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Rebecca Vermillion Shawver, MPA, GPC

About Rebecca

Nonprofit Partnerships: Saving Grace?

Are Nonprofit Partnerships the Saving Grace?

Let’s talk about nonprofit partnerships, or “collaborative grant development” as they are formally known.

Have you ever wondered how other organizations similar to yours always seem to have more program funds than yours? If so, it might be worth your time and effort to find out how they do this. I’m betting that they have several partnership arrangements that bring in a fair share of their grant dollars.

I started my grant career working for the Community Centers of Indianapolis and its fourteen multiservice, community-based centers scattered around Marion County, Indiana. As a consortium, they collaboratively worked on a wide range of grant applications including a gigantic United Way proposal. Back in the days of paper applications, this one alone needed a four-inch binder for just one copy!

There I learned that by working together, each of the centers gained an advantage by being part of a bigger “self.” They could expand their outreach and program impacts to not just one small neighborhood but to the entire county that makes up Indianapolis. As a newbie to the field at the time, I thought that this was the way that all nonprofits worked to win grant awards.

Five years later, I entered the community college arena as a grant developer for Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. I was the assistant director of grant development for the state-wide system which is comprised of fourteen separate but interrelated regions. While autonomous in many aspects, each of these regions was accustomed to working with others throughout the state on the development and submission of multisite projects that addressed common goals.

Strong Collaborative Partnerships with Other Regions

In particular, several of the regions had developed strong collaborative partnerships with regions sharing their borders. Thus when I was challenged to write multiregion grant proposals, it was fairly easy to bring together the needed partners. And even if the proposals I was writing were for individual projects of similar nature (such as multiple Trio Student Support Services applications), the partners openly shared their best practices with each other—thereby, strengthening everyone’s individual applications.

I learned a lot about the importance of collaborations and partnerships—internally and externally from these organizations. Thus when I arrived at my current college, I expected to see many of the same partnership-building strategies already in place. However, I soon learned that this was not the case. While friendships and community meetings were common, there were no active partnerships being developed or pursued in regard to grant funding opportunities. But that soon changed with my arrival.

After explaining the benefits that we could reap from such partnerships, we pulled together potential partners for the development of a Community-based Job Training Grant application to the US Department of Labor. Simultaneously, we worked on another grant for this same competition with a different lead college. Both program ideas built on the collective strengths and variety of training programs offered by each of the colleges. Together, they offered far greater performance impacts, larger target populations, bigger service areas, and more varied strategies—all under just one grant administrative umbrella.

Success Was Ours!

Not only did my college win a grant contract for the nuclear training program proposal, the other job-training grant was awarded a contract, too. The administration was thrilled. We had funded two key education and training programs from a single federal grant competition. They were hooked on the benefits of partnerships and collaborations from that point forward.

If your nonprofit organization is not a believer in collaborative grant development, let me offer you some talking points that will help you convince them that you all are missing out on hundreds of thousands of grant dollars:

Impresses Funders by Serving Larger Target Areas and Promising Greater Performance Outcomes

I’m certain that most grant professionals have noticed that even the federal government doesn’t want to fund lots of small grantees. It wants to limit its oversight to a relatively small number of “lead agencies” that are responsible for local oversight of subrecipients. That’s one of the reasons that it has larger and larger minimum grant award amounts. It’s not so that one organization can win the lottery (so to speak). It’s simply one of its strategies to coerce applicants to partner with other organizations—and, frankly, it seems to be doing a very good job.

Private foundations have also seen the benefit of reducing their oversight responsibilities and thus they, too, are requiring partnerships that serve larger geographic areas and impact higher numbers of program participants.

On a side note, there is another advantage to have “sharing” responsibility for outcomes. If one partner experiences difficulty in achieving its agreed-upon numbers one year, the others can make up for them by documenting their higher-than-expected achievements. While this is not the primary reason to partner with other groups, it is certainly one that should be considered. This is especially true if your organization is venturing into a new program service area and is not quite as experienced as the other partners.

Increases Level of Monies That Can Be Raised

When I first suggested that my current college collaborate with other community colleges within the State of Texas, I was confronted with the complaint that the administrators didn’t want to share the maximum award amount. After I gave assurances that a single college would never be awarded the full maximum amount anyway, the administrators at the college began to listen. I explained that if everyone came to the table with their program needs and realistic budgets, we could work out an equitable distribution of the potential grant funds. And as it turned out, we didn’t even need to ask for the maximum amount because when I added everyone’s “dream budget” together, we were still about a quarter of a million dollars below the maximum allowable amount. It was a great learning lesson for everyone involved. No one needed to be greedy—just fair.

But if this doesn’t convince your top administrators that you can raise more money through partnerships than on your own, I suggest you remind them as I did those that were initially skeptical: A piece of the pie is better than none of the pie.

Reduces Administrative Demands on Smaller Organizations

If you are a small organization, I’m certain that business and accounting offices struggle to find the time to complete all of the necessary forms and reports required by funders. Additionally, they may not be all that familiar with the changing rules and regulations coming down from the federal and state governments.

For example, have they had the opportunity to review and memorize the latest updates and changes to the Green Book and the Uniform Grant Guidance released last year by the US Office of Management and Budget? And if you aren’t really even certain what these documents are, your organization should definitely consider the value of being a subrecipient instead of the lead agency or grantee of a large federal award.

So why is it better to be a subrecipient? Because a bigger organization with specially trained personnel that focus on specific aspects of the grant oversight and review process is better able to meet the reporting and oversight responsibilities demanded by a funding agency. It won’t have a one- or two-person shop doing everything related to grant awards. It will have specialized people that handle the details that smaller organizations seldom have time to address. This all works to keep smaller organizations out of trouble because if they make a mistake, hopefully the lead grantee will catch the error before the federal funding agency does.

And remember, even managing a large state or foundation grant contract can be very burdensome—even without the federal regulations looming over your head. So don’t just consider partnering with other groups on federal grants. Look for opportunities offered by your local and state government and regional foundation and corporations.

Builds Awareness of and Community Champions for Your Organization

Have you ever heard one of your friends talking about “this great little organization” that does fabulous work and yet you’ve never heard of it? I’m sure that most of us have. Little grassroots groups and small nonprofits are the backbone of much of the day-to-day work of making our communities kinder, gentler, more caring places to live and work. Yet many of these groups are unsung heroes because no one knows about them except for the people they serve and their small funder base of donors and grantors.

But this doesn’t have to be your organization’s future. By partnering with larger organizations, you will get your name, mission and accomplishments before an ever-growing number of funders that may in the future decide to fund you independently from the others. So to get noticed, develop collaborative partnerships that submit joint applications to meet your mutual goals.

Builds Network of Professional Colleagues

Last but not least, by partnering with other large and small organizations, you will get to meet and know other grant professionals in your community. You will learn, help, and support each other through the good times (when grant awards are won) and the sad times (when you’ve lost the competition).

My college has partnerships with a wide range of institutions and community nonprofit agencies. I value the experience and expertise that we gain from each of them; and I know that I’m a better grant professional because of them.

In closing, I hope that those of you that aren’t currently actively engaged in collaborative grant program partnerships will reconsider. Remember, as they say, “you can’t win the lottery unless you play.” So play the grant game with community partners and you too can win more grant awards than ever before.


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