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How to: Ask a Funder a Question

Jun 3

Written by: Grants Office, LLC
Monday, June 3, 2013  RssIcon

 

You finally have buy-in from your agency to apply for a grant. You've selected the best program, waited for it to open, and assembled an internal team to plan and direct the effort. You've read the guidance document and other helpful materials provided by the funder. You've even made a checklist of all the elements you'll need to submit for a complete, compliant (even competitive) application. You've got this!

Then in your first meeting with the planning team, your finance manager suggests using equipment from another initiative to support your project and wants to use that as an in-kind contribution toward the grant program's matching requirement.

You coolly insist that you'll check to see if that type of match is allowable, but when you return to the guidance, there is no answer to be found. There’s only one thing you can do now: ask the funder.

Contact information for one or more program managers is almost always listed in the official guidance. Those individuals are close to the program and should be prepared to take calls, especially since they know their e-mail addresses and phone numbers were just published in an advertisement for free money.

Don’t be intimidated

Chances are, your program contact is not a powerbroker of the sort F. Scott Fitzgerald might describe as “different from you and me.” In fact, most grant administrators are public servants, working for a living and trying to do a good job and make a difference along the way, exactly like you and me. If they don’t seem approachable or aren’t responsive to your calls and e-mails, it’s probably because they are either swamped with work (particularly common during the application period of a grant program) or tired of getting calls from people who could’ve easily found their answers in the published guidance. Every grant manager I know earnestly wants to ensure that everyone who applies to their program is clear on the requirements and has all the tools to present their project for consideration. More compliant applications means more projects in the pool and potentially better projects receiving awards at the end of the process.

Double check the materials

Answering a question that is already addressed in the official guidance or other easily accessible materials is a deflating drudgery for funders. However, there are many nuances to grant programs that are often not addressed in the guidance. In the late 1990s (when grant guidance was produced in printed form), the guidance document for the National Telecommunication and Information Administration’s Technology Opportunities Program was a glossy 16-page brochure. Cool – definitely! Comprehensive – not really!

Write it out

In order to ensure that your requests for information are consistent across various media, write your question in your favorite word processing program and save it. Be sure to include:

  • Your name and affiliation
  • The person to whom you’re sending the question
  • The grant program the question pertains to
  • Your question
  • The place in the guidance you expected to find the answer

You can use this information in e-mails, phone calls, letters, and elsewhere if needed, until you get your answer.

Have an escalation plan

Start by using the communication methods that make it easiest for you to ask the question and for the funding contact to answer. A good escalation plan might include:

  • 2 e-mails, separated by 2 days

Wait two days, then…

  • 2 phone calls, separated by 2 days

Wait two days, then…

  • a faxed letter

If you still don’t get a response from the funder within two days after your faxed letter, contact your local Congressional Representative’s office. Congressional staff will be more likely to have their calls returned and should be able to get you the information you need. Don’t bother trying to escalate the issue to a manager in the agency. The manager will not have the program –specific information you need and is probably at least as busy as the person you’re trying to reach.

Keep it friendly

There’s no need to be terribly formal or adversarial in asking questions of grant managers, even if they seem to be ignoring you or responding in a curt or dismissive way. Moreover, the more formal context you add to your request, the more they will have to sift through to get at what you’re asking. Remember that you’re both trying to ensure your proposal is compliant with the program’s requirements and gets added to the pool of applications competing for an award.

You may even find, once you’ve demonstrated that you are a serious grantseeker who asks relevant questions and uses the funder’s time sparingly, that it gets progressively easier to get your questions answered and that the grant manager makes time to talk with you when you call, which makes everyone’s lives easier.

 

Has this ever happened to you?

You finally have buy-in from your agency to apply for a grant. You've selected the best program, waited for it to open, and assembled an internal team to plan and direct the effort. You've read the guidance document and other helpful materials provided by the funder. You've even made a checklist of all the elements you'll need to submit for a complete, compliant (even competitive) application. You've got this!

Then in your first meeting with the planning team, your finance manager suggests using equipment from another initiative to support your project and wants to use that as an in-kind contribution toward the grant program's matching requirement.

You coolly insist that you'll check to see if that type of match is allowable, but when you return to the guidance, there is no answer to be found. There’s only one thing you can do now: ask the funder.

Contact information for one or more program managers is almost always listed in the official guidance. Those individuals are close to the program and should be prepared to take calls, especially since they know their e-mail addresses and phone numbers were just published in an advertisement for free money.

Don’t be intimidated

Chances are, your program contact is not a powerbroker of the sort F. Scott Fitzgerald might describe as “different from you and me.” In fact, most grant administrators are public servants, working for a living and trying to do a good job and make a difference along the way, exactly like you and me. If they don’t seem approachable or aren’t responsive to your calls and e-mails, it’s probably because they are either swamped with work (particularly common during the application period of a grant program) or tired of getting calls from people who could’ve easily found their answers in the published guidance. Every grant manager I know earnestly wants to ensure that everyone who applies to their program is clear on the requirements and has all the tools to present their project for consideration. More compliant applications means more projects in the pool and potentially better projects receiving awards at the end of the process.

Double check the materials

Answering a question that is already addressed in the official guidance or other easily accessible materials is a deflating drudgery for funders. However, there are many nuances to grant programs that are often not addressed in the guidance. In the late 1990s (when grant guidance was produced in printed form), the guidance document for the National Telecommunication and Information Administration’s Technology Opportunities Program was a glossy 16-page brochure. Cool – definitely! Comprehensive – not really!

Write it out

In order to ensure that your requests for information are consistent across various media, write your question in your favorite word processing program and save it. Be sure to include:

  • Your name and affiliation
  • The person to whom you’re sending the question
  • The grant program the question pertains to
  • Your question
  • The place in the guidance you expected to find the answer

You can use this information in e-mails, phone calls, letters, and elsewhere if needed, until you get your answer.

Have an escalation plan

Start by using the communication methods that make it easiest for you to ask the question and for the funding contact to answer. A good escalation plan might include:

  • 2 e-mails, separated by 2 days

Wait two days, then…

  • 2 phone calls, separated by 2 days

Wait two days, then…

  • a faxed letter

If you still don’t get a response from the funder within two days after your faxed letter, contact your local Congressional Representative’s office. Congressional staff will be more likely to have their calls returned and should be able to get you the information you need. Don’t bother trying to escalate the issue to a manager in the agency. The manager will not have the program –specific information you need and is probably at least as busy as the person you’re trying to reach.

Keep it friendly

There’s no need to be terribly formal or adversarial in asking questions of grant managers, even if they seem to be ignoring you or responding in a curt or dismissive way. Moreover, the more formal context you add to your request, the more they will have to sift through to get at what you’re asking. Remember that you’re both trying to ensure your proposal is compliant with the program’s requirements and gets added to the pool of applications competing for an award.

You may even find, once you’ve demonstrated that you are a serious grantseeker who asks relevant questions and uses the funder’s time sparingly, that it gets progressively easier to get your questions answered and that the grant manager makes time to talk with you when you call, which makes everyone’s lives easier.

 

 

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