5th Edition of Proposal Planning and Writing Just Published

Very few grantseeking books make it to the stage of the fifth edition. That’s why we were very pleased when Greenwood Press asked use to update our longstanding Proposal Planning and Writing book.

Most publishers expect a 20-30% revision when going from one edition to the next. Readers of our 5th edition will find roughly a 75% change. Frankly, it took a lot of work because the field of grantseeking is so fluid.

New to this edition is a comprehensive chapter on sustainability, an expanded presentation of logic models and advanced writing tips.  Throughout the book you will find more examples and annotated examples. A new section called “Grant Gaffes” has been added, which contains common but flawed response often included in proposals. These negative examples highlight mistakes others have made, ones that you’ll want to avoid. We annotate key dimensions of the response in call-out bubbles, drawing attention to what went right, where the narrative veered off course, and what could be done to rescue the passage.

Other new proposal topics include the following:

  • international grantseeking opportunities
  • justifying the need for basic science research
  • coordinating budgets and proposal narratives
  • overcoming writer’s block
  • collaborative writing
  • a model for resubmission proposal

One additional enhancement: starter sentences.  A big challenge in writing any proposal section is overcoming inertia, getting started.  Once the first few sentences are written, then the rest of the section seems to flow more easily.  To help jump-start your grant writing, in each of the proposal writing chapters, we’ve included ten starter sentences to help speed up your writing process.

The book is available on Amazon or the publisher’s web site: http://www.abc-clio.com/product.aspx?isbn=9781440829697

THE FIVE FACES OF SUSTAINABILITY

Financial Sustainability. The concept of financial sustainability is obvious: you need financial fuel to keep the engine running. You may need money to keep certain project aspects going, such as travel to service sites, medical supplies for patients, training materials for attendees, and incentives for research participants. Multiple financial sustainability options exist and include, but are not limited to, special events, fee-for-service, membership fees, grants, direct mail, planned giving, investment income, and phone-a-thons.

Structural Sustainability. Structural sustainability borrows the notion from engineering that projects should be rooted in permanence. When applied to grant projects, this means that infrastructure, systems, and procedures must be in place in order for services to be delivered and received in a particular setting. In some instances, you will already have these elements in place, such as access to the target population, service sites in the community, a means for communicating regularly with stakeholders, institutional policies to guide training in research conduct, an established database, validated survey instruments, processes for collecting data, a ready supply of volunteers, and laboratory equipment. In other cases, you will need to develop these elements so that the project can be implemented as planned. Regardless of whether the elements came into existence before or during the granting period, structural sustainability means describing the extent to which they will exist beyond the conclusion of the grant.

Social Sustainability. Social sustainability focuses on people, examining the humanistic benefits that will continue to accrue beyond the end of the granting period. Benefits may extend to direct and indirect audiences and vary by type of grant (e.g., research, service delivery, training). For instance, longer-term benefits experienced by a direct audience of scholarship/fellowship winners may include acceptance into highly competitive graduate schools and career placements. International travel grantees may increase appreciation for other cultures and for their place as global citizens. Families in sub-Saharan Africa may gain long-lasting insecticide treated nets for malaria prevention.

Technological Sustainability. For some grant projects it may be necessary to purchase technology to implement and monitor proposed activities. Technological sustainability describes the extent to which technology—such as equipment, instrumentation, smart TVs, laptops, tablets, software, databases, and apps—will continue to be used, maintained, repaired, and replaced after the grant ends. Imaginably, once a conduct database has been purchased, it will become the institution’s principal management tool for administrators and officers to use for collecting and reporting data on stalking, threats, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and physical violence. To further strengthen students’ research and writing skills, perhaps use of laptops will be expanded to additional sections of 6th grade English as well as to all sections of 7th grade English. Maybe plans are in place for the confocal laser scanning microscope to be used in the future by other researchers in the chemistry department as well as disciplinary colleagues in biology, geology, and materials science, and with opportunities for inter-institutional collaboration with scientific counterparts at nearby universities.

Environmental Sustainability. Environmental sustainability considers long-term impacts to your natural surroundings, including the land, water, and air. Methodological choices during the grant period can influence the sustainability of our natural environmental in subtle and in significant ways. For instance, a construction project may install large windows to allow in plenty of natural light and install special roofing to reduce internal heating and cooling loads. A research project may use ground penetrating radar to map archaeological features rather than physically disturbing a historical site. A service delivery project might collect gently-used professional attire to redistribute to jobseekers from disadvantaged backgrounds, thus diverting tons of clothing from landfills. An outreach initiative might recruit citizen scientists to help preserve ash trees by running an emerald ash borer trapping program. As part of an educational program that promotes healthy lifestyles, children might learn to get outside, grow their own garden, and eat fresh fruits and vegetables. A training program might show farmers best management practices to reduce soil erosion.

FEW PRIVATE FOUNDATIONS PARTICIPATE IN FACEBOOK

One year ago, we blogged that fewer than 1% of private foundations are on Facebook. In a follow-up survey just completed, we checked again to see if FB had become more popular among private grantmakers.

The answer is “No.”

The current Foundation Center Online database lists 20,000 private grantmakers. Our survey found that 1.7% participate in FB.  By type, the community foundations are the most active FB users. While there are more independent foundations than any other type, they continue to have the lowest percentage involvement in FB.

Conclusion:  while FB is one source of grantseeking information, the FB footprint in the grant world is so small, grantseekers must rely on other information sources when doing prospect research.

Data Management and Sharing

In our recent grant workshops, we’ve received a number of questions about the data management and sharing requirements that exist at NSF and NIH. While their web sites offer comments, we present below our “freeze-dried” version of things you should consider as you write this proposal section.

NSF Expectations

NSF expects a two page supplementary document describing how the proposal will conform to NSF policy on dissemination and sharing of research results.

  • A valid Data Management Plan  may include only the statement that no detailed plan is needed, as long a clear justification is provided.
  • The Data Management Plan will be reviewed as part of the intellectual merit and/or broader impacts of the proposal.
  • Proposers who feel that the plan cannot fit within the two page limit may use part of the 15-page Project Description for additional data management information.
  • FastLane will not permit submission of a proposal that is missing a data management plan.

Data may include, but are not limited to: data, publications, samples, physical collections, software and models. It is acceptable to state in the Data Management Plan that the project is not anticipated to generate data or samples that require management and/or sharing. You are encouraged to deposit your data in a public database such as the National Technical Information Service. Include any costs of implementing your Data Management Plan in your budget and budget narrative.  Your data must be maintained and released in accordance with appropriate standards for protecting privacy rights and maintaining the confidentiality of respondents. If your data has potential intellectual property and commercial value, you can protect that information; your program officer will provide details.

NIH Expectations

NIH expects a Data Sharing Plan or an explanation of why data sharing is not feasible is expected to be included in all applications where the generation of data is anticipated. Reviewers are instructed to assess the reasonableness of the data sharing plan or the rationale for not sharing research data

  • All NIH grant applications where the development of model organisms is anticipated are expected to include a description of a specific plan for sharing and distributing unique model organism research resources generated using NIH funding or state why such sharing is restricted or not possible
  • Applications that include Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), regardless of the requested costs, are expected to include either a plan for submission of GWAS data to the NIH designated data repository or an appropriate explanation for why submission to the repository will not be possible

Final research data are recorded factual material commonly accepted in the scientific community as necessary to document, support, and validate research findings. This does not mean summary statistics or tables; rather, it means the data on which summary statistics and tables are based. For most studies, final research data will be a computerized dataset. For example, the final research data for a clinical study would include the computerized dataset upon which the accepted publication was based, not the underlying pathology reports and other clinical source documents. For some but not all scientific areas, the final dataset might include both raw data and derived variables, which would be described in the documentation associated with the dataset.

Given the breadth and variety of science that NIH supports, neither the precise content for the data documentation, nor the formatting, presentation, or transport mode for data is stipulated. What is sensible in one field or one study may not work at all for others. awards. Data must be kept for 3 years following closeout of a grant or contract agreement. (Contracts may specify different time periods.)

The rights and privacy of human subjects who participate in NIH-sponsored research must be protected at all times. It is the responsibility of the investigators, their Institutional Review Board (IRB), and their institution to protect the rights of subjects and the confidentiality of the data. Prior to sharing, data should be redacted to strip all identifiers, and effective strategies should be adopted to minimize risks of unauthorized disclosure of personal identifiers.

Data can be shared through various dissemination strategies available to the Principal Investigator, including publications, scholarly presentations, data arachives, data sharing agreements, or data enclaves. Regardless of the mechanism used to share data, each dataset will require documentation. Documentation provides information about the methodology and procedures used to collect the data, details about codes, definitions of variables, variable field locations, frequencies, and the like.

Examples of Data Sharing Plans

Data-sharing plan depends on several factors, such as whether or not the investigator is planning to share data, the size and complexity of the dataset, and the like. Below are several examples of data-sharing plans.

Example 1

The proposed research will involve a small sample (less than 20 subjects) recruited from clinical facilities in the New York City area with Williams syndrome. This rare craniofacial disorder is associated with distinguishing facial features, as well as mental retardation. Even with the removal of all identifiers, we believe that it would be difficult if not impossible to protect the identities of subjects given the physical characteristics of subjects, the type of clinical data (including imaging) that we will be collecting, and the relatively restricted area from which we are recruiting subjects. Therefore, we are not planning to share the data.

Example 2

The proposed research will include data from approximately 500 subjects being screened for three bacterial sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) at an inner city STD clinic. The final dataset will include self-reported demographic and behavioral data from interviews with the subjects and laboratory data from urine specimens provided. Because the STDs being studied are reportable diseases, we will be collecting identifying information. Even though the final dataset will be stripped of identifiers prior to release for sharing, we believe that there remains the possibility of deductive disclosure of subjects with unusual characteristics. Thus, we will make the data and associated documentation available to users only under a data-sharing agreement that provides for: (1) a commitment to using the data only for research purposes and not to identify any individual participant; (2) a commitment to securing the data using appropriate computer technology; and (3) a commitment to destroying or returning the data after analyses are completed.

Example 3

This application requests support to collect public-use data from a survey of more than 22,000 Americans over the age of 50 every 2 years. Data products from this study will be made available without cost to researchers and analysts. https://ssl.isr.umich.edu/hrs/                        

User registration is required in order to access or download files. As part of the registration process, users must agree to the conditions of use governing access to the public release data, including restrictions against attempting to identify study participants, destruction of the data after analyses are completed, reporting responsibilities, restrictions on redistribution of the data to third parties, and proper acknowledgement of the data resource. Registered users will receive user support, as well as information related to errors in the data, future releases, workshops, and publication lists. The information provided to users will not be used for commercial purposes, and will not be redistributed to third parties.

What’s the (Key) Word?

We hear both types of complaints. “I searched for grant opportunities but couldn’t find very many” or “I searched but found way too many to review.”

Whether your grant funding search research reveals too many or too few “hits,” the problem is the same, namely, an ineffective choice of search terms.

What you get in life is often a function of how you ask the question. The same is true when querying search engines in grants.gov, FC Online, or any of the other funding databases.

Keyword Search Strategies: Subject Matter

One option is to search by subject matter area.  You can use broad terms, e.g., education, social welfare, healthcare, or justice. You can use narrower terms like low cost housing, minority education, teen pregnancy, or electronic health records.

Our experience with beginning grantseekers suggests they often focus their initial searches too narrow. To illustrate, in grants.gov, a search for “liquid phase biosensors” reveals zero hits, while “chemical sensors” yields four hits and “sensors” lists 62 hits.

Overall, government grant search terms are apt to be narrower than what one finds in foundation search engines.  For instance, in FC Online, a private foundation database, “liquid phase biosensors,” and “chemical sensors” yield zero hits, which are obviously too few.  “Technology” yields 835 hits, way too many.  “Science research “ lists 42 hits, a workable number.

To hit your search target, you may need to move up or down the hierarchy of knowledge; that is, think bigger or smaller.

Keyword Search Strategies: Project Location

A second variable you can manipulate when conducting funding searches deals with the project location. Is your project going to have an impact on your neighborhood, city, county, state, regional, national, or international level? Grantmakers vary in the geographic area they are trying to effect.

We once orchestrated a project designed to teach geometry to middle school children. Our best funding prospect was a national foundation.  We knew that asking for funding for our local area wouldn’t fly. We created a collaboration of 28 partners spread from coast to coast, which we showed on a map in Appendix One.  Briefly, we developed the lesson plans and had our collaborators field test them. The strategy was attractive to the national foundation and brought us $500,000 over two years to complete the project.

Changing your geographic focus may increase your funding opportunities.  You can use geographic descriptors as search terms.

Keyword Search Strategies: Population Served

One of the most fundamental principles of grantseeking is this: “Grantmakers fund people, they don’t fund things.”

What population will benefit from your project? Are you targeting single moms, the frail elderly, disadvantaged youth, the homeless, persons with low incomes, at-risk youth, international journalists, HIV/AIDS patients, and the lists goes on and on and on.

Think creatively.  We once went through “handicapped children,” “children with disabilities,” “children with special abilities,” and “disadvantaged children” before we found a hit using “children with special needs.”

Most grantmakers don’t care about funding you <i>per se</i>.  You are the change agent for people that they care about. Identify those target people from your prospect research and you maximize your likelihood of securing funding.  Use your target population as search terms.

Keyword Search Strategies: Type of Grant

The final variable we want to lift up in your funding search regards the type of grant. Often, projects can be described in different ways.  What type of grant might fit your project? Our current list of 24 different types of grants includes the following: capacity building, challenge, conference, construction, consulting, demonstration, dissemination, endowment, equipment, exhibition, general purpose, land acquisition, matching, operation, planning, publication, renovation, research, scholarship, seed, special project, subvention, training, and travel.

Each type of grant represents another set of search terms, especially when paired with one of the above variables using Boolean logic (AND, OR, NOT).

LETTERS OF SUPPORT vs. COMMITMENT

Our Grantseeker Tips Newsletter # 348 addressed the importance of including letters of commitment, not support in your grant proposals. Below we present an example of each type.  Which one do you think would be most persuasive to reviewers?

An actual letter of support that was included with a proposal that reviewers declined to fund.  It is weak, to say the least.

Current Date
Mr. Peter Barnett, Project Director
Organization Name
Street Address
City/State/Zip

Dear Mr. Barnett:
I enjoyed speaking with you today and am familiar with the basic goals and methods of your proposed work towards creating HealthAlertOregon, a statewide advocacy coalition alined to local HealthAlert Coalitions.

I am honored to be part of such a needed and forward thinking project that will work toward expanding and extending coverage to all people inOregon.  Let me know what I can do to facilitate this important partnership endeavor.

Sincerely

Doris Eggerding, MD
University of Oregon

In contrast, consider this stronger letter of commitment.  It indicates what the project director would do to ensure project success.

Current Date
Mr. Peter Barnett, Project Director
Organization Name
Street Address
City/State/Zip

Dear Mr. Barnett:
I was pleased to learn about your project to address health literacy in Oregon, an issue that many health professionals are very concerned about.  I am writing this letter of commitment that the XYZ Health System will partner with you in your grant proposal, Reducing Health Disparities by Improving Health Literacy: A Model for Collaboration.

As you know, we have a network of 128 HealthAlert centers distributed throughout the state.  Collectively, we have more than 300 healthcare professional that are affiliated with our umbrella organization.  We have been serving communities statewide since 1964.  Our tenure has afforded us opportunities to build a strong network of individuals who share the values reflected in this project. Your Health Literacy project represents a continuation of your decade long collaboration on various health-related projects.

We are dedicated to partnering in this project by:
1.  Appointing a represent to the Health Literacy Advisory Council, which would meet semi-annually in Portland for three years to monitor and evaluate the progress of this project;

2.  Provide opportunities for project partners to meet with our staff to obtain input into the development of this project, as needed;

3.  Working with project partners to increase awareness of health literacy in Oregon hospitals by emphasizing project progress in our bi-weekly newsletter and including you prominently in our annual conventions; and

4.  Communicating knowledge gained and relevant products developed through this project to hospitals throughout the state.

We look forward to working with all partners on this grant and believe this is a much-needed and innovative initiative.

Sincerely

Doris Eggerding, MD
University of Oregon

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Grant Writing and Computation Linguistics: Part Two

Our previous post discussed the value of using word frequency data as a computational linguistics tool to identify proposal hot buttons and distinctive features.

In this follow-up blog, we discuss a second application of this technological tool.  Specifically, do the exact same analysis but this time do it on you penultimate proposal draft.  The first time you did it, you looked at the proposal guidelines.  Now, repeat the process using your latest working draft. 

The two sets of frequently occurring words should look similar.  They may not be in the same rank order but considerable overlap should exist, especially among the first 15 or so items listed. This way, you can ensure that your proposal reflects the hot buttons and distinctive features identified in the application guidelines.

This spring, we were asked to critique a penultimate draft of a federal grant proposal.  We first analyzed the RFP using this computational linguistic approach and ended up with the hot button list.  Next, we did the same thing with the proposal draft.  The result?  We found a 15% overlap between the two lists.  The message was very clear: the applicant was missing a number of the key concepts identified in the application guidelines.  We lifted up the missing elements and asked the applicant to make changes in the proposal text.  The revised version came back to us a bit latter and it showed a 92% overlap upon our re-analysis.  The work paid off with a six-figure grant award notice and one very happy organization.

Grant Writing and Computational Linguistics

Computational linguistics is a branch of linguistics that uses computer science techniques to analyze and synthesize language. You don’t have to be a computer scientist or a linguist to use some existing available tools to help you work smarter, not harder, to increase your proposal persuasiveness.

One major computational linguistic application involves using word frequency of occurrence to analyze Requests for Proposals (RFPs).  Commonly, the grant opportunity announcement contains the “heart” of what the grantmaker is looking for and information about how to apply. When analyzing the heart, the body of the grantmaker’s interest, you want to identify their “hot buttons” and “distinctive features.”

Hot buttons represent the logical and psychological concerns of the sponsor that have an impact on how the project will be conducted. These primary concerns affect the shape of a project’s structure and implementation processes. Hot buttons are emphasized repeatedly in the RFP and pre-proposal contact, and gain force through their repetition. Since hot buttons, are not always stated as evaluation criteria; watch for recurring themes such as accountability, collaboration, communication, cost-effectiveness, outcomes, participation, replication, sustainability, and technical training.

Sponsors may also have secondary concerns that influence the design of certain aspects of the project. Because secondary concerns do not appear repeatedly, they are not hot buttons; rather, they are distinctive features. Distinctive features appear as singular instances identified in the RFP and pre-proposal contact. They often reflect activities in which you are already engaged, yet the sponsor wants explicit assurance that you will continue to do them, e.g., comply with federal regulations, standardize treatment following national guidelines, be able to recruit and retain quality personnel. Other times, distinctive features are sponsor-imposed activities necessary to meet the terms of the grant, e.g., submit timely progress reports, participate in annual national project meetings, and utilize resources provided by the sponsor. Failing to acknowledge distinctive features in your proposal may be viewed by the sponsor as a project weakness. In contrast, addressing hot buttons and distinctive features will make your proposal stand out from the competition

We recommend using a computational linguistic approach to identifying your grantmaker hot buttons and distinctive features so you can incorporate them into your proposal. Here’s how.

  1. Block copy the heart of the RFP. Don’t bother with all of the  “here’s how to submit a proposal via grants.gov” type of information.  Concentrate instead on any relevant background information concerning the  problem; desired goals, objectives, and outcomes; and any methodological requirements.
  2. Paste the block copied information into http://writewords.org.uk/word_count.aspThis neat and free web-based computational linguistics program will tally the frequency of occurrence of each word in your sample text.
  3. After clicking on the “submit” button, ignore the  little words like prepositions and articles. Concentrate, instead, on the      more frequently occurring nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The higher frequency words are your hot buttons and the lower frequency words are your distinctive features. There is no magic number differentiating  hot buttons and distinctive features; rather, it is a judgment call.
  4. Make a list your hot buttons and then add to this list derivatives and synonyms. For example, if “collaboration” appears to be a hot button, also add to your list such synonym words as collaborate,  partner, partnership, co-existence, consortium, coordinate, coordination, participate, participation, and so forth. Your objective here is to generate as many comparable terms that reflect the grantmakers hot buttons. Your distinctive features require only minimal mention whereas the hot buttons (including synonyms and derivatives) warrant more frequent mention.
  5. Next, take your same block copy material and paste it in the phrase counter, either by clicking on the phrase frequency counter link on the results page, or going to http://writewords.org.uk/phrase_count.asp.
  6. Click on submit and see how many two-word phrases you have.  If you wish to search for more than two word phrases, set the number of words in a phrase to check to a larger number. Usually two or three words  will reveal your hot button phrases. Use the same type of analysis as you did for find word hot buttons; that is the more frequently occurring phrases will be your hot buttons while the single words and phrases will be your distinctive features.

By following this six step process, which can be done briefly, you have identified the hot buttons and distinctive features that you want to be sure to sprinkle thoroughly but not excessively or blatantly into your proposal. While there is no hard and fast numeric rule to separate hot buttons from distinctive features, our experience has shown so far that hot buttons will commonly occur five or six times – or more whereas the distinctive features will occur once or twice. When you include both into your proposal, you communicate to grantmakers that you share their values glasses. Using hot buttons and distinctive features helps you establish a level of trust and understanding with the sponsor.

 

Grant Site Visits: Pointed Questions to Expect

Whether you are involved in an on-site or virtual site visit, preparation is the key to success. The biggest mistake that grant applicants make when they learn they are on the “short list” for possible funding is lack of preparation. Your site visitors will come armed with questions like the following.

Project Design

  1. Please describe your vision for this project.
  2. How does this project fit in with your organizational mission?
  3. Please elaborate on how the internal staff and collaborators have been involved in the development of the proposal and will be engaged throughout the project.
  4. What quantitative document exists to substantiate the need for this project?
  5. Please clarify which geographic areas will be targeted as part of establishing this alliance. Please explain why those specific areas and organization sectors have been targeted.
  6. The current coalition, understandably, has a heavy focus on serving your local area. Please describe plans to secure involvement from community representatives in other geographic areas as the coalition expands.
  7. When and how do you plan to secure greater support and participation from the business community? Elected officials? Other stakeholders?
  8. Please discuss the project barriers and how they will be overcome during the granting period.
  9. Do you anticipate labor shortages that will be a problem staffing this project?

Project Mechanics

  1. Who will be responsible for data entry?
  2. Can data systems communicate across partnering organizations?
  3. To what extent will you need to deal with language and cultural issues?
  4. Please discuss plans to sharing findings and lessons learned with external audiences and elaborate on whether the potential exists for the project to serve as a model for other communities locally, regionally, and/or nationally.

Leadership

  1. Explain the buy-in you have from project personnel?
  2. What has been your history of collaboration among project partners?
  3. What was your planning process in assembling this proposal?
  4. What barriers or challenges do you anticipate that need to be addressed
  5. For the project co-directors, please discuss how their proposed effort levels will be sufficient to oversee fiscal responsibilities, reporting, data collection and analysis  as well as participate in key project activities such as educating community and employers and soliciting funds for financial sustainability.
  6. Please provide some examples of how community representatives and the target population are involved in the leadership and decision-making process of the coalition. How will you ensure this level of involvement continues during the implementation and expansion phases?
  7. What is the coalition’s approach to diversity representation and cultural competency during the planning and implementation phases and the evaluation of the project?

Evaluation

  1. Do you anticipate ongoing evaluation and feedback during the project: With project participants?  With project personnel? With collaborators?
  2. Please elaborate on the measures of success related to alliance. What will an ideal statewide alliance look like at the conclusion of the grant period? Three years beyond the grant?
  3. What data will illustrate that efforts of the coalition were essential to the activities and outcomes? How will your coalition assess and manage these data?
  4. Please clarify whether the evaluation tools, such as meeting evaluation forms, stakeholder attitude assessments, participant satisfaction surveys  already exist with established reliability and validity characteristics or will need to be developed as well as implemented during the project period.

Fiscal

  1. This RFP requires applicants to secure 100 percent matching supporting, including a cash match of at least 50 percent with the balance as in-kind support. Please clarify plans for securing the 100 percent match and identify the proportion of cash and in-kind match.
  2. Please confirm that institutional capacity exists to clearly document that all matching funds, in particular, those from city, county or state funds, are designated solely for the proposed project.
  3. Since grant funds have been budgeted to offer stipends of $25 to community members for their participation in meetings, please elaborate on how community members will continue to be engaged beyond the grant period.
  4. What will happen to this proposed project if it is not selected for grant funding?

Some of these questions assume that you will be involved in a collaborative project; often site visits focus on the strength of proposal partnerships.  Pick and choose the questions that are relevant to your situation and include them in your mock site visit.

GRANTS AND ROLE OF CONGRESSIONAL SUPPORT

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.