When to Choose Collaboration

Effectively Utilizing Collaboration in Grant-Funded Projects

By Susannah Mayhall

With the U.S. Government's increasing focus on streamlining resources and engaging in whole-community and regional approaches to education, law enforcement, and healthcare, collaboration is a critical component of several federal grant programs.  Many organizations are already engaged in valuable and mutually beneficial collaborative projects that fit seamlessly within the guidelines of the grant to which they're applying for funding.  However, sometimes a grant's requirements might lead you down a new path of collaboration.  While there are obvious benefits to working with other organizations to accomplish a project - additional personnel and support, additional resources, broader project impact - there can also be pitfalls that result from miss-communication, different organizational objectives, and the failure of one or more partners to fulfill their responsibilities, all of which can threaten the success of the project.  There are several steps you can take in the beginning to ensure that your collaborative efforts will be more likely to result in a successful project period, increasing your likelihood of building on a successful partnership and receiving future grant awards for continued impact in your community.

The first step in entering into a collaborative partnership for a grant project is to identify your partners.  Sometimes the grant program will explicitly state the types of partners encouraged or required for the program.  For example, the Department of Justice's COPS Secure Our Schools (SOS) program requires applying law enforcement agencies to have primary law enforcement authority within a partner primary or secondary school.  Other programs will suggest a variety of partner types or encourage collaborative efforts among several organizations or regions.  In order to make the most of your collaboration, choose partners carefully.  Not only will demonstrating a logical and beneficial alliance strengthen your grant application in the eyes of reviewers, it will also serve you well during the project period as you work with your partners to accomplish your stated objectives.  However, be wary of forming partnerships with other entities solely because the relationship will look favorable in the reviewers' eyes - if the collaboration is not founded on solid ground, you will risk losing your funding by failing to accomplish your goals or having one or more partners back out of the project entirely.  When searching for appropriate grant project partners, look for organizations with a vested interest in the project's success, such as organizations with whom you have successfully worked in the past or organizations whose principles and goals align with your own.

After you've identified your partners, carefully review the grant guidance with each partner and clearly discuss each partner's roles and responsibilities should the project receive funding.  You will need to demonstrate these responsibilities in some form of documentation for the grant application, typically either in a Letter of Support (LOS) from each partner or a more formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).  While some organizations may shy away from more formal arrangements, MOUs can be very useful for stating specific roles, responsibilities, milestones, organizational and administrative design, and other project-related details.  MOUs can also be used to set forth steps to be taken should one of the partners fail to complete their responsibilities or drop out of the project entirely.  Whether you choose to use Letters of Support or MOUs, make sure to use concrete language and avoid vague descriptions of activities - not only will direct language assure the funding agency that your project is well-planned and low-risk, but the document can serve as the cornerstone of your collaboration throughout the project period.  Putting a little extra effort in at this initial stage of the process can make the year(s) of the grant period flow much more smoothly and meet greater success. 

Should your project receive funding, it is crucial to its success that you set up meeting points among the partners throughout the project period.  Regular and clear communication will keep everyone on the same page and prevent efforts being wasted or action steps falling through the cracks.  Like any relationship, a grant project partnership can be challenging, and it is important to recognize potential challenges early on in the process and continually evaluate the status of the project and the contributions made by each partner, as well as the opinions of each partner on the success of the project and how it is affecting the organizations and their constituents/community, either positively or negatively.  As a typical grant project period ranges from 1-5 years, the health of the collaboration must be maintained for a period of time well beyond the initial grant application.  Organizations that feel "strong-armed" into the project in the beginning will make work more difficult down the line if they are not contributing their fair share.  On the flip side, if care is taken in the planning stages, collaboration can exponentially increase your success in accomplishing your goals and seeing your project through to completion.

While adding additional organizations to your project may feel like a "too many cooks in the kitchen" situation at times, collaboration can be a great asset, and a solid investment for future impact on your community.

Reproduced with permission from the author.  This article appears in the May 2012 issue of FUNDED, a Grants Office, LLC, publication, available at http://www.grantsoffice.com/efunded.