Let’s go beyond calls for proposals

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This blog was originally published on Percorsi Secondo Welfare on 18 May.

The coronavirus crisis that we are now facing is bringing about a slow-down or interruption in many sectors of activity. Yet the forced closure we are going through is generating even more intense needs than previously. One clear example is the challenge to social cohesion, with the tangible risk in this period, that those who were already alone and in difficulty are now even further behind and isolated. Foundations are therefore all working hard not to put on pause their grant-giving and project efforts, so as not to lessen the support to essential services during this period. Soon, however, we will be pondering not only on our response to the emergency, but also on proposals for far-reaching initiatives, aimed at supporting the challenging economic and social recovery.

This period is therefore also an opportunity to reflect on the operative approach and the most effective tools to be adopted by philanthropic institutions, in their role of support, but also of innovative stimulus of their community. In the following article we wish to discuss overcoming the traditional calls for proposals, or rather of the dichotomy between calls and centralised projects.

The call for proposals: a tool both loved and hated by public or private philanthropic bodies that provide grants, and even more by third sector players who put forward project proposals for funding. Recent trials, promoted in the Province of Cuneo by CRC Foundation, are exploring interesting roads to go beyond the traditional tool of calls for proposals, while keeping together integrated planning and individual requests from the local area.

The pros and cons of calls for proposals

The pros and cons of calls for proposals are well known. Let’s start with the first ones. They are a democratic, transparent, objective means of selecting in the respect of the stakeholders:

  • Democratic because they offer all admissible organisations the opportunity to participate and to succeed;
  • Transparent because the rules of the game, the criteria of eligibility and for assessment are spelled out ex-ante;
  • Objective because the presence of assessment criteria, especially if quantitative (for example the number of pupils involved in a project, the number of beds created in a nursing home, etc,), leads to rewarding initiatives that best match the objectives of the funding organisation;
  • Respect of the local area, because it leaves the responsibility of drawing up the project proposal to those actually working in the field.

Calls for proposals, on the other hand, do have some downsides, or undesirable side effects, to use medical terminology.

Firstly, it must be said that it is not always possible to adopt “quantitative and objective” evaluation criteria, and so a certain degree of subjectivity in the assessments will always exist. We try to remedy this by having a number of competent and independent people carry out assessments, with the overall project ranking resulting from the average of the single evaluations. What we would most like to highlight are the undesirable side effects linked to the competitive nature of calls for proposals and the split mechanism that they generate. The competing dynamic that is created between tender participants may actually cause competition between similar entities (sports associations, neighbouring municipalities, schools etc,), that the funding institution would rather see work together in a spirit of cooperation. At times the points awarded to applicants in partnership can be effective in mitigating this effect, but in many cases may lead to rather bogus partnerships, in which a leading actor obtains a formal, but not necessarily substantial, participation by other partners.

The second problem to be noted is linked to the fact that funding bodies are subjected to two opposing issues: on the one hand the aim of funding large projects that can have a positive effect on the relevant community; on the other hand the desire to fund the largest number of projects possible, compatible with available budget, in order to reach, benefit and enable the largest number of actors. In the best of cases, this debate leads to a balance of common sense, between the number of projects funded and the size of the projects. But the fact remains that, through a call for proposals, and with the dynamics noted above, it is difficult to choose 1 or 2 well planned and integrated project proposals for a whole area, while in many cases this is exactly what is needed.

Centrally directed projects

An alternative to calls for proposals for funding institutions and in particular philanthropic foundations is the promotion of centrally promoted projects. This approach is effective when the objective to be reached requires a significant critical mass, or is on a large territorial scale, for example an initiative promoting tourism within a region, or a systemic change that is widespread in a certain service sector. Or else when an experimental initiative is planned, with its effects to be rigorously assessed.

Promoted projects often follow in-depth phases of analysis and research, and are carried out through partnerships with various players in the area, that may include local bodies, universities or associations. However, this centralised planning, though usually carefully carried out by invited entities, demonstrates the weakness of not having been started at “grass-roots level”, but rather planned from above and proposed to the local area with negative consequences on sustainability, as local players may not feel sufficiently involved.

A third way: coordinated calls

And so we are face with a dilemmachoosing between the call or the project, with both routes having their own side effects.

In the Province of Cuneo, in North West of Italy, CRC Foundation has recently initiated two interesting experiments that open up a “third way”, with very promising outlooks. We can call it “Coordinated calls”. We describe it below, using concrete cases. They are two initiatives promoted in the Welfare sector, “FamigliARE (Families). Actions, Relationships, Experiences” and “Mondo Ideare (Designing World). Youth and associations for change”.

FamigliARE, created following a research carried out at provincial level by interviewing 500 families (for more details on the research, coordinated by CRC Foundation Studies Centre and carried out by CISF – Centro Internazionale Studi Famiglia, please see pubblications available here), aims at providing answers to “normal” family issues, those of the sandwich generation, squeezed by work and educational commitments, child care and looking after elderly parents, often in situations of solitude, stress and frenzy.

Mondo Ideare sprang from the dual objective of stimulating the active participation of the younger generation in finding innovative solutions to social challenges in the local area, while activating cooperation with existing associations, in order to favour a generational exchange in the voluntary sector.

Both projects came about with the aim of developing community actions able to:

  • allow citizens a leading role in creating and achieving initiatives responding to social needs – from the listening phase, to the co-planning, to joint management;
  • favour the creation or strengthening of formal or informal partnerships, also with the involvement of new players and of local and regional networks;
  • support innovative and transformative initiatives, integrated in the actual services system.

And we come to the Coordinated calls. In order to promote participatory and generative processes, as desired, the first challenge is to identify initiatives that are already happening in the area, and involve public and private players already working on the matter in hand, including those that are not usually direct or indirect partners or beneficiaries of a foundation/funding body, as, in this case, youths and families not necessarily members of an association. This phase of area “scouting”, carried out by technical partners, reflects the logic of a tender, and is the first step of the Coordinated call.

The second challenge is to promote cooperative and co-design paths that are as inclusive as possible especially involving the players identified in the first step; with citizens, public bodies, the third sector, even private firms, all equally listened to and involved in project planning. To reinforce and stabilise the cooperation between all players the idea of a true partnership or area alliance is encouraged.

Finally, the plan is to stimulate the creation of integrated proposals, with a critical mass and which are truly useful, avoiding the risk of replicating existing or episodic actions, unable to bring about long-term change in the social fabric. This is therefore the design phase of a Coordinated call that reproduces the logic of centrally promoted projects; the project proposal ideas – only put forward by partnerships that have taken part in initial steps – are developed into detailed projects, starting with a direct exchange with the foundation and planning support schemes.

In an ideal Coordinated call, for every “area district” involved (in Cuneo Province we have defined 4 areas) one or, at the most, two integrated project proposals will emerge, that will be financially supported by the foundation for a substantial period, e.g. three years. Initiatives with roots in pre-existing ventures, but re-launched on a very different scale in terms of innovation, size, coordination, impact. Of course it could happen that an area district may not agree on just one or two proposals, but may continue to suggest more: In this case it would be up to the funding foundation to make the final selection. These steps allow for an opening up of discussion between funding institutions and applicants – diverging from the assessor/assessed logic – with the aim of making improvements of project proposals that gradually emerge, but also in changing some rules of the game hypothesised at the beginning stages.

Let’s get back to concrete applications. At the beginning of 2020 the second phase ended with the funding of coordinated projects, and the coronavirus crisis caused a slowing down of activity, and so it’s still early days to take stock of these experiments.

However, some considerations can be shared. It seems clear that – having passed an initial phase of confusion – there has been full willingness from the local community to get involved in participatory project planning, even with the uncertainty of the final funding outcome. Cooperative rather than competitive logic has emerged, that has led to project ideas, in the first phase of the call, arising from every geographical area, exactly what was missing in the traditional tender.

Also some lessons learnt emerge from these first few months of activity, among which:

  • the need to allow for adequate time (involvement and activation processes take a long time, there is the risk of losing initial momentum, or wasting too much energy in the building up of partnerships rather than in the creation of good ideas)
  • the risk that the stimulus to co-desing may lead to a loss of quality and innovation of proposals, as too much energy is dedicated to the management of diverging opinions and the desire to reach shared conclusions
  • the need to support local partners in acquiring adequate methods and tools (that may also mean organisational changes within institutions and third sector organisations)
  • the necessity, as funding institutions, to be ready to learn from ongoing processes and to change management methods and relationships with territorial networks, throughout the working process

The Coordinated call, therefore, is a tool to be tested by trial and error, and improved on in its various stages. It is a more challenging approach compared to the traditional call for proposals and requires a demanding level of involvement by funding bodies.

It does not fully answer the request, coming in particular from third sector bodies, and recently raised in some relevant articles (see here), to provide grants to organisations rather than projects, but it is probably a first response to this need. Actually, looking at the first experiments this tool seems to demonstrate the capacity to hold together initiatives of the area, activities already taking place, and centralised programmes: results generated at the end of the projects must be rigorously checked, but this tool seems to be the one that offers the innovative initiatives promoted the best chance of bringing about systematic change, wide-spread and long-lasting over time.

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