Know Your Charettes! Especially Near the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) Program

It’s not unusual for an RFP to ask how community feedback was incorporated into the design of a project, and a good answer is to have some form of group activity feedback meeting. Notice the last four words: “group activity feedback meeting.” What a vile phrase, even by proposal standards. Don’t use such a phrase—call them Community Meetings, Participant Committees, Group Action Committees, or something more recondite like charrette (“a final, intensive effort to finish a project, esp. an architectural design project, before a deadline”), which is my favorite term. I’ve even seen it used outside of proposals, which is especially amusing because when I first heard “charrette” years ago I suspected that Isaac had made it up.

He hadn’t, though, and the word is sufficiently but not overly esoteric to make it an interesting addition to a proposal, like capers to a recipe. The idea behind the word is often needed, whether before or after a project begins. For example, group meetings can “occur” before the project begins to show that the community is interested in the program the applicant seeks to implement. (I put scare quotes around occur because I suspect such meetings are written about somewhat more often than they are actually held.) Not surprisingly, most community groups find that free money from the government is a good thing, and Tim Harford discussed this tendency in The Logic of Life. One way to strength a proposal narrative is to include a description of the charrette that came to this conclusion.

The same thinking can apply to groups formed after the project begins. For example, a Project Advisory Committee (PAC) composed of participants, staff, collaborators, and other members of the community can help provide a continuous feedback loop to constantly improve. Once again, I’m sure more nonprofits write about PACs than actually run them, but the proposal world is not always identical to the real world, which is one reason I was so surprised to read about the design charrette I linked to in the first paragraph.

To give a specific example of where charrettes could see action, I’ll return to an RFP mentioned previously. I made fun of the California 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) – Elementary & Middle Schools program, but you could cite charrettes in section 1.c., which wants you to “[d]escribe how you assessed the needs and strengths of your community […]” and section 1.e., which wants you to “[b]riefly discuss the proposed process for conducting, and the results of, your needs assessment for family literacy services.”

In either case, an applicant could say that a community charrette found significant demand for the learning center proposed. Charrette members concluded would help make the community more livable, cure cancer, and perhaps save the world from global warming. I can’t imagine why a real group of community members would ever decide, for example, that the community doesn’t need more money, and ideally someone else’s money, but I guess it’s conceivable, like a reduction in government spending not forced by revenue problems or a time portal opening in my backyard. Back on point: the needs assessment can describe how the charrette brings together key stakeholders—e.g., business persons, nonprofit and faith-based organization representatives, community leaders, and the like—and then announce how much they want that money, meaning that the proposal springs from authentic desire, while the applicant is merely the body through which the charrette’s will is implemented.


On a historical note, the whole charrette in public service concept got started in earnest with the War on Poverty and the idea that the poor and disadvantage should have a say in how public and other money is spent. The goal was to create “workable plan committees” and the like for civic leaders and their constituents, and the key phrase was”” maximum feasible involvement”” of the poor. Daniel Moynihan‘s book, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, is actually a play on this term. As the review, published in 1970, says:

[…] Moynihan traces the development of the community action approach. From the gray areas program of the Ford Foundation, through the Mobilization for Youth in New York City, on to the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, there emerged the ideas of the urgency for localized, community-based programs aimed at the involvement of youth in constructive, problem-solving activity. This stream of development was in the background of the community action orientation of the War on Poverty.

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