Most councils and government agencies have community grants programs.
And most of those programs kill innovation.
Why? Because the typical applicant is so desperate to be funded they try to second guess what the agency is looking for by packing the grant application full of buzz words extracted from the agency’s documentation, and what got funded last year, rather than gamely having a go with imaginative ideas. There is simply no incentive for innovation in the conventional grant process, and plenty of fear of being knocked back for being too radical.
And because the application form is usually completed 5 minutes to midnight before the close-off date by a tired group president or secretary, there is simply no way that much deep or original thought goes into most project plans.
That’s why 90% of the language in grant applications reads like an opaque pile-up of management speak, like:
“To provide educational programs and tools to build knowledge, skills, to increase the adoption of sustainable agricultural and natural resource management through community ownership, partnerships and collaboration.”
[This is a true example. Translation: “Probably we’ll do what we did last year.”]
From that point on, the grantee thinks they are legally bound to do whatever they wrote, even if they’re not sure what it meant, and even if it isn’t working.
YET, if the aim is engaging other human beings in a community project, then doing novel, surprising, imaginative things is of the essence. That’s because the human mind barely registers predictable stimuli. To get people buzzing, to draw them in, to make them want to break their schedules, to invest their time, to get excited, and to focus their attention so they actually learn, it’s all about breaking stereotypes.
And that requires creativity. And creativity requires joy, which isn’t going to happen 5 minutes to midnight before a close-off date.
South East Local Land Services (the natural resource management agency for south east NSW) is being innovative, having fun, creating love, and transforming community Landcare projects, by innovating the conventional Landcare grant process.
Here’s what they did.
First they simply asked for brief expressions of interest.
Then they invited applicants into a one-day hothousing workshop to develop their ideas in an enjoyable, creative atmosphere, with their peers, and some professional project design and innovation processes thrown in.
The applicants worked in pairs and teams, using enjoyable innovation processes to create user experiences that would get their own communities buzzing. And they also got to swap vague abstractions for the kind of touch-and-feel-plain-English-with-word-pictures that’s actually likely to communicate with listeners and readers.
They also did some clear thinking: What’s the real problem? What really needs to change? What motivates our actors?
ONLY THEN did they go away to write their grant applications, over two weeks, with a mentor from the agency at their side.
Here’s that the applicants liked about the process:
“encouraged to be playful; permission to dream; a way to have a clean look at things; forced to examine problem; time bouncing around crazy ideas; the ridiculous ideas session was good; tailoring to fit real life problem; time to stop and focus with my team; built excitement and clarity, new ideas, fantastic investment of time; completely changed my project” and more delighted responses.
I had a sneak peak at the final project plans…and I am proud of what they created. Also, I can actually picture their ideas in my head because they used plain English, and so I’m excited too.
This leads to an interesting question… is it possible to get innovative results without first having innovative processes?
Interested in trying this? Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll pass on the contact details of the SELLS program manager who I’m sure would be happy to answer your questions.