Cooperative Agreement? Who Cares, I Won the Award!

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Do you assume that that all federal awards carry the same expectations and award requirements? I can understand why you might think that, but the reality is that each governmental agency has its own structure and they rarely change much from year to year. So it can be easy to gloss over a detail or two embedded in the lengthy sections of the RFP laying out the rules that govern how you get your program underway, manage it, and report on its impact.

But if you do nothing else before you rush to the program-focused sections of the RFP, do a document search for the phrase “cooperative agreement.” If you find it, stop immediately and read that section closely. It may influence your decision to undertake the grueling process of preparing a winning proposal.

Don’t assume that a “cooperative agreement” and a “grant” are synonymous. That can be a costly mistake. Here are the official federal definitions of these two award designations:

Grant: the assistance mechanism used when there is no demonstrated need for substantial agency involvement beyond normal oversight and monitoring activities

Cooperative Agreement: the assistance mechanism used when there is substantial agency involvement beyond normal oversight and monitoring activities

The key phrase is substantial agency involvement. What does this entail?

Before I answer my own question, I should say that having the federal government substantially involved in your program is not a good or bad thing in and of itself. I’ve seen it go both ways. Some program officers will be much more involved with your program than others. In addition, the specifics of what “significant involvement” entails can differ from one RFP to the next. The details usually appear in the Award Information section of the RFP. Here is an example from a SAMHSA proposal that I completed for a LAPA client just last week:

Role of SAMHSA Staff:

  • Review critical project activities for conformity to the goals of the NCTSI.
  • Assume overall responsibility for monitoring the conduct and progress of NCTSI programs.
  • Review the “Terms and Conditions” section of the Notice of Award with the grantee and make recommendations regarding continued funding based upon satisfactory progress in meeting goals and objectives.
  • Provide guidance on project design and components.
  • Participate in selected policy and steering groups, or related workgroups.
  • Review quarterly reports and conduct site visits, if warranted.
  • Provide support services or recommend outside consultants, if needed.
  • Author or co-author publications on program findings.
  • Provide technical assistance on ways to help disseminate and implement products of collaborative activities.
  • Consult with the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS) staff, Treatment and Service Adaptation Center project directors, and CTS project directors on all phases of the project to ensure accomplishment of the goals of the initiative.
  • Oversee development and implementation of multi-site evaluation, if supported, in partnership with evaluation contractors, NCCTS staff, and other NCTSN grantees.
  • Approve data collection plans and institute policies regarding data collection.
  • Submit required clearance packages to the Office of Management and Budget using information and materials provided by the grantee and evaluation contractor.

Would your agency be comfortable with this level of oversight? This question should be near the top of your list when you’re trying to determine if a particular RFP is right for you.

Do you want to know if a cooperative agreement is right for your agency? Email Michael Taylor, Director of Government Grants at LAPA Fundraising.

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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