 time slots that applicants can choose from for the interviews that work with your schedule as reviewers. 
Be flexible when you need to be, but don’t burn yourself out! 

Have some guiding questions for your interview. Some examples from DrupalCon North America: 

Is this your first time at DrupalCon? 
Tell me about your familiarity with Drupal as a platform and project. 
What are three things you would like to do at DrupalCon? 
Tell me about how your identities/worldview impact your experiences.

You will likely have a ton of extremely deserving candidates. Your knee-jerk reaction might be that you don’t know who to award scholarships to and why. Here are the folks to prioritize in a DEI needs-based scholarship: 

Those most impacted by global systems of oppression. 
Applicants who are earlier in their career advancement. 
Participants who have never attended your event before. 

If you have two candidates with the exact same identities, prioritize the candidate who has never attended your event, is more financially disadvantaged or is less ahead career-wise. 

Step 4: Implement your scholarship program 

Let’s talk logistics! There are a few things I recommend to make your program as seamless, effective, and affirming as possible. 

Internal & external communications 

Make sure your communications to applicants are drafted ahead of time and send out all of your communications at once. Take a trauma-informed approach to the process: acknowledge them as a person first and a scholarship applicant second. Always see them as humans and ensure they feel supported, even if they didn’t get a scholarship. 

For folks who are not selected, avoid getting too specific unless an applicant directly asks why they weren’t selected. Be honest but not hurtful! Build applicants up when they don’t receive a scholarship to remind them that just because they were not selected doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy. Some example language: 

“We had several strong applications that exceeded the spots we could fill.”
“We had some applicants who shared your identity and aren’t as far along in their career goals as you are. You are a leader in our industry, and we really value your experience and all you bring to our community!”
“Thank you so much for your time and dedication to this process. While we were not able to offer you a scholarship this year, we invite you to apply in future years!” 

Invite those who were not selected to participate in your event in other ways. For example: 

Volunteer 8+ hours to receive a free ticket to the conference.
Offer a 50% off coupon if that will help fund their trip further.
Provide additional resources on how to engage with your organization outside of the event.

If you plan to highlight your scholarship recipients publicly, ensure that this is optional. There are very real and very genuine safety issues of certain attendees being exposed in connection with a diversity scholarship (e.g. LGBTQ+ from a country where it is criminalized, being a non-citizen/refugee, being disabled, and applying for jobs, etc). 

Travel & finances  

Travel and finances are probably the most important part of your implementation process.

Pay for everything upfront. The flight, lodging, and conference ticket should be funded by your organization with funds you have allocated in your budget. Additionally, booking all travel and lodging should be taken care of by you. In order for this scholarship to reach the people who need it most, they need to be able to actually use it. If someone is capable of being reimbursed for high-cost expenses, they probably don’t fit your criteria. 

If you open your event to a global audience, you’ll have some international applicants. International applicants might need to apply for a visa, so it’s important that your scholarship timeline is long enough to account for this. The time it takes to process a visa application varies by region and has only gotten longer since COVID-19. 

You can write a letter of invitation (even before the selection process is completed) to help with the visa process. Ensure that the language you are using in your letter of invitation doesn’t commit your scholarship applicant to anything financially and that you are taking care in not providing any information that might endanger them. International scholars will need to have a visa in hand before they can access scholarship funds. Follow the same process for a visa letter as you would for regular conference attendees! 

You might have folks who are unable to secure their visa in time for the event, no matter how well you plan. To ensure your scholarship fund doesn’t go unused, I recommend keeping a waitlist of candidates who don’t need a visa and can make travel arrangements in a shorter time frame. 

Step 5: Put your purpose into practice

We’ve talked about how to build your form, how to select, how to allocate funds, and how to book travel/lodging. 

But the most important thing is that your scholars get the most out of the experience! 

At your event 

Have structured programming specific to scholars, so they are affirmed and supported. This is where you can get creative as an event organizer! Some examples might include: 

Virtual meet & greets between scholars leading up to the event.
A welcoming breakfast just for scholars first thing in the morning, so they can meet each other, find friends, and network.
A mentorship program where you pair scholars with long-time event attendees who can show them the ropes AND have DEI cultural competency training.
Program pathways: develop event guides for scholars that will help them attend the parts of your event that best fit their needs. 

Some scholars will want to show their gratitude in some way. While I strongly recommend against requiring scholars to volunteer, I encourage you to offer it as an option if they want to give back. This is also a great way to build long-term relationships with your scholars long after your event!

Post-event 

An important thing to avoid is furthering cycles of abandonment that marginalized people often face by institutions. Engaging your scholars post-event is so important to the health and sustainability of your scholars and your program.

Ask your scholars for feedback on their experience and implement those changes in future years. The greatest thing you can do as a DEI practitioner is to suppress your ego and center your scholars as much as possible. 

Encourage scholars to create avenues for keeping in touch beyond the conference. For example, they could create a Slack channel just for them to stay in touch and share experiences, or you could create it on their behalf. Add them (with their consent) to volunteer lists for the future. Perhaps they can be on your review committee in future years! 

At the end of the day, the scholarship program should be for the sole purpose of supporting and uplifting folks most vulnerable to global systems of oppression in whatever community your event is for. All other outcomes should be secondary. Keep this driving force at the heart of your efforts, and you will nail it!