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What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training (CBJT) Program is a Case in Point

April 5th, 2010 · by Isaac Seliger · 22 Comments

Among the many oddities of writing proposals is that most RFPs require that the applicant demonstrate extensive collaborations or form partnerships. I don’t know why RFPs demand this, because it is unlikely that a collaboration between McDonald’s and Burger King would result in a better burger (McWhopper?). The feds specifically preclude businesses from “collaborating” through a host of laws designed to protect competition. But in the world of nonprofits and public agencies, alleged collaborations and partnerships are demanded.

A case in point is the Department of Labor Community-Based Job Training Program, for which we are writing a proposal on behalf of a very large community college district. This SGA (“Solicitation of Grant Availability,” since DOL disdains the pedestrian term, “RFP”) has a long-winded section on required “partnerships and strategic planning” for a competitive proposal. What makes this funny is that the primary applicants for this program are community colleges, which are key local training providers and presumably have the capacity to simply operate yet another training effort all by themselves.

Our client, for example, has over 100,000 students in dozens of certificate and degree programs. Why would a community college district like this need to collaborate with any other entity, especially considered the administrative overhead necessary, unless it was in a mood to do so? All colleges and universities compete constantly with one another for students, endowments, star faculty, state and private operating funds, grants and, for that matter, high quality basketball players. In preparation for tonight’s NCAA Championship Game, I don’t think Duke’s crusty and cagey Coach K will have met with Butler’s young phenom coach Brad Stevens to discuss a collaborative game plan or share recruiting ideas for the incoming class.

In the proposal world where Seliger + Associates lives, collaborations are omnipresent in our drafts, and we spin elaborate tales of strategic planning and intensive involvement in development of project concepts, most of which are woven out of whole cloth to match the collaborative mythology that funders expect (remember: your grant story needs to get the money). In many ways, grant writers are myth makers, or maybe more appropriately myth tellers, sort of like West African “griot” who pass on ancestral knowledge, albeit in written rather than verbal form. At some point, I’ll write a long post on grant writer as myth teller, but in the context of collaboration, this particular myth only goes back about 20 years or so.

I don’t recall any interest among funders in having nonprofits collaborate with each other when I first started writing human services proposals in the early 1970s. The first whiff of collaboration I encountered was something called the “A-95 Review Process” when I was the Grants Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA in the late 70′s. This Carter-era gem required local governments to circulate their draft grant proposals to other government agencies for review and comment before submission, which made pre-computer grant writing deadlines really hard to meet. In LA, this function was handled by the wonderfully named SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments), which published a weekly compendium of proposed grant applications. A-95 was supposed to encourage cities to collaborate with each other. At Lynnwood, we reviewed the SCAG A-95 bulletin closely to see if we could screw up a competing city’s proposal by commenting and forcing them to respond in hopes of getting them to blow the deadline, while we got ours in on time. Competing cities responded in kind, so this attempt at intergovernmental cooperation quickly devolved into a farce.

In 1982, the profoundly dumb A-95 process was junked by the Reagan Administration in favor of Executive Order 12372, which let the states decide which proposals to review and how to do the review, while making both public agencies and nonprofits participate. I’m fairly confident that virtually all of the thousands of EO 12372 notifications we sent to states on behalf of clients since 1993 were simply thrown out. I can only recall one incident, about 12 years ago, in which our client actually received an inquiry from the EO 12372 notice we sent in. Over the years, all but 10 states have abandoned EO 12372, though you’ll still see it immortalized on every SF-424, which is the cover sheet for most federal proposals. So much for forced planning and collaboration at the federal and state level.

From 1978 to 1993, I worked for cities and, to the extent I wrote proposals, I wrote them mostly for economic development and affordable housing programs. When I started Seliger + Associates in 1993 and returned to writing human services proposals, about the only thing that surprised me was that government and foundation funders had discovered the wonders of collaboration during my 15-year hiatus. We’ve developed lots of ways of conforming to the mythology of collaboration through clever and obfuscating proposalese, because our clients typically compete tooth and nail with other providers for grants, donations, volunteers, and, in some cases, clients, particularly those with third-party payers (think substance abuse treatment and primary health care). The alleged “collaborations” we conjure up last just long enough to get the grant and are usually confirmed by “letters of commitment” attached to the proposal. I hate to break it to the funders, but agencies trade these letters with one another like the Magic: The Gathering cards that Jake collected when he was about 10.

The only folks who do not seem to be in on the collaboration joke are funders, who earnestly believe in the myth that nonprofits should collaborate, like kindergartners told to share. I even recently spotted a reference about “administrative collaboration” in The Grantsmanship Center’s “Centered” newsletter, quoting The Nonprofit Times, as follows: “As the recession saps their grantmaking capacity, many funders are directly or indirectly urging their grantees to cooperate or collaborate more.” I have news for The Grantsmanship Center and The Nonprofit Times: funders were just as in love with collaboration before the Great Recession and will likely remain so when good times return. Keep in mind that it is vastly easier to form new nonprofits than it is to find millionaires and corporations to set up foundations to fund the avalanche of new nonprofits. So why would an average nonprofit want to help the agency down the street?

Adding to the humorous aspect of the faux foundation concern for collaboration is that foundations actually compete one another for prestige, telegenic grantees and the like. Or have you ever wondered why it is necessary for a foundation like the MacArthur Foundation to “advertise” their support for PBS programming at the start and the end of the program?

Funders are just as interested in playing the status and competition game as any other kind of organization. But if they want to pretend that nonprofit and public agencies collaborate, then nonprofit and public agencies will happily maintain the facade to get funded.

EDIT: You can read more about these problems in “Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It” and “There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” both of which offer further examples of dubious collaboration run amok.

Tags: Advice · Clients · Government · Grants

22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Barb // Apr 6, 2010 at 10:16 am

    True nonprofit collaboration took place in the days before charities were incorporated into nonprofit businesses–when concerned people got together to pool resources to solve or alleviate community problems. Orphanages were organized, hospitals got built, the hungry were given food, etc. Collaboration made sense because the focus was on the common good and not the survival of a particular nonprofit business entity. We made trades when charity became investment. I recognize the enormous truth in your post, recognize when I play this game, and it saddens me.

  • 2 Andy Anderson // Apr 7, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Having submitted quite a few DOL grant proposals and received my share of awards, I completely agree with your assessment. The partnership requirements seem strained and ceremonial at best. We put them in because the solicitation says we must, but when we are monitored on the back end of the grant, there is little if any attention paid to the actual implementation of those partnerships. In fact we have submitted revisions that eliminated certain original partnerships because they were not working as anticipated and the revisions have been approved.
    When the grant sunsets, all the Department of Labor really cares about is the outcomes. They could care less about the methodology.

  • 3 Nikki Zeuner // Apr 8, 2010 at 11:19 am

    The collaboration-for-the-sake-of-the-grant picture is a little different in rural areas. Often, the potential applicant entity is the only show in town, and there’s nobody to collaborate with. One choice is to go regional, or to become part of a statewide proposal, which usually means that dismal rural stats strengthen the proposal, and upon funding none of the funds or “collaborators” ever show up in the rural area again.

    While I share your frustration, in my experience not all collaboration is meaningless: The funder quest for collaboration has to do with the experience that siloed social service programs funded by siloed grants so often fail to be effective or sustainable. It’s not entirely laughable or unreasonable to request a community college to collaborate with the local one-stop workforce center and the regional workforce development boards to get people into training. If those relationships have not been developed at the time of the proposal, I wouldn’t throw federal funds at that project either.

  • 4 The Real World and the Proposal World // Apr 11, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    [...]   ← What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Bas… [...]

  • 5 Blaire McPherson // Apr 14, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Re “all but 10 states have abandoned EO 12372″: I count 21 states and 5 territories at http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/grants_spoc/.
    Even unsuccessful or paper-only collaborations may reap some good: Looking for partners and trying to mesh capabilities mean the left hand learns more about what the right hand is doing. In this way, even if a collaboration folds, duplication of future efforts may be reduced.

  • 6 Jake Seliger // Apr 15, 2010 at 9:42 am

    @Blaire McPherson – # 5

    The list on the White House site often conflicts with what’s in actual RFPs. When in doubt, follow the RFP.

    “In this way, even if a collaboration folds, duplication of future efforts may be reduced.”

    Duplication of effort isn’t a major problem with social services because there are almost always more people chasing the service than there are slots. The desire for free services will always be greater than the supply.

    In addition, collaboration itself is a cost in the form of chasing letters and contacts.

    Still, as @Nikki # 3 points out, not all collaboration is meaningless — when there is a genuine problem that needs multiple entities to solve it, people will tend to cooperate. Forcing that model on all problems is the problem.

  • 7 Rande // Jun 7, 2010 at 5:53 am

    This is tongue in cheek, right?

    If not, I’m a little surprised, but to each his own.

  • 8 Laurel Semmes // Jun 7, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Collaboration is for the grantor and the recipient of grant funded services, not for the organization getting the money. DOL (or HUD, or ED, or whomever) wants to know that they are not paying to reinvent the wheel. If someone is already doing something right (read “regional workforce board” or “community non-profit” or “education provider that serves a complimentary population”), why would they pay a new awardee to duplicate that service? Collaborative strategic planning is for community-wide gaps analysis, so that new funds truly go to fund new services. The results of thorough planning are anything besides “fiction” created for the grant proposal narrative. It is short sighted to think that any one organization can provide the complete continuum of services needed by the target population. The target population is ALL the funder cares about.

  • 9 Lori // Jun 7, 2010 at 8:54 am

    First, let me say that I believe passionately in collaboration. I began my career in rural America, where even the urban centers are very isolated. In these regions, it truly does take a village to raise a child, or educate a citizen, or promote community development.

    However, for the past six years I have been working in one of the largest urban areas in the country, and the one of which the author speaks–gloriously sunny Southern California.

    Here, collaboration is a joke for the most part. For the recent CBJT proposals, I would guess that nearly every college in the area was in at least two proposals. The local WIBs and Workforce Centers were in more than that. There was no regional strategic planning; there was no prioritization of needs. It was a free for all where we all supported each other with the hope of getting a piece of the pie. When the grants are funded, those of us who were lucky enough to be in the right proposals, will take our piece of the pie and do our thing. We will most likely only chat with the lead agency come report time.

    As I worked on my own grant, I thought how much better it would have been if the Dept. of Labor had just given the region a chunk of cash, asked that we conduct a regional competition, and insisted that we prioritize regional needs. That would be true collaboration, and the most needed proposals would win, not the ones able to spin the best tale in a short amount of time.

  • 10 Jake Seliger // Jun 7, 2010 at 9:18 am

    @ Laurel – #8

    Collaboration is for the grantor and the recipient of grant funded services, not for the organization getting the money.

    This is certainly true! I made the same point in Foundations and the Future: How Funder Incentives Affect Nonprofits, Grants, and Grant Writing, which discusses how the structure of foundation funding shows that the purpose of funding is more to gratify the desires of the funding agency than anything else.

    DOL (or HUD, or ED, or whomever) wants to know that they are not paying to reinvent the wheel.

    Which they do regularly anyway, in the name of innovation.

    Collaborative strategic planning is for community-wide gaps analysis, so that new funds truly go to fund new services.

    This is meaningless propsalese and completely true in the proposal world, as described at the link. In the real world, organizations compete with one another to some extent, and “collaborations” consist mostly of donut eating.

    It is short sighted to think that any one organization can provide the complete continuum of services needed by the target population.

    In the proposal world, you’re right. In the real world, there is no continuum of services and the target population is far vaster than the organizations providing services. This probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, since if you’re offering products or services that are subsidized or free, you will almost always have more people chasing them than you can handle. Dan Ariely discusses the love of free in his book Predictably Irrational, which is very much worth reading.

    The target population is ALL the funder cares about.

    See my first link WRT foundations.

  • 11 Dana Boe // Jun 7, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Collaboration is wonderful thing, to a point. As the saying goes, “two heads are better than one.” However, funders don’t always give enough money to support the activities of all the partners. Often times the partnerships work best in the excitement of the program development and on paper. The reality is that more often than not, partnerships that are created equal are not even close to being equal in most parts of the program. I fully understand why funding agencies, private and govt. want collaboration. I also feel that they, as funding sources, don’t fully understand the issues that surround collaboration. I do appreciate that they want to fund programs that meet their goals and encourages conversation, idea sharing and being able to help the greatest number of people.

  • 12 Rande // Jun 7, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Jake:

    With respect (and out of curiosity), I read your post about “real world vs. proposal world,” and your approach is troubling in both is cynicism and admission of practice.

    I’ll go with the least harmful assumption and guess that I’ve not been in the business nearly as long as you have, and thus have been “bitten” one less time than the requirement to be shy.

    Your assumption that a community–any community–is, at heart, competitive and unable to see holistic answers in multi-institutional challenges is so outside the realm of the kind of work I regularly do, even with highly competitive partners, that I’m not sure what else to say.

  • 13 Jake Seliger // Jun 7, 2010 at 9:55 am

    @ Rande – # 12

    Your assumption that a community–any community–is, at heart, competitive and unable to see holistic answers in multi-institutional challenges is so outside the realm of the kind of work I regularly do, even with highly competitive partners, that I’m not sure what else to say.

    Any community, organization, or individual can be competitive, but they aren’t necessarily competitive in all circumstances. I know nothing about the kind of work you do or the organizations you work with and so can’t speak to it, but I will say that organizational collaboration can make sense in some circumstances, but the point that Isaac is making in the main post about the silliness of mandated collaboration in all circumstances still stands.

    My impression is that some commenters on this post are True Believers, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — unless being a true believer prevents you from getting funded or from keeping your organization’s doors open.

    Anyway — I don’t think of the real versus proposal worlds as bad or cynical, but merely as something that exists. If you don’t know about the difference or that it exists, you might make mistakes that, once again, make you or your organization less effective. If that’s “troubling,” then so be it.

    I’ll also say thanks to you and the other commenters in this thread — even the ones I disagree with — because it’s been an unusually lively thread. And most posters have implicitly taken Paul Graham’s advice on “How to Disagree,” which is nice.

  • 14 Grant Writing Confidential Scoops the Wall Street Journal and More on Being Creative in Finding Funds During the Great Recession // Jun 13, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    [...] compete with one another for donations, grants, and all kinds of resources. I pointed this out in What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Bas…, a post that generated quite a comment [...]

  • 15 Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding It // Jun 13, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    [...] post “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Bas…” generated a lot of interesting comments. I responded to a couple of them, and I’d also [...]

  • 16 Is it Collaboration or Competition that HRSA Wants in the Service Area Competition (SAC) and New Access Points (NAP) FOAs? // Sep 6, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    [...] For more of my reasoning on the essential pointlessness of requiring grant applicants to profess their undying commitment to collaboration, see “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Bas….” [...]

  • 17 Heavens to to Murgatroyd: Grant Competition Is About to Heat Up for Community Services Block Grant Grant (CSBG) and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Recipients // Feb 6, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    [...] right, a 50% cut—and making the CAAs compete for what’s left! Instantly, every CAA will be fighting with each other for the scraps of the CSBG program. This means that each CAA will have to get a lot better at grant [...]

  • 18 Why Letters of Support are Like Bridesmaids « Grantastic! — How to write amazing grant proposals // Sep 7, 2011 at 10:55 am

    [...] For a highly cynical and amusing essay on why letters of support are the Pokémon cards of nonprofits (because they are worth little and are traded freely), see Seliger & Associate’s “Grant Writing Confidential” post on nonprofit collabora… [...]

  • 19 Why Letters of Support are Like Bridesmaids | Grantastic! -- How to Write Amazing Grant Proposals // Jun 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    [...] For a highly cynical and amusing essay on why letters of support are the Pokémon cards of nonprofits (because they are worth little and are traded freely), see Seliger & Associate’s “Grant Writing Confidential” post on nonprofit collabora… [...]

  • 20 There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure // Jun 17, 2012 at 9:20 am

    [...] or Apple and Apple Records fighting over an image of, well, an apple. As I wrote in April in “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? The Department of Labor Community-Bas…,” nonprofits are really in competition with one another and most talk of collaboration is the [...]

  • 21 HUD’s Confusing Continuum of Care (CoC) Program Explained // Nov 11, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    [...] out at the kneecaps, and it’s an example of the problems we’ve written about in “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals?” and “Following up on Collaboration in Proposals and How to Respond to RFPs Demanding [...]

  • 22 Don’t Piss Off Local Gatekeepers Who Stand Between You and Federal Grants // Jan 5, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    [...] only need the gatekeeper to access a particular grant, but may also need them to form the alleged collaborations that are required by many federal RFPs. The frequent DOL requirement for a letter of support from [...]

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