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POSITIONED TO WIN: How can communities organize to pursue federal funds and just about anything?

Updated: May 17

By RDG Director of Innovation and Global Research Doug Radcliff

As a result of the ongoing pandemic, we know governments at all levels are suffering financially. What is the federal government doing to help improve the climate? President Joe Biden has proposed one of the largest, “once-in-a-generation investments in America.” The American Jobs Plan includes over $2 trillion of federal money that would go to rebuilding schools, fighting climate change, restoring landmarks, transportation and other forms of infrastructure. The money will be reserved for various categories, such as over $600 billion for rebuilding roads, highways and bridges. Airports would also undergo restructuring. Over $200 billion would be reserved for constructing affordable housing units. About $110 billion would guarantee clean drinking water in schools. A little under $20 billion would be reserved for updating Veterans’ hospitals. This money will be allocated to various communities and cities around the U.S., and you should be asking yourself, “How can my city and/or region best position itself to receive our fair share?”

I took the opportunity to interview RDG Principals Rob Radcliff and Mike Trubiano to gain their perspectives on how regions win when seeking federal funding for projects. Prior to launching RDG, Rob and Mike spent the first decade of their professional careers working around all levels of government, first serving as Committee Staff Directors in the Ohio Legislature and then later as the Chief Lobbyist for the Columbus (OH) Chamber of Commerce (among other organizations). In these roles, Rob and Mike learned the value of coalition building and organizing for change. Since launching RDG over 25 years ago, they have continued working with cities, regions and states, helping them align goals, build coalitions and deploy leaders to impact change.

How Does a Community Get Started?

I think it’s important to start with some of the fundamentals of community building: collaboration and convening, something any good EDC or Chamber must be able to manage. On a fundamental level, a city or region must be ORGANIZED. A good place to begin is by assembling and convening a group (we shall call it a Table) of local, regional and/or statewide leaders that will have heightened interest in the specific goal you wish to achieve, whether it be seeking federal funding for a project(s), passing a local tax levy, etc. For purposes of this discussion, the focus is leveraging federal infrastructure funding, but the basic principles apply to just about anything, whether it be the upcoming Jobs Plan, the recently adopted $350 billion American Rescue Plan or ongoing efforts to secure virtually any source of funds to help your community.

Who Should be Sitting at the Table?

The Table should consist of apolitical, civic organizations such as Chambers, political leaders as well as individual thought leaders. The Table should include cities, county governments, regional planning commissions, business leadership throughout the area, etc. Basically, the Table should include any organization that will have a significant project for which they may be seeking funding from this source. Furthermore, a lot of funding might come with a local community match, so leaders that could provide this funding match should be at the table to speed up the process. Additionally, the Table must be aware of how money is distributed locally, and should include those responsible for distribution. Most importantly, the Table should err on the side of inclusion. In this situation, it is better to invite more than less.

The Table should also include a Chair or possibly Co-Chairs to facilitate the process. While technically the job of the Chair(s) is to lead, much of the work will more closely resemble managing cooperation. The Chair(s) must have the unique ability to set aside their personal agenda for the greater good as their most important job is to move these potential competing political interests towards a commonly shared set of priority projects. The Chair should be chosen because they are respected for getting things done and are viewed as politically neutral.

What is the Goal of the Table?

It is important for the Table to recognize that their job is not to protect their own individual self-interest, but rather to secure money for the city or region. As this is the case, a Priority List of projects must be developed. First and foremost, the Priority List should be comprised of community, not individual priorities. In a perfect world, individual and community priorities will align; however, the more likely scenario is that work will have to be done to find the “sweet spot” of projects - while perhaps not satisfying everyone’s primary interest, the list is comprehensive enough that everyone involved sees something they can call their own.

Government leaders at all levels should be informed immediately that your community is attempting to organize in order to secure funding. This lobbying process should be started even before the Priority List is developed.

The most important thing to bear in mind when developing a Priority List and attempting to secure funding is that a divided constituency helps no one. Therefore, everyone at the Table must be on the same page and push towards consensus. In order to do this, the Table should focus on developing a List that focuses on key priorities for the community. The Priority List must be agreed upon by everyone at the Table.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that while different regions of a State will have different priorities, quite possibly there may be areas of crossover commonalities - federal and state interstate improvements, bridges, etc. Inter-community projects offer unique opportunities to come together with other regions on a commonly shared vision, thus improving the chances of leveraging funds. Often times this step is overlooked; however, when broader, more regional coalitions can be built around specific projects, it will greatly enhance the strength of the consortium.

Don’t Forget to Tell Your Story.

This is one area where it doesn’t really help to stay “behind the scenes”. It is important to develop a narrative to support the Priority List – i.e., why are these particular projects on the List, how do they relate to each other, etc. Using the narrative to pursue media endorsements, political endorsements, and generally deploy a broad-based communications strategy can enhance the likelihood of funding some of the projects. At its core, the narrative should articulate a compelling need for the funds and how they will enhance the community/region.

In simplified terms, some key steps for this journey include:

  1. Create an inclusive Table with an apolitical, non-governmental leader capable of facilitating a meaningful consensus building process.

  2. Inform political leaders of the Table’s desire to seek funds.

  3. Develop a Key Priority List unanimously endorsed by the Table.

  4. Build a story line that articulates a compelling need for the funds.

  5. Strategically seek broad-based community endorsements.

While the details of the American Jobs Plan are not yet known, you will be rewarded for organizing early. Meaning, do not wait until the details are released to organize and begin developing the Table and Key Priority List. Have a plan prepared so that when the details are released, your community can be out in front. Coalition building is hard work, but it may also be the most important thing you can do to position your organization as a community building “thought leader”. When it’s time to convene to build support for virtually any major challenge or opportunity, you want to be the “go to” agency of record.

Authored by Doug Radcliff.

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