ASD Roadmap

Transition Pathways Proposal

An evolving conversation about immediately improving outcomes for people with ASD

January 19, 2017

So you think a track record of successful research proposals has prepared you to approach a donor interested in funding services?  Think again! Creating a proposal for a donor to help launch a new program of services is VERY different from responding to a Request for Proposals or RFP posted for a research grant competition.  But it may also offer a different way to approach a donor and to tap into their interests and goals.

Other chapters in the story of the Transition Pathways Proposal  address some of these differences, by providing many ideas about how to structure a new program of services.  In this chapter, I talk about how the process for developing the proposal is different when a donor is involved, and when the resulting project involves multiple partners. And I also review how the resulting focus on services that deliver immediate outcomes for people living with ASD fundamentally re-shapes the structure of the proposal. In the next chapter, I discuss how difficult it can be for a traditional research setting to make the fundamental shift that a project like Transition Pathways requires, from generating knowledge not just through scholarship but by also exploring how services might be delivered with community-based partners.

Shaping the proposal through evolving conversations with donors and partners

An RFP for a research grant often sets the specific project(s) of interest into the strategic plan of the funding agency.  The project's scope, and many of its goals and parameters have already been determined and are not negotiable.  The only opportunity to use feedback to improve the proposal may be to re-submit a modified proposal the next time the competition re-opens, often a year later.

Proposals funded via philanthropy evolve very differently, especially if the donor has already supported this institution or this researcher.  The scope, goals, and parameters of the proposal may develop through a series of conversations over several meetings with a donor or their representative, and partner agencies who may be involved in implementing the final project. There may be more flexibility about the date of submission and the amount requested.  It is easy to overlook the time and effort required to support this evolving conversation, before any actual funding is secured. And this is especially true when the project depends on creating a coalition of researchers and practitioners that brings community agencies and universities together.

Program developers who have a track record of success with a donor are even better placed to begin this conversation.  In the case of the Transition Pathways Proposal, this had resulted in the negotiation of a separately funded feasibility study prior to my arrival.  This feasibility study provided the backbone for a more detailed proposal, based on a comprehensive exploration of a broad range of program options.  We were able to get feedback on detailed drafts of the project scope, goals, and parameters before submitting the final proposal.

This evolving dialogue resulted in parallel conversations with potential partner agencies, which proved extremely useful in defining shared goals, opportunities, and responsibilities.  Engaging partners like schools, vocational providers, and employers in the development of a proposal like this one was especially important, because we needed each partner agency  to make commitments about resources and accommodations. It also allowed me to propose much more specific time-lines and goals for rapid growth and phased expansion, and to be more ambitious in proposals to braid our funding and resources.

These conversations with donors, and especially with partners, can be guided by the principles of collective impact discussed earlier. This process demands that the developer of the proposal be creative, flexible, and responsive to all parties. Establishing a common agenda early on can help each conversation build on the previous one, while continuous communication can refine expectations about the scope and parameters of the evolving proposal. Discussions of shared measurement and mutually reinforcing activities will be more important for potential partner agencies. In this context, the person or agency expecting to submit the proposal naturally provides the backbone linking these evolving conversations with a donor and with partners.

A proposal that pivots on the expertise of practitioners, not on the strengths of research methods

A traditional research project pivots on the strength of its methodology. In contrast, our proposal to demonstrate and then replicate a new program of community-based services pivoted on the strength of our core team and our partner agencies. Instead of relaying the qualifications of a research team, I focused on the the expertise of our professionals in training and service delivery, and our plans for nurturing comparable expertise among the participating professionals in our partner agencies.

For this kind of project, the design, implementation, achievable outcomes, and potential for generalization and replication depended entirely on the quality of professionals involved.  The goals I set, the timelines I established, the specific staffing ratios I established, and the amount of training and coaching I anticipated that these professionals might require were based on careful estimates of their skills and experience.  Newcomers to this kind of work invariably over-estimate the training and experience that the professionals they might recruit are likely to bring to this kind of project.  They are especially likely to overestimate the availability of leaders with the kind of training and experience needed to undertake comprehensive program development.

In fact, for this project I began by working backwards from a conservative estimate of the kinds of professionals I expected we might recruit, then factored in how we might grow their expertise through training.  I developed parallel estimates for the kind of supervision they might need, and who might provide this.  Only then did I develop a timeline for how the project might expand and improve.  The detailed descriptions of the background and responsibilities of team members overseeing, delivering, and supporting services were essential to this process.

The importance of this step cannot be over-estimated. The potential to generalize and replicate this program depended entirely on our ability to understand and engage community-based agencies and professionals as true partners and leaders in their own right.  If we overestimate their skills, resources, and motivation, we can set unrealistic goals that can drain their motivation. If we under-estimate these, we will never fully harness their potential for growth and change.

A program focused on real services and outcomes

In the case of the Transition Pathways Proposal, this unfolding conversation with the donor was also important in clarifying their driving interest in achieving real outcomes right now for young adults in the spectrum.  This was important, as this donor has a long history of supporting research, and was adamant that this gift should directly support services and not focus on research. Specifically, they were eager to demonstrate how a university like Drexel might spur new programs of services that create new opportunities for employment, independent living, and higher education for young people on the spectrum transitioning into adulthood. I would not be surprised to discover other philanthropists who, having already supported research, may shift their priorities to piloting new services, especially if previous gifts never resulted in demonstrable improvements in outcomes.

The decision to focus on developing innovative programs of services that would expand capacity and achieve immediate outcomes had cascading effects not simply on the shape of the project, but on the nature of the proposal itself. For example, instead of reviewing the literature to identify how this proposal might contribute to new knowledge and advance the field, I reviewed models of comparable services available elsewhere across the country to identify their strengths and limitations. This revealed that a college-based program that was accessible to traditionally under-served youth, that focused equally on employment AND post-secondary learning, and that demonstrated how to expand though replication and systematically, would significantly improve outcomes and increase capacity.

I also reviewed gaps in the region and specific opportunities for our partners. This revealed that Drexel had neither established a program nor created partnerships with regional providers to promote hiring people with ASD (or, for that matter, with any developmental disabilities). This also revealed that Drexel's programs for supporting students on the autism spectrum had just been significantly downsized, despite the general consensus that there was a pressing need for both growth and improvement. These reviews therefore identified immediate and important opportunities that a literature review never would have.

Instead of generating testable hypotheses from this literature, I developed goals and told stories about how the proposed program could change the lives of people I had observed or spoken with. For example, I visited programs across the region,observed transition-aged youth on the spectrum, and talked with leaders about the outcomes they had achieved or had only dreamed of.

Perhaps the most compelling was a visit to an inner-city program operated by our public school partner. While the students preparing to graduate clearly had potential to work and live independently, it was clear that leaders of that school would have to climb mountains to provide these students with the opportunities they deserved, given the barriers that these school leaders had to overcome. These were exactly the kinds of under-served youth at the highest risk for the dismal outcomes documented in the National Autism Indicators Reports. And I spoke with many others: Drexel students on the spectrum who had struggled to succeed because of the lack of support; other students on the spectrum who offered invaluable insights into what might work; a father living next to Drexel whose own son on the spectrum had attended a college with programming specific to ASD, but that fell far short of expectations, and so on. In the final proposal, I collapsed these into the stories of Alisha and Dante (see sidebar), in place of the more traditional tables of statistics favored by researchers.

Instead of establishing credibility by attaching a bibliography of peer-reviewed publications in related topics, we established credibility by soliciting feedback on a project summary shared with other successful program leaders in the region and across the country.  We identified other experts in advocacy, post-secondary education, and employment, and provided a summary of the proposed project to them.  An independent agency conducted detailed interviews with these experts and summarized the findings, which were integrated into the final proposal. The enthusiasm of prospective partners also provides a measure of credibility.

A program that has an immediate and demonstrable impact

Instead of aspirations that research findings may eventually somehow translate into a better quality of life of people with ASD, the program of services that I proposed offered an immediate impact. For this project, I framed specific outcomes in terms of immediate, concrete improvements in quality of life for specific clients.  This project built on the best available science, by specifically addressing gaps identified through research and using practices and programs that researchers considered to be promising.  But this proposal went beyond the available research, by proposing to demonstrate how to lay a foundation for sustained regional growth in capacity.

Researchers often justify the support requested by presenting power analyses to demonstrate the number of participants needed for each hypothesis and phase of a research study. Instead, the power of our study was expressed in terms of the number of young adults from traditionally under-served groups who are able to achieve important life outcomes.  In place of hypotheses, I proposed to demonstrate how a program becomes accessible, sustainable, replicable, and eventually scalable. Over time, I sought to maximize the number of young adults served, decrease the cost per participant, increase the number of replication sites,  and build the capacity of community partners.

The result? A business plan instead of a research proposal

In the end, we did not create a research proposal that promised to yield new knowledge but we proposed a business plan creating more opportunities for more adults.  Many of the elements listed above and described in other chapters parallel a business plan: a "market" study of the needs among young adults on the spectrum;; the decision to immediately and directly target the untapped "market" of traditionally under-served groups; an analysis of gaps in the existing array of services; an assessment of the staffing and other resources needed to develop new services; the creation of strategic partnerships with other agencies; the calculation of costs per student and how to bring these down over time, and; long-term planning to sustain, expand, and replicate the proposed program.

Framing the proposal as a business plan has other interesting implications. For example, philanthropy is often born from a successful business, and so a philanthropist is more likely to recognize opportunities framed as a business plan with immediate and tangible benefits than a research proposal that aspires to add to a body of knowledge. Indeed, the development of the proposal may tap into the expertise of a philanthropist in overlapping areas, like how to conduct a market study, how to identify and nurture strategic partnerships, and so on.

Framing our proposal as a business plan is instructive for another important reason discussed earlier: it underscores the tremendous gap in funding for significant new programs of services. The vast majority of community-based programs have neither the funding nor the expertise that take on this challenge themselves. Our proposal therefore also demonstrates a unique role for philanthropy in program development, to act both as an incubator and as an accelerator.

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