As grants professionals, we collaborate with people all of the time, as it is an essential component of our work. Whether we are requesting reporting information from funders, providing technical assistance support to grantees (or subgrantees), or working with our financial team to craft a budget, we are constantly communicating with various internal and external team members.
When we were growing up we learned that there is no “I” in team, and that we had to learn to share our toys. Likewise, over time, we learned that even if we didn’t necessarily want to work with certain individuals, it has always been a necessary component of our success in school and work. Well, the same is true for grant writing.
Collaborative grant writing has become a competitive edge, and with increased competition for funding, organizational partnerships are on the rise. However, despite the obvious financial incentives for pursuing work with similar or complementary organizations, we must ask ourselves some questions. What does a true collaboration mean and when should it be pursued? Will it pay off in the end? When viewed another way, just because you are asked to a dance, does it mean you should go and if so, with whom?
To help you decide if a partnership is right for your organization, let’s explore some of the pitfalls and challenges you might incur, and how they can be avoided.
Lack of Logistical Planning
Here’s a scenario: You are seeking funding from the U.S. Department of Education for your small (yet innovative) mentoring program, but you need to strengthen your application with signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) from other partners. You decide to reach out to some public schools since it seems like a natural fit for the grant. You start talking and they are excited. Thus, you become excited.
But wait! You may be missing red flags that are right in front of you. For example, they may require your organization to undergo an intensive review by the local school district before a partnership can begin, and they may need you to complete an inordinate amount of paperwork since yours is relatively new program. You realize that this will take a lot of time and effort to address that you don’t have.
Unfortunately, this is fairly common. You can become so excited about the potential for new money that you don’t appropriately plan on the logistics — each step of which will take time. So if you don’t have a lot of the groundwork in place already, you will need more time – which may not be available on a time-sensitive grant application.
So, if you didn’t think through all of the steps for formalizing a collaborative partnership ahead of time (ideally before the Request for Proposals (RFP) is released), you will be backpedaling and your collaboration could become an unfortunate partnership catastrophe.
Lack of Effective Communications
You may speak with partner organizations quite frequently concerning your programs, service offerings, shared clients and/or referrals. However, this dynamic does change when you work together on a project. Each organization, actually each person, has a different work style and approach. Some like to communicate via email, some prefer in-person meetings, and some prefer to work independently. You will need to determine what type of communication style will work best for your collaborative team. If you do not set some parameters from the onset, you will be left frustrated and confused about what the other individuals are doing and why.
I recently served as a grant writer on a collaborative grant and was left being the facilitator of the communication between the partner teams. This left me in an awkward position since I knew my role was temporary. The fact is the teams will have to manage the project if awarded. What do you think will happen in this future scenario? I know that I fear the project will suffer dire consequences if their communication network isn’t adequately addressed and fixed.
Confusion regarding Shared Responsibility
There are multiple types of collaborations that you can enter into. You can be one of the partners, or you can serve as the lead agency for one or more partners. You might enter into a partnership with a larger association that is serving as the lead and you are merely serving as a satellite site for purposes of research or program implementation. All are viable options. What is most important is that each partner understands and commits to performing his/her role. Because if you cannot define the partnership and individual responsibilities, how can you determine how the proposal work will be divided?
While it is all fun and games at the beginning when you talk about your shared vision, when it comes down to funding and the actual work of writing a proposal and/or managing the grant once funded, this becomes an obstacle. If you clarify these roles and the context of your relationship at the onset, this will lead to less confusion and potential upset should you be awarded.
Lack of an End Goal
Each organization has a mission statement, vision statement, and usually a strategic plan. These documents guide each organization’s programs and operations and are fairly standard in the nonprofit and government space.
However, do you have a vision for this collaboration? The grant is a means to unite similar or complementary organizations, but do you have any documentation clarifying the new partnership that you are hoping to form? If a collaborative partnership cannot be defined by the collaborative partners themselves, it will become increasingly difficult to do this within your grant application.
As grant writers, we put together elevator pitches for our organizations and clients all the time. However, this is not common for collaborations. It is important to have a clear plan for the partnership because it will help you avoid issues once the tactical work of project planning takes place.
Avoiding the Pitfalls
Ok, so now that I’ve outlined common collaboration pitfalls, what can we do to avoid them?
- Prepare—As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are planning to fail!” This is simple –think through your approach to manage the proposal writing and the project when funded. Then, come up with a shared plan to which all of the partners can agree.
- Make a Logistics Plan—Gather as much information about any logistical challenges prior to the RFP release as possible. You do not want to waste time on these issues when writing and planning should be your primary focal points.
- Divide the Duties—Determine how the funding and workload will be divided, and get this plan in writing. It’s amazing what can be forgotten once you are knee deep in proposal writing.
- Establish Roles—Establish clear roles for each person on the project team, and designate responsibilities (i.e. proposal manager, conference call lead, lead writer, proposal reviewer) so that each one will know in advance how to work together.
- Plan to be Transparent—Also, share contact information and set-up of a document sharing site to increase the level of transparency.
Now, are you ready to collaborate?