August 27, 2014

Open to Collaboration— Lessons Learned From Working with Consortia in New Mexico and Elsewhere

After being in the grant writing game for a while and living in New Mexico for a long time, I usually feel like I have a pretty good handle on working with our nonprofit organizations and working within the unique culture here. When I recently had a chance to work with a consortium on the East Coast, I was curious about how the experience might be different. I used to live back East, but I have pretty well adapted to living in the laidback Southwest. Would the pace of work be different? What about how people interact with one another? I also know that working with large groups of people can be a challenge even when you are already acquainted with members of the team. With this in mind, I entered into this new working relationship thinking that at least parts of the experience would be fundamentally different than working with a consortium at home. Turns out, there were more commonalities than differences with my experiences working with consortia here. These similarities underscored some valuable lessons that apply to any group working under a tight deadline, no matter where your group is based.

Face-to-face interactions are invaluable. No matter what your working style, meeting with people in person is often more productive than remotely, especially in a large group and especially at the beginning of the process. You learn so much about how people work and think by meeting them, reading their body language, and being able to have real-time back and forth communication. You can ask questions and immediately follow-up. In-person meetings let you more easily follow new paths of discussion since you are less bound by an agenda. Also, have you noticed how much more responsive people are to follow-up with remote communications if they know what you look like first? It’s a lot harder to ignore communications from someone you’ve met when a message comes in from them. Clear communication is tough enough without adding in additional factors where your message can be lost or ignored. If at all possible, convene the group in person—especially early on in your planning and working processes.

A lot of times, having a third party perspective is helpful. It’s always useful to solicit a range of viewpoints when thinking about a new project or program. This is especially true if you are planning under a tight deadline. Bring in someone who isn’t in the thick of day-to-day administration, but who knows something about the industry and environment in which you work. This person will probably be able to see things beyond your own perspective, and will be able to take an outsider view. This person can also function as a mediator of sorts, so long as he or she has the diplomacy skills to ensure everyone feels heard and the gravitas to guide the group. Those of you who have served as group leaders, particularly in consortia, know it can be a challenge to be both moderator and participant. This is especially true as you get in the thick of things and everyone is worn out from the process of planning and grant writing.

Define your program before you start writing. It takes a lot less work to write a competitive program when it is well planned before writing begins. Don’t just start spinning your wheels and feeling like you need to jump right into writing. These are the proposals that risk never coalescing. It will be harder to fix vagueness and inconsistencies later, and reviewers do catch onto these things. Very early on, spend time defining your service population and goals—what are their needs, what do the data say about gaps that need to be filled, what other resources can you leverage? Do your homework first and then build a program around your findings. I’ve seen many organizations define their work load first and only then examine needs, gaps, and resources. Hold visioning sessions early and often to define what it is you are proposing to do. Work on a logic model before you start writing, or use some other form of visual representation of what you hope to accomplish. If you can’t capture it all in a figure or a couple of short paragraphs, it’s probably not developed enough yet to construct a strong proposal. Make sure that your program is developed to the point where your reader can picture it in their minds from just a short description.

Designate someone to be the point of contact. Things will get lost in the mix if multiple people are asking for and keeping track of the required pieces of information. You can avoid confusion when everyone knows that there is a single point of contact for submission of information.

Form a core leadership team. It should become apparent quickly which group members are more suited to be leaders because of their leadership qualities and their range of expertise in the subject matter at hand. While it’s essential in the early stages that everyone’s voice be heard, you cannot write a compelling proposal by committee. Each member will have his or her own strengths to contribute and this may not mean an equal workload among all participants. Without designating a clear leadership structure, everything will take too long and you will have a very hard time managing quality control. After the initial planning stages, leave it to the leadership team to review concepts and drafts.

In conclusion, my experience working outside the state has reinforced my belief that New Mexico has a lot more resources than we are given credit for having available. Working with an out of state client (in a much wealthier and therefore more highly resourced state) was not that different from working with local clients. With our small population, the talent pool may not be as deep as in New York, D.C., or Chicago, but we definitely have serious talent here—ambitious and smart people, institutions, and agencies that work incredibly hard every day to make this state better. One thing that we do have a lot less of, however, is financial resources, major employers, and large funders. This speaks to our need to be even more diligent by collaborating as effectively as possible to utilize what resources we do have. We all need to work together to take full advantage of the resources that do exist — when we work together, everyone wins. In the nonprofit world, being proprietary and starting turf wars serves no one – and hurts the very clients our organizations are trying to serve.

To be in Albuquerque at a time when so many collaborative initiatives are getting underway is incredibly exciting. There’s an energy around how we can innovate and become better, as a city and a state. Innovation Central, Innovate ABQ, the STEMulus Center and other local initiatives are showing tremendous promise of igniting entrepreneurship and educational initiatives that will draw more talent to the state and help us to retain the talent we already have. Neighborhood pride is also growing— for instance, the increased presence of the Downtown Action Team and the Downtown ABQ Millennial Project are examples of how organizations can positively impact their neighborhoods. We need to keep this collaborative momentum going and expand it across the state. Economic development and philanthropic initiatives will help us to expand our resource base, creating more opportunities to support and serve those members of our community who are most in need. By planning upfront, our local organizations can support the positive momentum in the state and move New Mexico forward.

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