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Creative Collaborations: 4 Tips for Adding Spark to Your Grant Proposals by Thinking Outside the Partnership Box

An outside-the-box partnership can give your grant proposal just the spark to make the reviewer say, “Wow – haven’t seen this before!” And that spark can mean the difference between “Hmm, maybe” and an enthusiastic “Yes!” Here are a few examples to kick-start your creative thinking.


How important is collaboration to successful grantseeking? One Federal program officer answered that question at a public forum with astounding and revealing bluntness:

“Whether our request for proposals requires a partnership or not,” he said firmly, “I have to tell you, if it ain’t collaborative, it ain’t gonna be competitive.”

I couldn’t agree more. At GrantsMagic U we call this “The Partnership Imperative.” I don’t use many absolutes but based on my long experience as both a grantseeker and a grantmaker, here’s one I stand by 100%:

Partnering and collaboration is the single most powerful amplifier and accelerator of your grants success. Period.

Which brings us to the question: Where do you find potential partners, anyway?

Let’s take a look at a few out-of-the-box options.

“Obvious” and “Out-of-the-Box”: What’s the difference?

You can probably come up with one or more “obvious” partners for your organization. If you’re a volunteer-based literacy agency, for instance, your obvious partners might be libraries and schools – other organizations who share your focus on teaching people to read.

The great thing about obvious partners is that they’re . . . well . . . obvious. It’s clear how their goals and resources connect with and support each other. And don’t get me wrong! You certainly don’t want to overlook the obvious connections when you’re thinking about potential partners.

But the downside of obvious partners is that they’re … well … obvious. From the grant reviewer’s perspective, there’s nothing wrong with seeing yet another grant proposal linking a volunteer literacy agency with a school or library. And it’s definitely better than no partnership at all. But let’s be honest: It’s … obvious. And not very interesting.

That’s why a little creative thinking in our collaborations can give a proposal just the spark it needs to take it out of the nothing-wrong-with-it-but-seen-it-before proposal stack and turn it into a proposal that makes the reviewer wake up and say, “Wow – haven’t seen this before – wonder what they’re up to here!”

To get your creative wheels spinning, here are 4 out-of-the-box ways to think about partnering – with real-life examples that won the hearts (and dollars) of grant reviewers.

1. Similar organization type, similar focus, different geographic area

Can you link the work you’re proposing to do with similar work being done by a similar organization, just in a different community or region?

Maybe someone somewhere else has already tested out the strategy you’re proposing. Can you bring them into your proposal as a mentor?

Or maybe you can propose to see how the same strategy might work with two different populations in two different areas – for instance, in an urban and a rural environment.

One great example:

A West Coast marine aquarium wanted to set up a grant-funded summer internship program with local high schools. Clearly they would cite the high schools as partners. But they took their collaborative thinking to a new level when they reached out to a marine aquarium on the East Coast that already had a summer internship program, and asked if the East Coast folks would help them set up the pilot program and mentor them the first time through.

With this cross-country mentorship, a program that had started out local now took on a broader geographic scope. The “newbie” program gained credibility through their partner’s experience. They were able to attract a national funder with their first proposal – and their brand-new program was off and running.

2. Different focus, different organization type, shared resource

This is where collaborative thinking can get really creative: When you bring together organizations that, on the face of it, have nothing in common except the fact that they’re operating in the same community.

You may be doing entirely different kinds of work, serving entirely different target populations. Yet you share a resource need that can be fulfilled by a single grant.

In other words, you’re offering the grantmaker the chance to leverage the value of the grant investment – to get a kind of two-for-the-price-of-one return on the grant award.

My favorite example:

A grantmaker received a collaborative proposal from two very different agencies. One was an adult day care program for developmentally disabled senior citizens. The other one provided services to “street kids” – teenagers who are homeless, runaway, living on their own on the streets.

What was the link? The proposal requested a shared resource – in this case, a van that both agencies could use.

The program for street kids would use the van to bring food to the kids, do welfare checks, make sure they had clothes, keep them safe from drugs, violence, and so on. And they would do this when the street kids are most active – at night.

The senior adult care program would use the van to transport its clients to medical and social services appointments – between 8 am and 5 pm!

One van, two organizations with very different purposes, serving different target populations – able to find a creative way to share the use of a single resource. The grantmaker loved it.

 3. Different organization type, different focus, different rewards

Variation #3 looks a lot like #2 but there’s a subtle difference. Here, two organizations with intrinsically different purposes come together in a way that gives each of them something they want – and the rewards are different.

Let’s go back to our volunteer literacy agency:

Suppose we’re looking for new partners to help us recruit volunteers in a community where recruitment and retention has historically been difficult. Our big idea: Let’s work with local churches to recruit our volunteers from among their members. Voila! An out-of-the-box “Wow, haven’t seen this before!” partnership.

What makes this partnership work for the partners is the what’s-in-it-for-us – in other words, the “rewards” each partner gets. And in this case the rewards are very different.

The literacy agency’s focus is serving our adult learners, and this partnership helps us do this by giving us something we need – our “reward.” Which is what? A new way to recruit volunteers.

The churches’ focus, on the other hand, is serving their members. And how does this partnership help them do this? By offering their members a volunteer opportunity that they feel good about – and that makes them feel good about their church community, too. That’s their “reward”!

4. Different organization type, different focus, common issue

Here’s one more variation with subtle but powerful distinctions. Two organizations that are very different in type, and with intrinsically different focuses, come together because they’re interested in addressing the same issue – each from its own perspective.

Here’s a winning example:

YouthPlay is a community theater that showcases original productions by high school students. They decide to stage a play that reveals the impact of a teenaged girl’s meth addiction on her own life and that of her family and friends.

YouthPlay partners with Been There, a local behavioral health and addiction agency, to provide the background expertise and present follow-up programs in the community. The organizations are very different in type – a community theater and a behavioral health agency. And their overall missions are very different. But in the short term, they come together around a common issue: Creating community awareness around addiction.


All of these proposals fell into the “can’t say no” category and were enthusiastically recommended for funding – which is where we all hope our proposals will land.

Thinking collaboratively about ways to share the roles, responsibilities, resources, and rewards in our grant-funded proposals will move us in the right direction. And thinking creatively about collaboration – thinking outside the partnership box – is one strong strategy for grantseeking success.

Happy partnering, my friend – and happy grantseeking!



If you enjoyed this post, please share! For more great grants tips and training from GrantsMagic U, please visit us at  And if you’re new to grantseeking and could use a getting-started boost, be sure to check out GrantsMagic U’s free Quick-Start Guide to the One-Page Grant Proposal – a simple, powerful proposal planning tool plus three-part video training to get you on your way to success! 




  1. Lezlee Alexander on April 2, 2019 at 5:09 am

    Excellent ideas and suggestions to bring them to light – thanks!

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