Got Collaboration?

Years ago, I bristled when a federal reviewer commented that the letters of commitment attched to our proposal were six months old. My client’s organization represented the pinnacle of collaboration. It was a true sharing of minds and missions that many organizations only dream about. In the space of eight months we submitted a flurry of proposals. Using one letter of commitment from the partners rather than asking for six or seven seemed expedient. It was only when I became a grant reviewer that I understood that comment.

When a grant program calls for collaboration it is because inter-agency partnerships are essential for success. Naturally, all the submitted proposals will say that there is an active collaboration between the project partners. By the law of averages, at least some of these ‘collaborations’ are going to be in name only. Reviewers need to read between the lines to sort the wheat from the chaff. Examining the letters of commitment is one way to detect true collaborations.

When you and your organization have dedicated months and years to building an inter-agency partnership it is imperative that you convey your success to the reviewer. The best way of accomplishing this is to use lots of details.

Below are 14 examples of how you can demonstrate that your partnership is strong and effective.

1. Project Planning: Give details about project planning meetings. For example, tell the reviewer that the chief of police, school principal, head of county mental health, students and parents met on Jan 6, 20, Feb 7 & 14 to discuss community after-school needs and activities. You might also give details about key stakeholders. For example, Ms. Smith, President of Happy Day Elementary PTA has 2 children who attend the participating schools.

2. Stakeholder Involvement: Show how the stakeholders shaped the project through data collection and planning.

a. Data Collection: For example, explain how Happyville Unitarian Church mailed out a copy of the after-school needs assessment survey to 544 of its members.

b. Planning: You could explain how parents such as Ms. Smith lobbied for more programming and activities for 13-18 year olds, hence its inclusion in the project plan.

c. Decision Making: Give details about how some key programmatic decisions were reached. You might describe how you solicited ideas for a skatepark design by asking participants one-on-one, in small groups and by going around the room. For example, you might explain how at the June and August 2005 Happyville park design meetings stakeholders contributed to park design in the following ways.

i. 12 teenagers thought that a large ramp was the highest design priority and that it would be helpful to have slow zones and fast zones.
ii. The Chief of Police suggested the lighting be installed.
iii. The Fire Chief made it clear that a 12ft wide access road was necessary for his team.
iv. The Director of Public Works and Sanitation suggested that the design include four 2ft3 garbage receptacles and public restrooms.
v. 5 parents suggested that there should be at least three park benches and shade trees in close proximity to the park.

d. Inclusion of Critical Groups: Show how opposing points of view have been included in the process. For example, if neighbors were concerned about the noise generated by a new Happyville skatepark, Jeff Smith, 13, suggested that there be a 9pm curfew and that the youth-led skatepark board would create a roster of members to serve as curfew officers to ensure that the park closed by 9pm each night.

e. Compromise: Give example of how partners compromised during the project design phase in the interests of the greater good.

3. Letters: Include recent letters of commitment from ALL the project partners. Make sure that the project partners clearly delineate their role in planning and implementation.

4. MOU’s: If allowable and applicable, include partnership agreements that pre-date the RFP announcement. Long-standing, formal agreements are an excellent way to show that the partners have developed a clear management structure based on mutual trust.

5. Other Materials: If allowable, include copies of materials that were co-created by the team. For example, if your university and school district have a long history of co-sponsoring events include flyers or brochures.

6. Common Missions and Goals: Specify how the proposed collaboration meets the long-term goals or missions of the partnering organizations. For example, if the Town of Happyville resolved in 2004 to reduce after-school crime rates by 20% by 2014 you could mention how your project will help the town achieve this goal.

7. Leadership: Give details about the leadership structure. Explain who is responsible for facilitating, moderating and managing meetings and discussion. Explain how your partners share the leadership role. For example, do you have a rotating chairmanship? Do the larger organizations help cultivate the leadership role of lesser organizations?

8. Budget: Clearly outline how all community groups are involved. Make sure that your budget reflects the nature of the partnership. Each partner should have enough funding from the grant to fulfill their role. I recently worked with one reviewer who routinely read the budget first because she said that she could tell a lot by how a project allocated its resources among members.

9. Partner Knowledge: Make sure that your narrative reflects the expertise and knowledge of all the project partners. For example, if your team includes the police, court and school systems, make sure that the narrative shows that all three groups have contributed the proposal development. This is easily accomplished by having the partners either draft or edit the proposal during the writing phase.

10. Service Duplication: Two of the purposes of collaboration are to increase continuity of service and decrease service duplication. Give specific examples of how your group addresses these goals, i.e. “Happyville offers after-school care for 5-12 year olds from 3-6pm in four locations. None of these programs are filled to capacity and yet there are no programs that offer after-school care for 13-18 year olds. Through this project, the YMCA East Side location will now offer after-school programming for 13-18 year olds.”

11. Communication: Describe ways in which you share information and network. You can explain how often your board and subcommittees meet and how minutes of all meetings are emailed to all members within one week of each meeting. Give a concrete example of how increased communication has led to an increase in services or a decrease in duplication of effort in your community.

12. History: Give specific examples of how your community has collaborated in the past. For example, you might explain how in the past 10 years various groups, including the school district, law enforcement and county government have worked together to build a new library, start a cooperative nursery school and provide a mentoring program for incoming Middle School students in Happyville.

13. New Resources: Show how the partners have brought new resources to the table. For example, you might explain how the Happyville community swimming program was in jeopardy, and a community college representative suggested that the college swim team serve as volunteer instructors and the Chamber of Commerce representative volunteered to sell pool cleaning products at cost to Happyville.

14. Time Commitment: Give a good estimation of the number of hours donated by all the partners to a) the collaboration, and b) this project design over the past year.

A great project is based on sound project planning. A great proposal is simply a reflection the teamwork and forethought that is essential to project success. By giving details to highlight your existing partnership your commitment to excellence will shine through to the grant reviewers.

Web-Based Resources on Community Collaboration
1. Amherst H. Wilder Foundation Research on Collaboration. http://www.wilder.org/research/topics/collab/index.html
2. Coming Together: Building Community Collaboration and Consensus. http://www.communitycollaboration.net/
3. National Network for Collaboration. http://crs.uvm.edu/nnco/
4. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Resource Guide for Planning and Operating After-School Programs. http://www.sedl.org/pubs/fam95/building.html

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