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Is It Really a Partnership, Or Is It a Convenient Arrangement To Get the Money?

Is it really love if she only comes back for $300 an hour?

Is it really a partnership if one person holds a gun to the other’s head?

Does Microsoft really care about your business when they’ve kept you on hold for an hour, listening to aggravating muzak, only to tell you that they won’t give you the product key you need?

In grant writing, when you can’t get other local agencies to partner with you for a grant application, it’s often time to offer them a subcontract or some other piece of the action that can be measured in dollars. The piece you want or need can vary with the grant or the importance of the agency to the project and the nature of the project, but if you need the partnership badly enough you’ll pay for it.

In some circumstances this isn’t optimal, and if you’re paying for partnerships you might also be moving other local agencies from an economy based on gifts, favors, and reciprocity to one based on straightforward money—which might make accomplishing your actual goals harder. (Lewis Hyde describes gift versus exchange economies in The Gift, and there’s a rich economics literature on the subject too.) Many organizations, like many interpersonal relationships, don’t exist in a solely gift or solely mercantile space; they operate somewhere in between, and whether a relationship primarily involves gifts or fee-for-service depends a myriad of factors that are beyond the scope of this blog post.

But if an organization doesn’t want to help you out of the goodness of their hearts, or out of the promise that you’ll be their nominal partner on some future project, then money might be your only route forward. School districts are notoriously difficult in this regard, largely because they know that they’ll get ADA money regardless of whether they provide Joe’s Nonprofit with a letter.

Sometimes, however, Joe’s Nonprofit can strike back by getting the local newspaper to write an article about how the district’s intransigence might cost the community a $500,000 grant. A couple of years ago, we were writing a HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) proposal for a city in California. The LBPHC requires specific health metrics and interventions that are the domain of counties in California. The cognizant agency at first refused to cooperate with our client. We suggested that our client call the county rep and tell her that the next call would be to the newsperson, so that a story about why the county wants young low-income children to be poisoned could run. The county immediately agreed to cooperate and provided a strong letter and data. The proposal was funded. And our client didn’t have to offer any money to get it funded.

Given the realities of “partnerships,” why are funding agencies so interested in partnerships? We’ve addressed this question before, in posts like “Is it Collaboration or Competition that HRSA Wants in the Service Area Competition (SAC) and New Access Points (NAP) FOAs?” and “There Will Be No Fighting in the War Room: An Example of Nonprofit Non-Collaboration in Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” and “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.” As we’ve said, genuine partnerships might be appropriate and useful in some circumstances, but much of the time they just look cosmetic, as we’ve discovered from talking to clients who are attempting to wrangle partnerships out of recalcitrant agencies.

When partnerships are primarily cosmetic, I suspect the larger issue is, like so much of grant writing, one of signaling.* In grant writing, partnerships are a kind of social proof—if you can get other people to agree to associate with you, their association is a form of implicit approval of your actions. If you’ve ever seen bars where one guy seems to be talking to all the women in the place, you’re in part seeing social proof at work; if you’ve been reluctant to eat an empty restaurant or happy to wait for a table at a full one, you’ve also seen it.

Among grant applicants, partnerships are being used to prove that the applicant and jump through a large number of somewhat arbitrary hoops, in the hopes that those applicants with the fortitude, tenacity, and skill necessary to do so are also the ones most likely to operate programs well.

* Robin Hanson has written extensively about signaling and its pervasiveness in human social life; his recent post “How Social Are Signals?” is a good place to start if you’re curious. Unfortunately, he hasn’t written a book about signaling and other aspects of his blogging life, so there’s no large-scale guide to his thinking on the subject. Yet.