Bid Boss has Feelings About WorkwithUSAID.org
Updated: Jul 16, 2022
In a unveiling of emerging USAID policy during Administrator Samantha Power's remarks at briefing last Thursday that I would not have learned about if I wasn't super active on LinkedIn (Whitney Kippes - hit me up if we aren't already connected 😊), USAID's officially launched the website WorkwithUSAID.org (that .org is interesting - as the holder of USAID's Partnerships Incubator, The Kaizen Company is managing the site).
USAID paired the launch of the website - designed to be a globally accessible (in English only) resource for "innovative services" and "curated tools" designed to connect partners to peers and experts and prepare to pursue USAID funding - with the launch of a very visibly active LinkedIn Group where you can actually connect with and get responses from USAID communications staff.
This alone is a huge step forward in accessibility for local partners.
In addition to a partner directory (which already has more than the usual suspects), the site boasts a pre-engagement assessment tool. The tool - essentially a series of questions across programming, compliance, HR, program management, and financial subject areas - is self-directed assessment that does help answer a lot of what I would guess common questions would be.
We helpfully swiped a lot of the resources, so you can download the assessment questions here 👇
This solves one of my ongoing challenges, which is where to direct organizations who want to apply for USAID funding and don't yet understand the complexities of rules and regulations they would be subject to during implementation. Having this as a freely available resource is a great help (even if it's in English only).
In addition, there are also some beautifully written (and photographed) success stories on partnership models, seem to be republished from USAID.gov rather than being new creations. It would be wonderful if this library could eventually become a much more in-depth analysis of how these partnerships were formed, what implementation looked like, and where things landed. Right now they're fine as success stories, but honestly most people would benefit from working with Joanne and the community at Connective Impact as an actual approach to making partnerships work at scale.
So far, great!
We all know that USAID is headed in entirely the right direction here. They've pulled together a lot of resources and content and have the vision and forethought on how to craft both a searchable and accessible site for potential partnerships, but this is a HUGE challenge to tackle and there is definitely space for improvement. Aside from the obvious gaps (language). this is all coming across as an actual avenue for operationalizing engagement with local actors. This must have been a mammoth undertaking and I want to applaud everyone who made it happen.
However, I'm a business development person. So I'm mostly interested in how USAID is going to help local partners apply for and win funding. I was hoping that I'd find that in the the resource library.
Do not get me wrong here - there are a lot of good resources about USAID policies, including understanding MERLA (when did we reorder that acronym again?), organizational development, inclusive development, and a lot more. All of that guidance seems to be great, pulling understandable descriptions of policy documents, guidelines on how to apply them, and useful tools. There are multiple sources on internal controls to defer fraud, how to navigate US government procurement systems, a lot of fun with allowable costs, and how USAID navigates branding and media training. Again - major credit to the team that sourced, developed, and organized all these materials.
But what did I do? Immediately look at that handy category of Proposal and Concept Paper Writing of course! Here's what we get:
One sadly broken link that's clearly supposed to go to the USAID Proposal Development training that Bea designed for Humentum around twenty years ago, now presented online as a four-week course presented by Keith Edwards. I might be wrong about this, but Humentum is a membership organization for nonprofits (not the only kind of USAID partner) and I thought their courses were only available to members? That might not be true... They also offer scholarships, which would have been nice to highlight! Also, 90% sure that this training is only offered in English and at convenient times for U.S.-based time zones.
One digital download proposal writing training manual for CBOs and NGOs developed by USAID and IRC and an organization I'm not familiar with called Shield (not S.H.I.E.L.D.). Again - only available in English. I'm a business development professional with a background in training and coaching, including running trainings on proposal development and USAID bid management, and I struggled to understand how this training was supposed to work. The exercises seem kind of interesting, but there isn't enough content to learn from the exercises without an experienced facilitator who knows the subject matter. Download here 👇
One link to a 35 minute training produced by USAID. I listened to the whole thing. Not bad. Not good though. Lots of words on slides and not engaging for participants (I mean, it's a single video) and only available in English, but it's free and it tells people to good-god-people-please adhere to page limits, which I will always appreciate. This is DENSE. The linked site also has a download to the quick reference you can download here 👇
Business development - the art and science of capturing, managing, writing, and winning institutional donor funding - is IMPORTANT and CENTRAL to how organizations get to be USAID partners.
If USAID really wants new partnerships, they are going to have figure out how to connect potential new partners with timely, accurate, and engaging resources on how to pursue and win competitive bids.
Nothing about how to win USAID bids is rocket science. No one is going to get to the point where they need to know the nuance of USAID's policy on social media usage (that gets more than a dozen resources in the library) if they can't read a solicitation and figure out how to respond. We've got to start with getting the start right.
Once again, I find myself defending this field of work to the people who should inherently understand its value. Surely these folks have read a bad proposal or useless concept, right? We've got to start treating this as a skillset - and a trainable skillset - if we're going to really live into having local partners as the leaders of humanitarian response and development.
Because we love the fam over at the Bid Boss Clubhouse, I asked them what resources would actually be useful. Here's what they had to say:
USAID solicitations that include an NPI component should always be translated into at least one national language. This is basic accessibility for host country organizations that often do not have many staff with English fluency, let alone the capacity to navigate complex solicitation language in English. I realize that this could potentially create complexity with procurement requirements and perceived or actual conflicts between two versions of a solicitation - however, this is not an unsolvable problem.
Training on reading USAID solicitations, proposal writing and management, and many other topics available at an affordable price point and in multiple languages. We know the leaders and emerging leaders in this space - Shipley (English only, start at $895 for online courses, and not tailored for USAID as a donor), Humentum (English plus some option in French and Spanish, starting at $750), Keylime (English only, most around $800), Development Essentials (English and in-person in the U.S. only - e.g. stopped offering trainings in 2020, most around $900), and Konektid (custom training). That's to say - this isn't just a matter of finding a training, it's a matter of funding development of training materials in multiple languages and subsidizing these so that qualified providers can make them available at affordable prices. This would be a HUGE endeavor, and worthwhile if USAID really wants to increase engagement with locally run organizations.
Training and coaching on partnership formation, with a particular focus on understanding the mentor relationship on NPI opportunities and pre-identifying bids at the capture stage. We know that Connective Impact is the place for partnership formation, but this would be a big undertaking to increase accessibility across language and time zone barriers.
Cost coverage/reimbursement for proposal support services or other support to NPI bidders to secure consultant support on proposals. These are conversations we have every week at Bid Boss, and I know Daniel Head at Head Global and Mike Shanley at Konektid are also struggling with. The braintrust of experienced proposal managers and writers that NPI bidders could bring in to help them win are largely US-based and demanding US-based rates in exchange for their services. As much as we would love to support more NPI bidders, we haven't figured out how to make the business model work.
As Susanne Barsoum of KeyLime said on the Clubhouse, operating a marketplace require meticulous concern in order to maintain the trust of your users. So far, WorkwithUSAID.gov are not inspiring a lot of trust in this potential user.