August 29, 2013

Shaping Success: The Art of Forming a Winning Collaboration

Why form a consortium?: With competition for grant funding seemingly always on the rise, organizations must seek out new ways to be competitive. Especially in a state like New Mexico, with a small and widely dispersed population, forming a consortium or formal partnership can be a great way to expand reach and achieve a strong collective impact that can be appealing especially to federal, national, or out-of-state funders. When an organization with a small client base teams with other organizations doing similar or complementary work, the group has the combined resources to produce a higher-impact project that reaches a large number of people. Funders want to see that their investments are well spent, particularly now when many have less funding to distribute than in the past. Collaborating on a project can be a way to show that, even though partners may be relatively small when considered individually, as a group they have the capacity to reach a broad and diverse group of clients and to implement and manage an ambitious project. Projects that involve a variety of partners, by their very nature, also demonstrate a higher level of community buy-in and support than individual projects. Consortia can demonstrate to funders and stakeholders that your project brings a diverse range of skills and abilities to the table that enhance your ability to serve target populations. Finally, broad engagement supports long-term sustainability of the initiative through spreading responsibilities across all partners.

Challenges of consortium projects: One downside of consortium projects is the much higher investment in time and planning that is required. Anyone who has participated in a group project, whether it be in college, as part of a work team in the office, or even a volunteer activity, knows that planning and action both become more complex as more people are added to the mix. All steps of the process generally take longer than expected as a group grows in size. Pulling off a consortium proposal and project, therefore, requires strong organization, leadership, vision, and planning skills. Ensuring a successful collaboration starts before you even begin writing your proposal. It is not advisable to figure it out as you go along, especially when the stakes are high and the opportunity is competitive. This will only lead to counterproductive levels of anxiety among participants, a lot of time spent spinning your wheels, and ultimately a less competitive proposal product. If group participants invest in targeted strategic planning at the outset of a new project, it will help you and your partners to function more successfully as a group and will result in a stronger and more thoughtful proposal. You will also be putting the group in a better position to serve your client populations.

Establishing a strong group: So how do you set up your consortium for success? Below are some planning tips to consider before starting a consortium project. These tips will help your group to get organized and prepare you for the next step – writing the proposal. (For tips on the writing stage of the process, refer to our blog archives for the article Go Team! The Art of Collaboration in Grant Writing, published in July 2010. This article will give you insights into writing the proposal as a team. This is also a complex process and a whole different can of worms!)

  • Consider your group carefully. When assembling a partnership, it is important to select a group that really fits the project. Think about the clients you serve and whether your missions are complementary. Do partners each bring something to the table, be it resources or expertise? Do their areas of focus and client bases serve the goals of the project? Try to assemble a group whose work contributes to the projects’ mission and goals and where each member can add something substantive.
  • Designate a leader. Diverse consortia are great because they bring a variety of viewpoints to the table and are absolutely an important part of the process. However, a strong leader is essential in providing an overarching vision and the impetus to pull the group out of the brainstorming stage and into project design. To construct a strong proposal in what is an inevitably short timeframe, your team needs a leader with a clear vision. This person should be unafraid to take a stand and be able to maintain a focus on the mission, goals, and target audience of the project.
  • Define your project. This may seem obvious, but pull your group together as early as possible to allow time to define a clear project and plan of attack. Start by working on a concept paper or logic model. If you cannot express what you hope to accomplish in one to two pages, then your idea is not yet fully-formed. It is tempting to put off working on these conceptual documents until later on, when you are writing the proposal, but forming a clear picture is essential for developing a strong group, securing stakeholder buy-in, and writing a competitive proposal. It helps your consortium keep the project mission and goals in mind at every stage of the process.
  • Nail down your goals and avoid scope creep. The leader needs to be a person who can stick to his or her guns. Every party involved is going to want to add his or her area of expertise to the project design. It can be difficult (and is not advisable to try) to satisfy all stakeholders. Giving in to every participant’s requests and demands will result in scope creep, a weak project design, and a project (and proposal) with no clear focus. This makes it impossible for reviewers and stakeholders alike to form a clear image of what it is you want to accomplish. Assess each activity suggested to ensure that it makes sense in the context of what the consortium seeks to do. If it does not, DO NOT INCLUDE IT! Establish from the outset that the project’s final design may not be able to accommodate all group members’ ideas, even if this results in some bruised egos. It is far better to present a strong, coherent, and cohesive project, even if not all group members are served equally, than to allow the project to turn into a hodgepodge to satisfy everyone’s interests. If you are not staying true to your project’s mission and goals, reviewers are likely to notice it in your proposal, and stakeholders will be confused about what you are working to accomplish.
  • Remember that group projects require a lot more time. Ensure alignment between your project and the specific funding opportunity you are aiming for. Because working as a group requires a lot more resources and time than an individual project, the cost for applying as a group can become very high. Determine the strength of the fit between an opportunity and your project and group to determine if these costs in terms of time and resources will be too high. If it’s not a slam dunk match, you may want to continue prospect researching until you find an opportunity with a stronger fit. The last thing you want to do as a group is to invest a lot of time into a proposal that is not competitive because your project is not a great match.
  • Make sure everyone has a voice. While your group needs a leader and clearly defined project roles, and even though not everyone’s interests will be represented equally in the project, every member should also feel heard. This can be achieved through holding regular meetings and asking group members to weigh in on different aspects of the project. Assigning everyone a duty will also help each member feel invested in the work.
  • Think about grants management. Even in the planning stage, your group should be thinking about management, particularly if an award would come with heavy reporting requirements. Developing a management system from the outset will also help you with your planning and proposal writing processes. Look at team members’ skills and capacities and be realistic in the roles and responsibilities each member plays. Who is best suited for each job? Who has enough capacity to take on the key roles? Who reports to whom? Develop a clear and comprehensive plan that leverages each member’s strengths and downplays weaknesses. Set milestones and deadlines and remind everyone of them regularly.
  • Sustainability. Sustainability is an important consideration for any group that hopes to make a long-term difference. Think about how this group will stay together after the grant period, whether or not your project receives funding. In a proposal, you should make it clear that this consortium came together for a larger goal than just pursuing grants funding. After all the work that goes into forming a consortium and planning a project, you do not want to see an ambitious project cease simply because the grant period expires or because a funding source does not materialize.

While forming a consortium can be a lot of work, it can also be a rewarding way to further all members’ objectives while making all of your organizations more competitive and stronger. Combining resources to enhance impact can be exciting and can open up some big opportunities. It can help each group member to leverage resources across a community or region to serve target populations better. However, consortia are a lot of work, so be sure you are committed to the process and are doing it for the right reasons — namely, to enhance your programs and provide a greater and broader impact to the causes your group supports.

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