Strategies for increasing the efficacy of collaborative grant writing groups in preparing federal proposals.

Author:Dopke, Lisa


Required collaboration is becoming the norm for organizations in pursuit of Federal grant funding. While collaborative partnerships have long been encouraged, mandatory collaboration, in which the type of partner organizations (e.g., workforce development boards, K-12 schools, non-profits, community or faith-based groups, industry or businesses, etc.) are designated by the sponsoring agency, has not traditionally been required. However, many Federal departments recognize that in order to achieve the greatest return on the public investment that grants represent, a comprehensive solution that taps into the variety of resources available within a given community must be encouraged (Baker, Homan, Schonhoff & Kreuter, 1999). This commitment to protect taxpayer interests is set forth as part of a Federal agency's strategic plan, and reflects its priorities through integration of these interests with its mission and program authorities.

Mandatory grant collaboration means that collaborative writing has become a necessary skill for those charged with drafting the proposal document. The opportunity for collaboration presents many advantages for writers such as maximum input, checks and balances, access to a depth of experience, resources, joint knowledge, error reduction/achieving a more accurate text, and potentially, a higher quality document (Appel, 2005; Noel & Robert, 2004). However, these benefits hinge upon the ability of the collaborative group as a whole to carry out interactions and subsequent writing tasks effectively. This is often simpler in theory than in practice, given that the turnaround time for many requests for grant proposals is now 30 to 45 days from announcement in the Federal Register.

When such collaborative structures are not already in place (i.e., "... an alliance among individuals linked by a common problem in order to develop a viable solution for addressing that problem") (Crawley, Hughes, Dopke & Dolan, 2007, p. 184), creating an innovative program that represents a true collaboration of organizational resources and ongoing reciprocity can be difficult to achieve within these constraints. Moreover, even when underlying structures for collaboration are in place, the communication required to orchestrate a diverse team through a successful grant writing endeavor, and subsequent implementation (if funding is awarded), tends to be challenging from the outset for a number of reasons.

For instance, group members from representative organizations may play diverse roles and/ or have differing levels of influence within and outside of their organization (Bacon, 1990), leading to dissention in assignment of tasks. Partnering organizations also do not necessarily share similar missions and organizational acculturation (Palmeri, 2004), which dictate how and when work is accomplished. The group's ability to mediate these, and other differences, therefore likely plays a significant role in whether or not they can achieve a successful outcome.

In addition, "because collaborative work often places unique demands on participants --requiring some unfamiliar attitudes and behaviors and a wide range of specialized skills--collaborative capacity is greatly influenced by both the existing skills, knowledge and attitudes members bring to the table and efforts taken to build, support, and access this capacity" (Foster-Fishman, Berkowitz & Lounsbury, 2001, p. 243). In other words, not only is it essential to strategically select the group's members, as each individual's skills, talents and work habits must provide an added value to the whole, but the ability of the group to communicate and work together to achieve its collective purpose also largely depends on how effectively its dynamics are organized and managed to create conditions that promote collaboration.

Ensuring the success of collaborative grant writing endeavors is of utmost importance for organizations seeking Federal grant funding. And while past research on collaborative writing provides a broad overview of collaborative writing practices across a variety of settings, such strategies have yet to be established within the context of collaborative grant proposal writing (hereafter referred to as grant writing). This study therefore sought to identify practical strategies for organizing and managing group dynamics and tasks by exploring the following research questions:

  1. What information might help professionals position themselves and their organization for success as they prepare to embark on collaborative grant writing endeavors?

  2. What strategies are being deployed by professionals who participate in collaborative grant writing activities to organize and manage group dynamics (i.e., managing interpersonal communications, negotiating conflict, assigning roles, establishing a communication plan, and debriefing)?

  3. What strategies are being deployed by professionals who participate in collaborative grant writing activities to organize and manage group tasks (i.e., information collection, document management, and writing tasks)?

Findings were used to build a typology of the roles specific to collaborative grant writing groups, and to provide a discussion of ideal group composition and leadership. In addition, strategies were presented within the framework of a model based on Fisher's (1970) theory of small group decision-making. According to the theory, group communication transactions can be organized into four phases; orientation, conflict, emergence and reinforcement. Fisher postulates that groups consistently move from one phase to the next, and sometimes back again, as collective decisions are made. Creating a model of the collaborative grant writing work continuum consistent with the theoretical phases of decision emergence provided a way to demonstrate how particular strategies, when deployed at specific points, might help groups move through the collaborative and writing processes more efficiently. It is anticipated that the suggested best practice strategies will increase the effectiveness of groups in developing an innovative project that can then be represented through a collective proposal document.

Literature Review

A review of the literature reveals that collaborative writing as a subject of inquiry began in the late 1980s (Noel & Robert, 2004). Over the past decades such research has explored the topic in a variety of ways. For example, researchers have examined the writing strategies used by collaborative writing groups (Noel & Robert, 2004; Stratton, 1989), the assignment of group roles (Nelson & Smith, 1990; Stratton, 1989), the influence of gender (Lay, 1989), the use of collaborative writing assignments in business communications courses (Scheffler, 1992; Duin, 1990; Nelson & Smith, 1990), and the impact on, and use of, technology in collaborative writing endeavors (Jones, 2005; Sakellariadis, et al., 2008). The majority of these studies have been qualitative in nature, using case studies, open-ended interviews and surveys, or a combination thereof to explore the topic and establish a basis for understanding collaborative writing processes in these various contexts. Yet, even with several aspects of this topic having been explored, many inconsistencies remain; thus, the information that we have about collaborative writing in general tends to be somewhat fragmentary and unfocused (Mien, Atkinson, Morgan, Moore & Snow, 1987).

One reason for inconsistencies across research may be that there has been little agreement in defining the term collaborative writing (Beck, 1993; Lowry, Curtis & Lowry, 2004). For instance, Duin (1990) defined collaborative writing as "... a process that requires support for more than just the exchange and maintenance of information" (p. 45), while Jones (2005) defined it "... as interaction by an author or authors with people, documents, and organizational rules in the process of creating documents" (p. 450). In addition, seemingly synonymous terms are used throughout the literature such as cooperative writing, group authoring and co-authoring (Lowry, et al., 2004), which is indicative of the numerous iterations of collaborative writing endeavors. Consequently, these variations make it difficult to interpret the findings of the existing research with any degree of specificity (Allen, et al., 1987; Lowry, et al., 2004). What has been established, however, is the difficult nature of writing collaboratively, the wide range of strategies groups use for producing a collective document, roles that emerge as a group moves through stages of interaction and the writing process, and the influence and functions of interpersonal communication within collaborative writing groups.

One observation that nearly all researchers agree on is that collaborative writing is as difficult as it is complex, and that it involves both social and intellectual aspects. This complexity is well illustrated in the following discussion by Kraut, Galegher, Fish & Chalfonte (1992):

Socially, collaborative writing requires that group members establish shared achievement goals, that they divide tasks among themselves keeping in mind both concerns for fairness and differences in individual skills, and that they resolve questions of authority within their group. Intellectually, it requires that group members establish shared rhetorical goals and a common understanding of the facts on which the document is to be based. They must also solve high-level writing problems ... To meet these social and intellectual challenges, group members must also contend with considerable procedural complexity. That is, they must adopt procedures that will enable them to get their work launched; to circulate draft versions among group members; and to refer to specific portions of their documents as pieces of text are created, revised, and incorporated into a unified whole. To launch their work, group members must be able to coordinate...

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