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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

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.