The Connect U.S. Fund’s Annotated Rapid Response Check List

  1. Does the proposal address an issue of relevance to advancing U.S. leadership on today’s complex global challenges?

The proposal should address an issue that relates to U.S. foreign policy. Proposals that have a domestic focus, such as voter registration or immigration reform, are not considered. Further, proposals which do not have a clear connection to the U.S. and are focused primarily on shaping the policy of a foreign country are excluded from consideration.

However, proposals which seek to improve the effectiveness of international organizations and agencies, such as UNESCO or the UN Human Rights Council, may be considered if the overarching goal is to improve U.S. involvement with and policy toward these institutions.

We included this question as part of our criteria because advancing U.S. leadership on today’s complex global challenges is our organizational mandate. Successful Rapid Response mechanisms don’t necessarily need to pose this question, but should ask, “Does this project fit within my organizational mandate/vision/mission?” For rapid response grants to work, they should be able to apply to a broad range of issues, not just a single program or geographic area.

  1. Does the project have clear and achievable policy goal(s)?

While all proposals must have the overarching objective of advancing U.S. leadership on today’s complex global challenges, proposals must also include a specific policy goal that will achieve this objective. Successful rapid response proposals clearly identify a U.S. policy that needs to be changed. For example:

  • Funding to help develop civil society organizations in the Middle East/North Africa
  • Reduce the level of the U.S. nuclear stockpile articulated in the Nuclear Posture Review
  • Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies in the federal budget
  1. Is the goal achievable in this policy environment?

The answer will largely depend on timing of the project as well as political will within the U.S. government. For example, projects involving changes to the federal budget (or any legislation) are not likely to be achievable in a period of austerity and partisan rancour, unless the project seeks to cut funding. In order to answer this question, the program officer may need to conduct interviews with third parties, including other advocates and current or former government officials to develop a better picture.

  1. Does the project take advantage of a time-bound opportunity for policy impact?

We generally define a time-bound opportunity as occurring within a three to six month period. In other words, within a relatively short timeframe, the opportunity will no longer present itself and the project no longer has a chance to influence a policy change. The early stages of the Arab Spring, especially the events occurring in Tunisia and Egypt, are a good example of this limited window. Anything more than six months could be met with a traditional annual grant.

  1. Does the project take advantage of an unforeseen opportunity for policy impact?

An unforeseen opportunity is generally an unanticipated event that allows for a change in U.S. policy. The Arab Spring, the Fukushima disaster, and the release of Presidential Study Directive 10 on mass atrocities are all excellent examples.

However, unforeseen is not synonymous with unplanned. For instance, the Connect U.S. Fund often received rapid response applications which sought to fill organizational budget gaps or to supplement the activities conducted under another grant. The inability of an organization to plan for staffing or fundraising shortfalls is not a qualification for a rapid response grant.

The strongest applications feature both contextual opportunities (an unforeseen event in the political landscape that triggers action) and tactical opportunities (an unforeseen opportunity to utilize a particularly compelling tactic to shape policy).

  1. Is the strategy for achieving the policy goal(s) clear and credible?

The most convincing applications will include a very narrow or specific strategy (e.g., a congressional delegation to the Middle East, a roundtable of environmental advocates and business leaders on climate change, a meeting between policymakers and torture survivors). The nature of rapid response is predicated on the belief that occasionally the political environment is upended to such a degree that one or two discreet actions can result in major shifts in policy. A multi-pronged strategy which seeks to tackle the problem on multiple fronts usually (but not always) demonstrates that the applicant is not familiar enough with the issue to identify the one or two pressure points to enact policy change and, therefore, may not be the most suitable candidate to carry out the proposed project.

  1. Does the project address an immediate and discrete gap in the organization’s ability to implement the proposed effort, as well as a gap in the NGO community’s capacity to act on the issue described?

This is really two questions. First, does the applicant organization truly need outside support to accomplish what they’ve proposed? For example, do they need additional funds to hire a consultant or convene an unanticipated event that would take advantage of the unforeseen opportunity? Program officers should be careful not to confuse a real gap with a planning gap. As stated above, unforeseen is not synonymous with unplanned.

The second question is whether the NGO community as a whole has the capacity to fill the gap. Are NGOs able to come together and ensure that the unforeseen opportunity can be utilized? If not, will this gap give the NGO community as a whole the opening it needs to take advantage of the unforeseen opportunity?

  1. Do(es) the organization(s) seem capable of carrying out the strategy? Are they the right group(s) for this effort, with both the credibility and the capacity to do the job?

Hopefully, after having answered the above questions, the answer to this one is evident. But that is not always the case. Sometimes organizations that look good on paper are not capable of carrying through proposed projects. It is the responsibility of the program officer to do some basic research into the past accomplishments of the applicant organization and interview their partners to better assess whether or not the proposed project has the chance of being successful.

The answers to these questions will largely come from the program officer’s knowledge of the community, and its various organizations and their comparative advantages. If the program officer is new to the community, then he or she should at least know who the experts are within the community on the issue in question and turn to them for advice.

Extra Credit

While not entirely a requirement for other rapid response mechanisms, the Connect U.S. Fund also posed the following questions when reviewing proposals, primarily because of our model and institutional interests:

  • Is the project collaborative in nature? Is it a joint proposal or is the project’s strategy collaborative in nature?
  • Does the project engage/mobilize diverse and appropriate messengers/validators?
  • Does the project respond to a specific need that key policymakers have expressed?

Budget

  • Is administrative overhead less than 10% of the budget? Because we capped rapid response grants at $25,000, we try to keep the overhead as low as possible.
  • We would cover staff time with rapid response funds, but were always reluctant to put the majority of rapid response funds towards that time. Exceptions may be made if it is clear that the staff cannot work on the project without significant resources.
  • If we are covering staff time, or the time of a consultant, what percentage of that individual’s time will be devoted to the project? We were reluctant to support “side projects,” where an excessively minimal amount of time is being allocated.

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