If you think collaboration is an option in today’s world of grant development, you’re a little out of date. Today, it’s an absolute necessity.
The basic concept of collaboration goes by various names–cooperation, coalition, consortium, partnership, just to name a few. I like the definition of collaboration found in a book entitled The Collaboration Handbook, by Michael Winer and Karen Ray. Winer and Ray define collaboration as “a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve results they are more likely to achieve together than alone.”
The authors go on to explain that in a collaboration, people move from competition to consensus building, from working alone to including others from a diverse fields and sectors, from thinking mostly about activities and services to also thinking about larger results and strategies, and from focusing on short-term accomplishments to demanding long-term results.
How pervasive is collaboration in the grant seeking world today? Pick up just about any RFP (Request for Proposal) for a federal grant and for increasing numbers of state grants, and you will see collaborative partnerships either highly recommended or, in some cases, required to apply for the funds. Examples include the Technology Innovation Challenge Grants, which require a collaborative application and list suggested partners in the RFP, and the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP), which encourages partnerships among education, government, public safety, and the health professions to design community networks.
Several states also have included collaborative relationships as a component for funding in their Technology Literacy Challenge Fund grants. In Pennsylvania, for example, extra points are awarded to consortiums that apply for the funding. In addition to federal and state grants, increasing numbers of foundations and corporate programs are giving preference to projects that involve several collaborating organizations.
Collaboration forces school districts to look beyond the walls of their buildings and out into the world at large for partners to address the needs of students and teachers. It is important to begin and maintain collaborative relationships, regardless of the need to complete a grant proposal. It is extremely difficult to contact someone out of the blue four weeks before a grant deadline and convince them that it would be in their best interest to enter into a collaborative relationship with you!
You should be making a concerted effort to discuss your district’s needs with local higher education institutions, libraries, museums, vendors, and social service organizations. In turn, be aware of the needs of these entities. Discussions should be ongoing, and ways to meet needs should be identified, refined, and turned into project ideas that will inspire funding.
What are the benefits of collaboration? Organizations that collaborate with school districts are lending their credibility, resources, experience, and expertise to projects. In many cases, this can only strengthen the proposal that is submitted. Collaborations can also make matching fund requirements easier to attain. More and more funders today are looking to get more “bang for the buck” in terms of funding. In many cases, the addition of collaborative partners expands the numbers of students and/or teachers being served, as well as the scope of activities that the project will engender.
There is another, often overlooked benefit to collaboration–the ability to increase the number of funding opportunities available. How does this work?
If I am working for a school district and I am partnering on a project with a higher education institution and a museum, I am eligible to apply for those grants that require a K-12 district to be the lead agency. Similarly, both the higher education institution and the museum are eligible for grants that require those entities to be the lead agency. By collaborating with each other, we have now increased the number of funding opportunities available to us as a collaborative partnership by threefold!
How to make collaborations work
Although collaborations can be beneficial, there can be several problems if they are not carefully thought out. When applying for grants, one entity has to take responsibility for putting the grant application together and submitting it. Also, one entity has to be designated as the grant administrator after funding is received. Meetings to brainstorm and refine the project idea must include all collaborative partners so that there is “buy-in” right from the beginning.
Each partner must play a role in the process of pulling the application together by providing the necessary information to the person responsible for submission. Partners must be clear about the role that they are going to take in a funded project. In some cases, the RFP will require that each partner submit a collaborative agreement outlining their specific roles and responsibilities in the project.
Even if the RFP does not require agreements, it might be advisable to develop them for your own use to avoid problems during the implementation of the project. It is important to realize that not every collaborative partner’s roles and responsibilities will be equal. Even so, you should make every effort to have each partner make the necessary contribution(s) to ensure the success of the project.
Done correctly, collaborations have the ability to make proposals stronger, to ensure more effective projects, and to lead to future grants. As Winer and Ray point out in their book, the process of collaboration “does not end but . . . becomes a continuing phenomenon with a wide range of results that empower people and systems to change.”