Creating grant-winning coalitions
Projects that win grants are rarely built by one company alone. They’re set up by partnerships of businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations, with each bringing their unique strengths and expertise to the table. Collaborating with the right players on a grant application will bulletproof your proposal, maximize the impact of your project, and foster relationships that will continue to accelerate your business even post-award.
Sedale Turbovsky runs OpenGrants, a platform that connects people to grant funding as well as technical assistance providers. We sat down with him to discuss why grant partnerships are a game-changer for successful applications, how to find and attract the right collaborators, and how to extract the most value from your relationship with your co-creators.
How partnerships can bolster your grant application
1. They’ll help ensure your project is inclusive
No matter how sympathetic you are to social causes, and how much you might want to center inclusion in your work, the chances are you’re not an expert. If you don’t have a lot of experience working with the populations you want your climate solution to support, partner with someone who’s entrenched in these communities. They’ll make sure the project you’re designing is actually inclusive and on track to generate a positive impact, while putting in the effort to cement these co-benefits will also help you stand out on grant applications.
2. You’ll close the skills gap in your team
Partnerships allow you to team up with subcontractors who can take on the parts of your project where you may not have the skills in-house. Papering over your lack of experience on a grant application is a surefire route to fail - with such fierce competition, you’ll be up against other organizations who either have plenty of capabilities in this arena, or who’ve taken the initiative to partner with someone who has.
3. You’ll boost your eligibility
Some grants are reserved for nonprofits, so they’ll only become accessible to you if you collaborate with an eligible organization and become a “subawardee”. Funding also exists that’s only available for governments (cities, tribal governments, etc) - you’ll take on more of a subcontractor role with them, but it’s an opportunity to work with a powerful entity who can bring the capital you need to the table.
4. It gives you a strategic advantage
Partnerships allow you to collaborate with the best of the best. Harness this opportunity to work with experts and leaders in your space, and make your grant application as competitive as possible.
5. You can benefit from efficiency of scale
Being open to collaboration doesn’t have to mean you’ll get a smaller slice of the pie - in fact, it can often help you secure more money overall. This is because the government typically isn’t interested in writing a lot of tiny checks - they’d rather save time by giving one big check to a single awardee. That means if they plan on doling out five $10m awards, you can propose - and win - a $50m award if you build a strong coalition with all of the major players in the space.
Tips for bringing potential partners onboard
1. Start early
It might take years from your first outreach before you actually work with another organization, so start building the relationship as early as possible. Opening this line of communication from the beginning will also mean you won’t waste time and resources trying to solve a problem they’ve already found the solution to.
2. Be relentless about networking
There are some online resources aimed at helping entrepreneurs find partners - for example, the Department of Energy publishes teaming lists (like this one), while the California Energy Commission has created a site called Empower Innovation. You can also harness sites like Pitchbook and Crunchbase to find other founders in your space who you might be able to pair up with, based on past award data. But it’s unavoidable that you’ll have to spend a lot of time and energy on networking, so be present in your space, speak at conferences, and be receptive to making connections. For more on building social capital as a founder, check out our piece with Paul Zelizer.
3. Show humility
When you’re having conversations with potential partners, be open and authentic about where your weak points are, and upfront about asking for help. Approaching these situations with humility will take you much further than overconfidence. This is particularly true when you’re asking organizations to help you build a more equitable and inclusive project - they’ll have a much deeper knowledge than you, and find blindspots you didn’t know you had.
4. Come with materials prepared
Have a deck ready so the person you’re talking to can circulate it with their team. This is especially important if you’re partnering with a large organization - they’ll need to get approval from their bosses to make the partnership a reality, so make it easy for them to share your story. The document should outline the project you’re envisioning, where you see a role for the other organization, and information on your company and its values. However, be careful to communicate that this plan is just a draft, and subject to change with their input.
5. Remember it’s not sales
Building partnerships is not like sales or a transaction - you’re co-creating something in an equal partnership with another entity, which will ultimately drive much better results. Center your shared values and the community you hope to serve with your project.
6. Think bigger
Approach the project with a plan in mind, but don’t limit yourself to your initial ideas. You’re not burning investor cash or limited by your own budgets, you’re being given funding to do something new and exciting, so spend time with your partner to understand what else could be possible and fuel your ambition.
7. Don't stop with the award
Grants are a great way to battle-test a relationship, and can act as a launch pad for deeper, more strategic relationships between entities that don't usually work together. If both parties are open to it, your partnership can extend far beyond the award, so treat it like the first step of a long journey together, rather than just a single project.
Sedale Turbovsky is a serial entrepreneur with a passion for building solutions in the public sector. He is the CEO and co-founder of OpenGrants, his fourth venture-backed startup and second in the public sector, which aims to transform the grant funding landscape by making it more accessible, equitable, and transparent. Sedale firmly believes that technology can be used as a powerful tool to democratize access to resources and opportunities, and is passionate about improving government and the citizen experience.
Prior to embarking on his entrepreneurial journey, Sedale worked as a issues management consultant supporting firms working with government and in heavily regulated environments. He has a long history of leading successful teams, raising capital, and building startups. Sedale possesses a number of valuable superpowers which include networking, capital raising, no-code development, and early stage ideation.