Recent LinkedIn discussion among grant writers has focussed on the role of congressional support in successful grantseeking. In this blog, I’d like to structure and summarize the perspectives to date, comments that are too verbose for LinkedIn posts.  On most dimensions of this topic, grant writers agree, but in a few cases they don’t.

WHENWhen should you seek congressional support? The best time is when you are not applying for a grant.  Let them become familiar with your organization, its mission, service area, key personnel, and track record. Later on, if you need a letter of support, they’ll be aware of your organization.

SUPPORT LETTER REQUESTS. How often should you seek letters of support from congressional officials? While we may have some divergence of opinion on this topic, my view is to use selective discretion.  I would not request a letter of support if I was, say, a university chemistry professor seeking NSF support for a proposal entitled “Structural Characterization of Highly Reactive Heme Enzyme Intermediates.” I would solicit a letter of support if I were pursuing a congressional earmark appropriation (not a popular strategy these days) or a mega-proposal to CMS to reform Medicare.  I would request it with a two comma proposal to create new jobs.  Perhaps said differently, I would not request congressional support for most research proposals, but might in larger training and service delivery proposals.

THE NATURE OF ADVOCACYTo what extent do you want congressional officials to advocate for you? When deemed appropriate, you certainly want support letters to be included in your proposals. Do you also want to engage in “on-the-hill’ activities such as annual congressional breakfasts or forums where you advocate (a.k.a. lobby) for your current wish list and arm them with your take-away packages?  Sometimes, “yes,” – always, “no.”  It will work in cases where organizations have sufficient clout and resources, but smaller organizations with limited reputation profiles and resources may not be able to pull it off. However, nothing would preclude a DC trip for individual congressional meetings.  One place where it will not work is in academia; by that I mean individual faculty researchers, especially those in the basic and applied sciences, typically do not solicit institutional support for their individual projects.  In fact, it is usually actively discouraged and congressional contacts are usually handled through the Office of Governmental Affairs, which seldom advocates for individual grants, but may for larger institutional grants.

WHO. For your two senators and one local representative, visit their offices and find out first hand which staffer handles the topics of grant interest to you. These people should be come your next best personal friends. Tell them of your interests and invite them to send you any public information crossing their desks on these topics.  They can become strong advocates for you. Indicate you may be approaching them in the future for letters of support, including a draft that you will provide.

RISKS/REWARDS “Risky Business” is not only the title of a 1983 Tom Cruise movie, it is also an apt description of what might happen when congressional support is sought for grant proposals.  Mary Ann Borman tells an interesting story about her experience as a reviewer, witnessing a weak proposal with congressional support being funded over a high quality proposal lacking a congressional support letter. A true reward.  On the other side of the coin, I’ve been asked to do an independent review on a proposal (after it had gone through the regular peer review process) that had been aggressively advocated for funding by a U.S. Senator. I recommended that the proposal be declined and subsequently learned the peer review panel had also recommended a declination; the real reason (I later learned) that the federal agency came to me is they knew they would get pushback from the Senator and not only wanted to say they took extraordinary efforts to ensure a fair review, they also wanted me to draft a politically correct letter explaining the flawed nature of the proposal – which I did. This agency told me – off the record – that even mild congressional attempts at influencing funding decisions was a “Pain in the Attitude” (although as I think back, their word choice may not have been “attitude”). This agency make it quite clear they considered congressional involvement an unwarranted nuisance, but a reality they had to tolerate. To obtain guidance on the risk/reward ratio of including congressional letters of support in future proposals, ask your program officers during your pre-proposal contact stage if recently funded proposals included congressional letters of support and if they would be welcomed in your applications.

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