Getting the Information Your Proposal Needs from Others
I have written articles for Grants and Foundation Review and spoken at conferences about the vital role that grant professionals play in program planning because they know how to turn a project idea into something fundable. Almost inevitably, someone raises a hand and asks the age-old question, “How do you get the information from the program people (or the financial people, or the fill-in-the-blank here people)?!”
Usually the person is frustrated, with a specific experience in mind. But the bottom line is the same. How do we get people who are overworked to provide the information we need for our grant proposals in a form that is useful and timely? Or how do you get cooperation from those who are simply downright reluctant to help us?
That’s a pretty tall order.
The good news is that most experienced grants professionals have developed a collection of techniques that work. At a recent American Association of Grant Professionals meeting, I took an informal poll of experienced colleagues. They confirmed the reliable strategies listed below.
Information Gathering Strategies
There are two important things to remember when you are requesting information from others:
- Always, always, always convey the deepest respect for their time and the work you are asking them to do. Nothing makes people less inclined to put you at the top of their too-long list than if they sense an attitude of entitlement in your emails. [Note: It is usually NOT helpful to say, “This is for a grant and is really important.” This of course implies that you think everything else they do is not important.]
- Don’t try to force others into your preferred communication style or mode. What this means is, if you have tried email after email and are not getting a response, try picking up the phone. Younger staff people sometimes express frustration to me that they just cannot get the information they need from a certain person. Then I discover that they have never called or tried to set a meeting. They were depending on their own preferred method of communication without considering that others have different preferred communication styles.
It is just a fact that some people will respond more quickly to phone calls than emails and others more positively to meetings. So, if you have called and emailed and are still getting no response, get up out of your chair and walk to that person’s office. Show up in his or her doorway. I have found that this automatically communicates a sense of urgency and yields positive results, especially if you just need a few questions answered or one piece of data. If nothing else, it will give you the opportunity to schedule a meeting.
Both of these strategies could be summed up in one Grant Professional’s Commandment: “Make it as easy as possible for people to provide you with answers to your questions, with as little work as possible on their part.”
Cultivating Good Will
Cultivating good will ahead of time and proving that you are a reasonable person are important. You need to be known as a person who only makes requests when they are necessary. Your coworkers need to know that you won’t waste their time. This will go a long way towards avoiding situations in which you have to beg or threaten in order to elicit information from people.
However you communicate your request, it is important to think about how to remove as many obstacles as possible for the people from whom you need information. This may require work on your part to determine exactly what is needed and then to put your request into a friendly format that helps your colleague respond with a minimum of effort. This will make you look like a much friendlier co-worker – one to whom people will be more likely to respond positively.
With that said, here are some of the best practices shared by other professional grant writers. I have listed them in ascending order -- from least dangerous to potentially bridges-burning.
- Offer chocolate (or a Coke or coffee or lunch). I can’t say enough about the value of sweetening folks up.
- Ask early, with as much lead-time as possible. If you develop a reputation as prepared and respectful of others’ time, then your colleagues will be more likely to respond quickly when something is urgent.
- Be specific. Let people know exactly by what date you need the information.
- Do your homework. Instead of asking for the same information over and over, keep data from prior proposals, reusing when possible, or sending it back to ask if it is still current.
- Remind politely. Don’t assume your first email was received – after all if could have gone into their SPAM filter. Don’t assume that your voicemail was not accidentally lost. Ask yourself, did you convey the appropriate sense of urgency by giving them a firm deadline?
- Offer alternative methods of communication. “Would you feel more comfortable if I interviewed you?” or “Would you rather have a phone call?”
- Say thank you when you get the information. But also send around an email to the “higher ups” after the proposal has been submitted expressing your appreciation for everyone who helped you with it. Say thank you again when you get funded.
- Beg. Yes, we have all done it.
- Send text with everything completed except for their part. Be sure that their part is highlighted! You might even consider copying the message to their boss.
- Bring in reinforcements. This is a last resort. If you choose this option, a senior leader must remind your colleague that the grant project is a top priority, giving permission for other tasks to fall behind if necessary to get the grant done.
- The Nuclear Option. Otherwise known as pulling the plug. These last two may be tied for “last resort.” The decision to pull the plug must be made by someone in senior leadership. Sometimes your boss makes this decision to support you – to demonstrate to other departments how important it is for them to participate or their project will fail – so don’t automatically assume that it is done to undermine you.
I will be blunt. We cannot fix others. We cannot force them to do something. However, we can change ourselves so that we create an atmosphere of respectful collegiality. That goes a long way toward generating good will and positive, timely responses to requests for help.
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