Betsy A. Northrup
Sometimes I Ask Too Many Questions
Practical by nature and cautious by socialization, I tend to approach my work as a grant seeker with more realism than most people are probably comfortable with, especially those who are convinced there is a grant for every idea. I have found that a few probing questions in the very beginning of the process separates notions from ideas. When my colleagues can answer the following five questions with some certainty, I know that the idea has the potential to grow into a proposal and, hopefully, into a project or program.
1. How much does it cost?
Opening with a financial discussion seems almost rude, even to a realist person like me. But it is a great gauge of where the program/project is in its development. I once had someone say to me, “I don’t know if my project needs $500,000 or $10,000,000.” It was clear that his project was not at the proposal stage, and I didn’t even have a starting place. Of course, on the flip side, I don’t expect to receive a detailed line item budget at the outset (although I would be so impressed). But if the project idea has any maturity at all, it will have a preliminary budget. Without it, grant professionals cannot identify potential funders or develop a viable grant strategy.
2. How will you sustain the project beyond grant funding?
This question almost always appears on a funder’s list of questions. As such, it requires a thorough and thoughtful answer. Canned answers like “We will submit additional grant proposals” or “We will raise funds from private donors” will not suffice in today’s competitive funding environment. Sustainability should be considered in the very early stages of program development and be integrated into the program design. If there isn’t a viable plan to sustain the program, I am reluctant to initiate a proposal.
3. How does this proposal impact our colleagues?
I have often thought that writing grant proposals would be a lot easier if I could just do it alone. But very early in my career, after writing a successful proposal for what would become a wildly unsuccessful program, I recognized the importance of involving others in the proposal process, especially those “in the field.” While not always feasible, I encourage program planners to consider and consult their colleagues very early in the process. Some key questions to ask are: Do colleagues have confidence in the project’s approach? If the project does not intend to hire staff, who is going to do the work of the grant? Are you reallocating existing staff to the grant project? If so, how will their current day-to-day work get done? If you are stacking job responsibilities, do your colleagues have the capacity – physically, mentally, and emotionally – to assume additional work? How will this impact morale? Do you have the physical space for more staff? If your project does plan to hire new staff, who will supervise them? Does this staff member have the capacity to supervise more people?
4. How does this project or program align with our mission and professional competencies?
I think this question is perhaps the most important question of all. Without perfect alignment with the mission and professional competencies, the project might not make much sense to your organization in the long run, and you run the risk of doing work that you’re not very good at. By not vetting potential programs through the mission filter, your organization is at risk of mission drift. If you don’t seriously consider current competencies, you might under-perform on the grant damaging both your reputation in the community and with the funder. And all that aside, it is likely you will not even get the grant because positioning the project within your organization’s mission and proving capacity and competency are critical parts of successful proposals. I wouldn’t proceed without mission alignment. It’s just not worth it.
5. How will you know you’ve been successful?
If you have been in the grants field for more than a moment, you realize the importance of evaluation. Solid evaluations and good programs grow up simultaneously and are dependent upon each other. To design a good evaluation plan, the program design must articulate goals, objectives and intended impacts from the outset. The evaluation component cannot simply be a proposal add-on. It is an inextricable part of the program.
None of these questions are easy, but all of them are necessary. I am keenly aware of the dampening effect asking these questions can have on a colleague’s enthusiasm for his or her program or project. While I hate to rain on someone’s program parade, asking tough questions is the best way to move the proposal forward or kill it in its tracks.
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