Calling Your Program Officer: The Need to Establish Close Ties

To call or not to call? The decision to contact an agency can make or break a project. Often, faculty do not call or email a program officer about a pending proposal, or if they do, they fail to ask key questions.

Program officers have shared their disappointment at receiving a proposal that might have been fundable but missed key information in the RFP that would have been caught in a conversation, or if the program officer had gotten to read a draft. Some RFPs require interpretation, and others have hidden requirements that only personal contact will bring out.

In other instances, what looks like a good fit based on the RFP or on a web page may have a very different backstory that can be learned in a few minutes on the phone with a program officer. Faculty members can invest hours in proposal development, only to learn later that the idea was outside of the agency’s area of consideration.

Contacting an agency also shows you are serious about the process, especially when you have good questions. Calling and asking questions can save a lot of time. Some key questions you can ask program officers include the following:

  • Does this program still exist and is it funded? Is there still funding available for a new program? A call to the program officer will reveal the agency’s intent.
  • Is my institution the right applicant? In some cases, the RFP may state that institutions of higher education are eligible, but when the funding list comes out, nonprofit agencies other than colleges and universities may dominate.
  • Are certain types of expenses allowed/or not allowed? Finding out the key areas that can and cannot be put in the budget of a grant can help produce a winning proposal, particularly when funding is tight and competition is fierce.
  • Is there a match required for this proposal? What kinds of resources count toward a match (Cash? In-kind contributions?) How do commitments need to be documented at the time of grant submission? Agencies are idiosyncratic in how they view cost-sharing, and missing this key detail can cost you project funding.
  • How is this project going to be evaluated? What evidence of impact/success will be needed as part of the project, which therefore needs to be built into the evaluation component of the application. Agencies are increasingly looking for evidence that the program “makes a difference,” but this can be highly agency- and program-specific.

Even if your proposal is not funded, keep in contact with the agency. Request the comments on the proposal, and if there are questions, contact the program officer to clarify why you were denied. While it depends on the agency and individual, program officers can give you tips for the next time, and help interpret your chances of approval in the future.

If funded, the relationship with the program officer (or other representative of the funding agency) changes. This person will form part of the team that monitors your progress on the project. Always keep in contact with a program officer after being funded—do not make program officers come looking for you.

In summary, the relationships you build and manage with program officers will contribute to your long-term success.

Excerpted from “Reach Out to Your Program Officer,” by Russell Olwell, Inside Higher Ed, an online source for news, opinion, and jobs for all of higher education