Phase 1 - Concept and Initiation
Writing a Proposal means understanding every phase of the Project Management Cycle. However, how many of us consider the 5 Project Management Cycle (PMC) phases when we’re writing a grant proposal for submission to a donor? These phases are defined by the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) as initiation, planning, execution, performance & control (monitoring), and closure. They constitute the project life cycle and if managed effectively, they will bring your project idea to fruition in a logical and organized way and will help you to successfully implement your grant-funded project.
The 5 Stages
In this short series of blogs, The Grants House is pleased to explore these phases in order to identify their importance in preparing your Winning Proposal! In this first blog, we will examine the first phase - 'Concept and Initiation' - in detail.
Watch the variations in titles and definitions on Google!
Before we get started, I want us to keep in mind that if you were to google the phases of the PMC phases, you will see different terminology used to describe the same thing. For example, "execution" might be substituted for "implementation,” or "monitoring" may be substituted for "performance and control" and so on. It can get a little confusing but keep in mind that definitions are important and convey different variations in ideas, so it is recommended that we have a consistent benchmark. So in this blog series, I will refer to the standard guide – the PMBOK - published by the Project Management Institute (PMI) for a consistent use of terms. Also be aware that some definitions of the project phases won’t include performance and control (or monitoring) at all – but it is an extremely important part of your project and so it is recommended that you consider it from the moment you start writing your proposal.
A Grant Writer should know the stages of the project management cycle
Every grant writer should have a strong grasp of each of the phases and what is required for the smooth creation, delivery and conclusion of any grant-funded project. At The Grants House, we are a broken record on the key message that a Grant Proposal is a "project in waiting!" It's not enough to simply parrot the words that the donor wants to hear, in order to win the funds - but each proposal should have considered the requirements in each of the PMC stages to ensure the awardee is able to implement the project and establish a strong implementation record that will lead to further awards in the future.
Concept and Initiation - Getting Started!
So let's get started on the PMC phases with a closer look, in this blog, at Phase 1 - Concept and Initiation.
This phase is always a Pre-Award activity, principally because you are defining your project, assessing its suitability for your organization and deciding if you want to expend your unrestricted resources to pursue it. This is also the most important phase in the whole process, because you can unintentionally misalign a project with your organization's business needs or you can add on a very instrumental project that can lead to improvements and change.
Grants are expensive!
The very first step of deciding whether to go after a grant opportunity is no small undertaking. You have to ensure that you have the right balance of human resources to tackle the various aspects of the proposal, as well as allocating sufficient funding towards support costs (e.g. consulting fees, travel, transport, gender assessments, environmental assessments, communications, staff opportunity cost, etc.). In 2015, I spent upwards of $125,000 Canadian dollars in the preparation of a single grant. This included the time that each person in our organization spent on the proposal and those costs listed above. It was a consortium and so each partner organization had their own set of costs to be contributed to that hefty price tag. The project was nearly $20M in value but it was a not a sure thing. Imagine the loss of revenue across the whole development sector every time that a Call for Proposals comes out. I once calculated the cost of each call for proposal by Global Affairs Canada, based on the number of agencies that invested in the proposal bid but did not win. In some cases, it was in the millions of dollars invested (and lost) every time! Luckily, in this case, we won the grant award!
Do your due diligence
The concept and initiation phase is also a time to 'do your due diligence!' Try saying that 3 times fast! Grants are not the same as downloading products from Amazon. If you don't like it, you can't send it back. You invest money in a grant proposal and you don't get that investment back, if you don't win. So this phase is incredibly important to assess whether it is the right fit for your organization. I tell people that my 'win-ratio' with grants is very close to 90% (in an industry of 1 in 3 grants won on average). However, I always follow up by saying that I am very picky about what I submit. I want to make sure the alignment is good, that we can respond to the donors needs appropriately, that we have the technical ability, that we are eligible and that we have a 'hook' that will set us apart from the competition. See my other blog on The Top 20 Elements of a Winning Proposal for more details on this. You also want to look ahead to the other phases of the project and make sure that you have the resources and the capacity to take the project all the way to the closure phase, if you are to be awarded those funds. Never submit a proposal just to try your luck - and then figure out if you can implement it later, in the event that you win.
Call The Grants House to help assess your chances and RoI
If you're not sure of your chances when submitting a proposal then you can give The Grants House a call to assess capacity, return on investment, win ratios, and ultimately whether you should start investing unrestricted resources in that next submission - or not. Next time you have a Go/No-Go discussion and you're not sure - give us a call!
Getting Started - the nuts and bolts of Phase 1
The concept and initiation phase of a Project happens in 3 process steps. First, your organization will identify an opportunity, likely go through a go/no-go process and perhaps even an environmental scan or SWOT to assess the value-add to your organization's revenue goals. You will probably look at pros and cons, costs, return on investment opportunities, capacity, partners and numerous other possible variables. In some organizations it might be required to compile these various assessments into a 'business case' on which senior management can base its decision to go forward or not with investing resources to obtain that grant opportunity. If your organization likes this approach, The Grants House offers templates to produce this business case for new grant opportunities.
I've got how much time?
Second, upon getting a "go" decision from your senior manager(s), the race to complete a proposal begins - and time is often very limited. Unless the donor is very relaxed and you saw the call as soon as it came out, the odds are that you will have less than 8 weeks to pull a proposal together. The assembled team or staff (who we often call ‘a grants team’ or a ‘new business development team') will then begin work on the technical proposal, along with a budget (in most cases). In collaboration with one another, they start working out the details of the project they want to implement: objectives, preparing a budget, a logic model (results, indicators), a performance management (monitoring) framework and determining how to achieve the desired results. It's often helpful to have checklists and roles & responsibilities established for your team, along with a clear timeline defined by which key deliverables will be made to reach that proposal submission deadline. You can find templates for download, as well as clear 'step-by-step' guides for budget preparation, business cases, etc., that will help you do all this at The Grants House Workshop.
Once you have completed writing all the different components of your proposal, you will be ready to submit your proposal - and then you wait!
Waiting can be the hardest part of the process, as some donors can take anywhere from 3 months to a year (or more) to approve the grant funding. Finally, after the donor has reviewed the proposals and made a decision, you may get a Notice of Award (NOA) from the donor. This is usually an e-mail or a letter, which is sent out to all recipients at the same time. If you haven't had a rejection notice for a recently submitted grant - don't panic. Donors are obliged to let everyone know at the same time and no news is usually good news! You might also check around the sector and ask some of your partners if they have heard anything. If they got a rejection letter and you didn't - the chances are good that your NOA is in the mail!
Often, the donor will then have a phone call or a meeting with the recipient agency – particularly the person in charge of compliance (e.g. the Chief Finance Officer) and will explain the compliance parametres and introduce you to the desk officer that will be your contact going forward in the project. This is a very important step in the process and may be followed by an initial audit visit by the donor, which is to prepare the implementing agency for the upcoming project compliance requirements and ensure that all those responsible for the project (CEO, CFO, program directors, project manager, country director, etc.) are all aware of the requirements. You will want to include everyone who has a key role in the project in this meeting, especially your field teams.
No management without a Project Manager!
There are a couple of important Project Management considerations in the Concept and Initiation phase. One is that a Project Manager is usually not on board in this phase. Most organizations wait for their funding to come through and then hire the project manager. In some cases, an organization may decide to post a job ad before approval, with the proviso that hiring will only be done on the approval of the project. However, in either case, there is technically no 'management of a project' until a project manager is hired. That means that the project management cycle doesn't begin until that person has been assigned and is now accountable for results. So when does this normally happen?
Well, in our last blog, we talked about some of the unique differences in the international development sector. In fact, here is another area that illustrates one of those differences in project management. In the case of most projects, there is a document called "The Project Charter." It is the key deliverable of this first PMC phase and is the first formal definition of the project. It essentially authorizes a project to exist. It is also where the authority of the project manager is established and allows the application of organizational resources. The person sponsoring the project will give the green light and The Charter will authorize the start of activities and expenditures. In development agencies, we do not usually see this happening. An organization will typically respond to a call, may have a brief go/no-go discussion and then will sign off on expenditures without a clear sense of what the project will look like until the proposal is finished. Alignment between the donor grant call and the implementing agencies strategy is assumed and experience dictates to its staff whether this is a good call or not - or often just a gut instinct.
Instead, for international development agencies, a charter might be more closely compared to 'the proposal' or to 'the agreement' signed with the donor (e.g. contract, contribution agreement). It is in those documents that we see the requisite content on the proposal shape and form, the risks, the compliance requirements and so on. It is also where the management of the project is authorized, along with spending the project resources.
Who pays for the proposal?
Remember that it is very rare that a donor will pay for you to put together a proposal. Some donors will help with those costs but that would be clearly spelled out in the tender for proposals. As such, as the awardee, you are not allowed to spend or charge any eligible expenses to the donor until your charter or agreement with the donor is signed!
Too Late to Back Out?
Remember that when you reach the agreement stage - which concludes the Concept and Initiation phase of the PMC cycle - you have the right to refuse the grant if something has changed in your organization. If an approval takes 12 months and you've changed your mind for some reason, remember ... You're not obliged to take the grant until the Charter is signed! So do not worry about submitting a grant and thinking you cannot change your mind later. One hopes you won't, as you have spent considerable resources to get that far - but it can happen.
Can I change parts of my project later?
Assuming you are still interested to proceed with the project, the donor will typically write out an agreement and it will describe the project and the compliance requirements (along with the implementation details, the budget, the scope or deliverables, risks, reporting schedule and logic; much of which will be drawn from the proposal). This is signed off by both parties – the donor and the recipient agency – and it governs the remainder of the project. This is your Charter and it is now authorizing the use of eligible funds and the authority of the agency (project manager) to start the project. The charter is what you’ve agreed to do and the reason that you got those competitive funds from the donor. So while you might have an opportunity to change some of your methods, tools and budget before you implement, you need a pretty good reason to go back and re-negotiate so early in the process. This is usually more particular to solicited grant calls, which are competitive. Donors do not encourage change because it's a bit like 'bait and switch' and it disadvantages other competitors who may have lost the bid. For example, you can't come in with lower salary costs and claim low overheads, then go back and put them up once you've been approved. However, you can change the nature of your training modules to accommodate a new innovation that will help achieve the results more effectively.
You need a valid reason for moving ahead with a specific project. This might sound obvious but consider that every agency needs to justify the use of its resources to prepare a proposal and get ready for implementing a project. You might employ a business case, a formal go/no-go committee with cross-functional departments involved or a simple score-card approach that looks at pros/cons and return on investment. It's recommended that you have each of your departments involved at this stage because they all have a stake in the new grant and you want to make sure it aligns well with each department's objectives. Marketing may have to raise the match contribution, finance will need to assess the risk and financial controls needed, programs will need to design training and capacity support for compliance requirements - as well as reporting - and your field teams will be implementing the final product. So a good grant writer will try to include all stakeholders right from the approval stage. Believe me, this buy-in will make the grant writing 100% easier as you start to develop the concept design. It will also ensure that your business needs are being met properly and everyone is aligned with the project objectives for its success throughout the subsequent phases.
Remember - up until you sign the agreement at the end of the concept and initiation phase, you can’t spend a cent of the donors money! Without a signed agreement, anything you spend is on you! It comes out of the agencies unrestricted or general revenue.
Let the grant games begin!
In the next blog, we will look at the Planning Phase (Phase 2) and the iterative process of developing the project implementation plan.
I'm Dr. Phil Tanner, founder of The Grants House. With over 25 years in project management and grants acquisition, I am pleased to share my experience with clients all over the world. Whether you're a small agency or a big one - you can compete for those scarce donor resources - and at The Grants House we show you how! Why not try out our proprietary training courses today?
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@The Grants House, 2023