Rebecca Vermillion Shawver, MPA, GPC
NEWS FLASH – Grantwriters Aren’t Perfect
Yes, it’s true. Grantwriters aren’t perfect and I’m definitely one of the imperfect ones.
While we are known for our expertise and success at winning foundation, state, and local government grant contracts, it’s important to remember that no one ever wins each and every competition that they enter. Even our most revered Olympic teams didn’t bring home each gold medal that they competed for, but we still acknowledge them as heroes because they represented us honorably and did their best. So why aren’t grantwriters heroes too?
One Monstrous Blunder
Recently, I was responsible for a massive, collaborative partnership grant with other colleges and a major industry partner with operations in several states. My vice president worked the one-on-one relationships angle, implored industry and college partners to submit needed information, and tried to keep everything on schedule from her end.
It was my job to take everything and make it “work” together—to turn a whole lot of seemingly disjointed bits and pieces of information into one coherent, compelling, and winning proposal. I was responsible for filling in whatever blanks there were with research from the internet. Frankly, I think that I did all that and more. The proposal I submitted hit each of the required points and program requirements. It was awesome (in my humble opinion) and because I’m accustomed to winning, I was confident that we would get a contract.
But we’ll never know if I would have won a grant contract for my college and business partners because the federal funding agency refused to review and score our application. Why? The answer is simple. I neglected to attach the “mandatory” abstract document to the “optional attachments” field. A mistake I’d never made before—ever.
Mind you, I wrote the abstract because it was on my list of required documents. I simply failed to upload it to my application package, an oversite on my part brought about in large part because I failed to realize that the federal granting agency didn’t have a specific location in which to upload this critical and mandatory document.
As most federal grantwriters know, Grants.gov submissions have all mandatory documents uploaded into specifically marked locations. If applicants forget to include a required document, the validation process will immediately alert them to their error. However, for the competition that I was submitting for, there was no specific field in which to upload the mandatory abstract. There was no warning. My submission passed validation and was successfully accepted by the system.
How Did This Happen?
Although no one ever wants to hear any excuses for an error (and that included my supervisor), we can all acknowledge that several factors play into any error of this type. For me, there were several contributing factors. Mind you, I’m not making excuses—just acknowledging that at times the “stars are aligned” for nothing but disaster.
- Last minute submission – Although we had planned to submit the application a week and a half prior to the deadline, our partners were not ready to provide all the needed information earlier. Each of them knew the actual federal deadline and decided that they still had time to work on pulling everything together. So even though I knew that this was not a good strategy, I had to go with the flow.
- Schedule out-of-the-office time – I was scheduled to attend a week-long conference the week prior to the deadline. This had been in the works for months and had been quite costly. Thus, I left town anticipating that information would come in while I was gone and that I could subsequently pull it all together in the last four days. I even checked my email from my hotel but to no avail.
- Missing information – Sadly, all the information was not awaiting my return. I didn’t have finalized budgets or performance figures from some of our partners. Note that some of this key information wasn’t received until the day before the submission due-date.
- People get sick – I returned from the conference with a massive sinus infection. But as all grantwriters know, there are no sick days to be had until after we hit the submit button.
- Exhaustion – To get everything done, I worked 12 to 14 hours each day (trying my best to focus through the sinus medication and headaches) to get the application completed.
- Required file names – Some funding agencies now require specific file names that must be used for each and every attachment or uploaded document. In the past, I have always numbered my attachments as “01 – Abstract,” “02 – Program Narrative,” etc. This way if a number was missing or out of sequence, I would easily catch my error. However, I’m no longer allowed to do this for some federal agencies. The required file names simply don’t support the checks and balance system that I had devised over the past twenty plus years.
It’s Important to Remember that No Grant Contract Was Ever Guaranteed
I realize that when a mistake is made as impactful as this one was, it is difficult to tell partners that we’re sorry. But I am and I’m accepting the blame. However, I think that it is important to remember that just submitting an application and having it reviewed does not guarantee that we would have received a grant contract.
Heck, even if we had earned the top score from the reviewers, the federal agency could decline to give us a contract. In fact, in a previous Department of Labor grant competition conducted a couple of years ago, the application I wrote was independently scored by objective reviewers in the top quartile of all applications. That would seem to be wonderful news because by scoring criteria, we should have received a multiyear, multimillion dollar contract. However, for reasons unknown, the funding agency chose to skip over us and fund twenty-six applications from the second quartile!
So as I was saying, none of our partners should have ever assumed that we would definitely receive a grant contract had our most recent application been read and even highly rated.
Back to Why Aren’t Grantwriters Allowed a Mistake Once in a Blue Moon?
In almost any other profession, you can either fix your mistakes or have them “forgiven.” For instance, let’s start with federal funding agency employees. They make mistakes on a regular basis. They simply post the needed changes or missing information to the Federal Register and we all think nothing of it because it’s a very common occurrence. Additionally, at times they provide erroneous information which may have dire consequences for grantees when an audit is undertaken. But again, they aren’t held responsible.
Lawyers are another prime example. They lose cases all the time but they aren’t publicly called out for it. Nope! People assume that they will learn from their mistakes and become better lawyers for their future clients. Even accountants and CPAs aren’t always expected to be perfect. They simply make journal entries to correct their mistakes and no one gives these corrections a second thought.
And let’s not forget our program managers. I couldn’t count the times that they call their grant administrator and tell one of us that a contract amendment is needed because they or the partner over/underestimated the costs of equipment, the number of participants to be served, or the target date for deliverables. Again, we fix their mistakes and think nothing of it—even if we need to raise additional grant funds from a different source to cover the shortage.
Let’s Remember the Grant Competitions that We Do Win!
I just learned an important lesson. For some, it really doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars my efforts generate each and every year or how many successful grant applications that I submit. What is most important to them is the one that I didn’t receive because I made an error.
Well, please forgive me if I’m not wearing sack cloth and ashes. I’m still riding high on the news that came right after DOL refused to read our application. Yessiree! I’m focusing on the $1.65 million dollar training grant contract notice that we just received from another source for the same industry partner.
I wonder how long it will be before my colleagues will focus on this latest achievement of mine instead of my one-time error.