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Setting Expectations


You probably have been in situations where your organizational colleagues ask you to predict if a proposal will be successful. Their interest may be casual, or they may be formulating plans based on your answer. What do you say? You want to be optimistic, of course. You also know that not every proposal can receive an award. 

 

Back in 2004, my colleague and I worked for months on a complicated upper-six-figure proposal to ABC Foundation. We kept our department colleagues, divisional vice president and president involved and informed as the proposal progressed. I was working out proposal details in my head night and day.
 
We had been in regular communication with the foundation program officer and had carefully followed her instructions. We went over the proposal with a fine-tooth comb and then submitted. Just before the foundation board meeting, our program officer recommended that we withdraw our proposal, revise one part, and resubmit for a future board meeting. We did. All the while, our expectation was that staying the course, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” would yield an award.
 
Five months later, notification arrived. The terse letter began, “I am sorry to advise you ….”  Gasp…a decline! This did not feel good at all. We felt demoralized, incompetent, and reluctant to face our colleagues who, we felt, believed we had let them down.
 
Grant professionals can often discern which proposals feel like winners and which feel destined for a decline letter. An excellent proposal flows; it conveys confidence and ease. Developing a proposal that has a decline letter in its future can feel like pounding the proverbial square peg into a round hole. The proposal communicates —unintentionally — a sense of strain.
 
We usually see these things easily in hindsight. Sometimes though, when in the thick of it, when you have worked long and hard on a proposal, it is so easy to be blind to its shortcomings. This is what had happened in the case of our proposal to ABC Foundation. Technically, our proposal was well crafted. Yet, over the course of revising draft after draft, alignment with the foundation's uppermost priority had weakened.
 
The episode taught us two lessons the hard way. First, maintain focus on the grantmaker's priority. Second, be deliberate and prudent in setting expectations.
 
When others in your organization are asking for your professional opinion on a proposal's chance of success, that is a good thing! They must trust your judgment! The trick is responding in a way that is respectful to all involved on both sides of the grantmaking relationship, conveys optimism, and maintains professional credibility all at the same time.
 
Here is my solution. I rarely predict the success or decline of individual proposals. I say something like, “The proposal team did a nice job. The grantmaker expects to fund about x% of submissions. We can expect notification in x number of months.” I build on that rather noncommittal answer by communicating that success is all but inevitable if we are persistent enough. If our first try results in a decline, all that means is that we have not succeeded yet. With persistence, success will come.
 
Do not get me wrong. A grant award on a first try is very nice. However, in instances when a proposal team has received an award on their second or third try, that success feels like an even bigger victory.   
 
How do you answer when colleagues ask you to predict whether a proposal will receive an award?
 
Diane Calabria works with College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University faculty and staff to seek and manage funding from foundations and federal agencies.

GPC Competency: 02 - Organizational Development

 

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