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Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Enduring a National Science Foundation Grant Proposal

In spring 2016, I met with the production team of Brains On!, the award-winning science podcast for kids and curious adults. At the time it was a scrappy team of three writer-producers who had been creating the podcast on a shoestring budget and bits of stolen time. They were steadily building a growing loyal fan base eager to learn about science delivered through silly, smart audio.

The producers had executed a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and were poised for continued growth. The logical next step was to apply for a National Science Foundation grant. Our local public television station had received several Advancing Informal STEM Learning grants, so why couldn't we?
In that meeting, I told the producers that the proposal was going to be a lot of work, but I was committed if they were. They agreed, and we embarked on a year-long journey together.
The process was more complex than any of us had anticipated, requiring many phone calls, meetings, emails, writing, more phone calls, more meetings, more emails, rewriting, etc. Hitting the send button on November 8, 2016, I immediately left for my first GPA conference in Atlanta, the ideal place to recover from such an intense application.
This was my first NSF proposal. It was the Brains On! producers' first grant proposal ever. And we learned a lot along the way, including:
  • Start early and stay organized. I project managed both the internal team – the Brains On! producers, their new project manager, finance, legal, and administration – including our external partner, and kept them informed of every step.
  • Don't underestimate the importance of a phone call to a program officer. Without our initial call to the program officer, we may have applied to the wrong subprogram. They also helped us shape our project and steered us to find an evaluation partner. Which leads to:
  • Find the right outside evaluation partner. We held several interviews, but it was immediately clear that the Science Museum of Minnesota was the right partner for us. Their evaluation team came prepared for the meeting. They were excited about our project. They also made suggestions for improvements and demonstrated how their expertise would enhance the project. And, they had experience applying for NSF grants. Their knowledge proved to be invaluable.
  • Read the application materials. And then read them again. And again. And yet again. Every time I read the multiple application documents I noticed something new. Unfortunately, this meant that I directed the Brains On! producers to write their bios incorrectly the first time, which caused some tension.
  • Be kind and keep a sense of humor. Mistakes were made. Apologies were accepted. A post-submission pizza lunch is always a good thing. Remember, we're all in this together.
  • If you haven't heard “no” from the NSF, that's a good thing. The process didn't end at the deadline. In the months that followed, we had multiple calls with our program officer, changes, and additions to the proposal, and a significant amount of financial paperwork to complete.
I am grateful that our hard work paid off, and the NSF awarded us a two-year grant to create more Brains On! episodes and study how children learn from audio-only experiences. Successful grant writing requires a committed team, and I am most proud that we received the first-ever Minnesota Public Radio Staff Award for outstanding cross-functional teamwork.
How can you best manage your team through a government grant proposal?
Rachel Smoka-Richardson, CFRE, is the Senior Development Officer, Institutional Giving, for Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media. She has written grant proposals for more than 15 years, specializing in arts and cultural organizations.