My life was changed by the chance to be on the Small Project Assistance (SPA) committee. To provide a scale to gauge our combined efforts, in the fiscal year 2017, the SPA committee approved 43 projects for a total amount of $165,092. But, what does a SPA committee meeting feel like when the doors close and the rubber meets the road?
The committee meetings are serious discussions aimed at examining each volunteer’s application. However, the work begins months before at Project Design and Management (PDM) trainings which are partially facilitated by the committee members. The programming staff generally contours the PDM schedule around an upcoming SPA application deadline. This allows committee members to meet volunteers interested in applying for SPA funds. This time is valuable because each applicant will later be assigned a coach (SPA committee member). It allows a coach to build a relationship with applicants which helps in the grant development process. Volunteers have the option to choose the coach which best fits their style or personality. As I told volunteers during a panel discussion at the last PDM training, I prefer to give my applicants autonomy in developing their ideas but expect to open a strong channel of communication. It is important for me to thoroughly understand an applicant’s project development process, goals and outcomes. This way I can give the best recommendations or advice when the time is right. Each coach has anywhere from 4-8 applicants at a time and starts officially working with volunteers approximately two months prior to the application deadline.
The committee meetings take place in Kyiv and usually span a three to four day period until each grant is reviewed. The members have formed a team chemistry, which usually allows for an open and collaborative environment. We spend roughly 20-30 minutes reviewing in detail each grant application. It is, however, a legend that the committee once spent over 20 minutes debating the cost of a chair. Our committee consists of 8 volunteers, all of whom have their own niches. Some members are rules and regulations hawks, while others are sticklers for indicators. My energy is focused on reviewing each application’s goals and sustainability sections. A volunteer’s application shows abundant promise if it demonstrates all aforementioned elements, but others may also apply.
The committee has four options after reviewing each grant. It can either label a grant fully funding, conditionally approved, rolling re-submission, or denied. About 5-10 percent of the grants are fully funded. We have a silent celebration each time we get one of those. It reminds us that we are not so scrupulous after hours of argument and banter. The majority of grants are conditionally approved. This means the committee wants the applicant to clarify or add small details to the grant before it can be fully funded. 20-30 percent of the applicants fit into the rolling re-submission sphere meaning there are major changes needed before their grant can be approved by the committee. Generally, these applicants have 1-2 months to make the changes needed. If they have not made the changes, they will be asked to reassess their project and apply for the next application timeline. It is very rare that we will outright deny an application. However, it is known to happen in extreme cases.
This is the only process I know of which allows applicants the opportunity to work with a coach throughout the grant development process and give the applicants opportunity to adjust their grants in accordance with standards. The committee members have learned it is not a good path to walk hand in hand with the applicants throughout the entire process. This only spells headaches. Instead, the best coaches keep their distance and allow for the crème of the crop to rise to the top.
A volunteer once told me, it is easier to get millions of dollars from the government than it is to fund a SPA grant. And, while this may be exaggerated, it holds some truth. The committee is aware of the struggles linked with developing a project with international partners. Even more, we understand the challenges of managing a project in Ukraine. That is why we strive to make project implementation smooth for volunteers and counterparts. Our goal is to increase the functionality of each project. We do not shy away from or apologize for setting high standards on all projects funded through Peace Corps Ukraine’s SPA program. We may not be the biggest, but we aim to be the best.
*These are the thoughts of Richard J. Roman and are not those of the Peace Corps or its affiliates.