The U.S. Agency for International Development partners with over 3,000 organizations across the globe. But competition to get funding from the agency is intense, especially for new potential partners and small groups. Between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, more than half of USAID’s spending went to only 25 organizations.
Aiming to simplify the process for new and underutilized partners, USAID launched the New Partnerships Initiative in 2019. Through its “partnership incubators,” the agency aims to identify new local partners, provide training and capacity building, and develop resources for both existing and potential partners.
With decades of experience working with USAID’s experts and partners, Devex summarizes key tips for engaging with the agency as it expands its partner base:
1. Do your homework
Devex Pro Funding members can access USAID’s recent funding opportunities and contract awards on Devex’s funding platform.
The first step is to gain a deep understanding of USAID’s priorities and what it funds. Familiarize yourself with the agency’s focus areas and priorities, as well as ongoing or future programs, mission websites, and country development cooperation strategies, or CDCSs.
Second, find out if your organization’s services are a good fit. The starting point of any business development effort is aligning your services with what the agency needs and requires.
Lastly, become familiar with USAID’s funding process and jargon. Understanding the funding process — from the development of CDCSs to the publication of actual solicitations, such as grants and cooperative agreements — allows organizations to plan their engagement with relevant stakeholders. Knowing what the agency needs can serve as a guide when entering the USAID ecosystem.
2. Build connections
USAID looks for organizations that can deliver on their missions and have good track records and qualifications. In addition to researching the funding priorities your organization is interested in, also look into cultivating relationships with other organizations.
First, bear in mind that it is equally critical to understand who your potential partners and competitors are. Be proactive and strategic; focus on understanding their work, performance, and methods for USAID-funded projects in your country or area of interest, as well as what that means for your organization.
Watch past webinars that Devex has held with USAID.
Second, when entering the USAID market for the first time, it’s key to partner with or get on the radar of a “prime” organization — a larger and more established group that has previously worked on USAID programs. Primes usually start establishing or formalizing relationships with subrecipients when preparing to bid on USAID awards.
Start reaching out to primes at least three to six months prior to a procurement’s release date to be included as a potential subawardee in response to a solicitation. Also, network with past subrecipients — even if their experience with primes is limited — and capitalize on those relationships to get access to larger partners and to eventually get on a prime’s radar.
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Lastly, attend webinars and digital events about USAID. Don’t miss the agency’s quarterly business forecast and partner update webinars where you can ask questions about upcoming solicitations.
3. Be one step ahead
Scouting for funding opportunities does not start with searching on grants.gov and similar sites; that should be the very last step. It is important to gain intelligence ahead of the actual award solicitation. That way, there is more time for your organization to prepare and reach out to key stakeholders.
Early intelligence starts with the CDCSs, which outline the agency’s sectoral priorities for the coming years; they sometimes include funding opportunities that organizations need to look out for. Another way to know USAID’s future spending priorities is by reviewing the annual congressional budget justification. The agency has to look two years ahead to justify and plan its budget, giving organizations a sneak peek into future programming.
Read Devex’s quarterly analysis of new opportunities and changes in USAID business forecasts and get an overview of the pipeline in interactive visualizations.
Finally, to know more about concrete pipelines, frequently monitor USAID’s business forecast database — which includes competitive opportunities in advance of solicitation or implementation by a few months up to a year. It is accessible through business alerts on Devex.
Don’t wait until the bidding process. Start reaching out to other organizations working in the country or sector your organization is interested in to discuss how to create concept notes and future collaborative funding opportunities.
4. Focus on the evaluation criteria
The evaluation criteria will tell you what specific set of factors will be judged. It is important to do a self-assessment to see if you meet the set criteria. Then, follow the outlined instructions. If you have doubts or there is any vague language, ask questions during the open question period. Finally, use the same sections and terms that the agency used.
In your proposal, highlight technical expertise and cite previous projects. Your response will also come across much stronger if you know and can successfully incorporate USAID initiatives or priorities into your solicitation response. It may also be helpful to divide draft assignments among staffers for efficiency and to have someone responsible for editing your solicitation response and for ensuring that all materials are prepared.
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