Today USAID hosts its annual Small Business Conference at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington. Below are some tips that a small business partner offer to other organizations interested in working with USAID. 

As the co-owner and co-founder of Sonjara, a woman-owned IT firm that specializes in IT for international development, I am often asked, “How do we get work with USAID?” The reality is — it isn’t easy but it IS possible.

USAID is looking for new, innovative partners who come with great ideas and real experience that can be applied to international development. For example, do you work in rural/underserved environments in the U.S.? Do you do a lot of capacity building and training of local civil society or government institutions? Do you improve the supply chain of existing government workflows? Have you worked with the World Bank, State Department, or the UN? These are all valuable experiences that just need to be shaped for USAID’s needs.

USAID staff take international development SERIOUSLY. To get a job with USAID, you often have to have decades of experience living and working overseas and have advanced degrees in international development topics. They are dedicated to international development and it shows.

And nearly everything at USAID has an international development component. The combination of the humanitarian assistance focus, tiny budgets, and working in some of the more remote/unfamiliar parts of the world means that the challenges and priorities faced by USAID may not often be faced in other government programs.

I have witnessed contractors (especially from defense) not take this passion into account and get into hot water by being ignorant of on the ground reality of working in a developing country or be dismissive of the humanitarian focus.

Conversely, I have seen companies move deftly into USAID by attending sessions on development topics and bringing relevant, non-USAID/non-international development experience to the conversation.

In contracting, USAID is more different than similar to other U.S. Government Agencies. Every expert in government contracting I have ever met has told me “Oh, USAID is different. They have their own way of doing things”. Explaining all the areas where this is true would take a book, so suffice it to say, you will probably need a partner who has experience with contracting at USAID to help you respond to RFPs effectively.

The key to getting in the door with USAID is developing relationships with existing implementing partners. The easiest and fastest way to get into USAID is to get a subcontract with an organization currently being funded by USAID. From there, you can build relationships and past performance, and prove that you understand USAID and international development.

USAID uses implementing partners (private U.S.-based and local firms and universities) to deliver its program work, and contractors to support Washington operations. These partners are both non-profits and for-profits and the work is funded through contracts and cooperative agreements.

To get in front of these folks, join advocacy groups such as SBAIC and PSC/CIDC, as well as Society for International Development (SID). Check out Interaction for a great list of US-based international development non-profits (they sometimes use small business subcontractors to help deliver on their cooperative agreements). Make sure you read and peruse the DEC (it is a goldmine of historical data!). Keep an eye out for public events on USAID focus areas where you add value; for example, if you know a ton about IT and Health, the mHealth working group sponsored by the K4Health group may be a good use of your time.

Plug into the community and you will find opportunities for your firm to bid and hopefully win a contract or two!

Learn more about how small businesses can partner with USAID or contact them.