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How to ask for what you need to get your idea off the ground (essay)

How to Ask

June 6, 2012

Suppose you have a great idea for improving a course, starting a research project, undertaking public outreach, or helping students explore alternative career paths.  To launch this idea, you need some key resource: a research assistant, working space, a teaching fellow, supplies, a website, or support to attend a workshop.  Perhaps you’ve even recently seen an invitation from a foundation, a federal agency, an on-campus institute, or your department chair to apply for support. 

How can you acquire what you need to start the project? That depends what you need and from whom you need it.

Formal calls for proposals from external funding agencies are straightforward to pursue. They usually come with specific directions about what kinds of activities are supported, how much to request and what documentation to submit. 

Seeking funds within your institution can seem more murky.  If you are contacting your department chair in response to a brief announcement at a faculty meeting, it may be hard to know where to start.  This article discusses how to ask for resources effectively, whether or not an official call for proposals has been issued. 

Getting started:

If you are responding to an existing written invitation for proposals, whether within your university or from an external foundation or governmental agency, approach it the way you ask your students to approach course assignments:  Read and follow the directions. Meet the stated deadline.  Provide all required information.  Ask for clarification as necessary. Explain your reasoning (i.e., how your project matches the stated purpose of the invitation).

Be aware that many campuses have central offices that act as the gateway for external proposals.  An "office of sponsored research" may handle proposals to state and federal agencies, while applications aimed at philanthropic foundations might need to be funneled through the “development office.”  These offices often impose extra requirements, such as an earlier “internal” deadline allowing them to screen your proposal (especially its budget) before submitting it to the external funder or forms that help the university track your proposal and any funds that are ultimately awarded.

If you are, instead, starting your search for support from scratch, consider who might be able to guide you toward resources.  Perhaps a more senior colleague has previously obtained support of the kind you seek; perhaps your department chair or dean will have some discretionary funds on hand; perhaps your institution’s research or development office will know of an agency or foundation that supports the activities you have in mind.  Do not be shy about initiating these conversations: all you are initially asking for is free advice. 

Communication:

Once you know where to direct your request for support, be deliberate about establishing the overall tone and focus of the message. Phrase the query as a request, rather than a demand; politeness encourages the listener to be receptive. Stress your general aim rather than insisting on one specific way of accomplishing it. Flexibility in your choice of means may yield more support for achieving your ends. For instance, a terse request for travel funds to attend a specific workshop may run aground if the year’s travel budget has been expended. A more expansive request for support to learn a new skill for your research or teaching, with funds to attend that workshop as an example, could lead to a conversation about alternatives: attending a less expensive workshop, bringing the speaker to campus so the whole department benefits, or even sharing the workshop’s materials and insights at a department meeting after your return. Be sure to explain your goal in terms that will be clear to a variety of potential sponsors. Your request may be shared with others if your initial contact person decides to advocate on your behalf.

To persuade a sponsor that your request merits support, think about what evidence and reasoning that particular individual or institution will find compelling.   For example, in applying for a single-investigator research grant from a federal agency, you would stress the demonstrated importance and impact of your past scholarship and the potential of your new work to expand the frontiers of knowledge. 

In asking for internal funds to start an educational or scholarly project, you should explain how it will benefit you and your colleagues or students – and then tie it to larger institutional concerns.  Will it impact multiple courses? Engage faculty of different disciplines? Contribute to solving a problem that the department or college is already grappling with?  Mentioning partners who are already contributing to the effort can confirm that the project has broad appeal and impact.

If you are unsure about whether your project is a good match for the source of support you are pursuing or about what kinds of evidence will best bolster your case, contact the person in charge.  An informal chat to clarify the ground rules can save time and effort.  You may, for example, discover that there is another potential source of support that is better matched to the nature or scope of your needs.  Or you may discover that you are requesting something that is forbidden or impractical and need to think again.

Approach such a conversation with a brief list of specific queries whose answers are not obvious from reading the call for proposals.  And approach it with realistic aims – the person will probably not be able to tell you on the spot whether your request will receive support.

Scale and timeline:

One effective strategy is to request support to try a novel idea on a limited scale, with longer-term support contingent on evidence of success.  This can enlist your sponsor as a partner who will not only help you get started, but also provide feedback on your findings and assist you with securing sustained support if your trial proves fruitful.  It is also a pragmatic approach simply because the pilot project will require fewer resources than the full realization of the idea.  Moreover, you may thereby gain access to funds that are available only in small quantities or at certain times of year (for more on the mysteries of academic finance, see this earlier column).

Remember that the prospective sources of support for the pilot and full-scale versions of your project can be quite different.   For instance, federal agencies now frequently require that a proposal include pilot data supporting the feasibility of the proposed study. Your institution may be willing to support the pilot study in return for your subsequently applying for the external funding; external grants often provide “facility and administrative” costs to the university, which effectively rewards their initial investment in your idea. 

As another example, your department might support a trial run of a new course for a year or two, provided that you gather data about its effectiveness at bolstering student retention – which would enable the chair to ask the dean for longer-term support.   Or you may be able to gather small grants from professional societies to support a summer research program for undergraduates in its first few years as you build up evidence of success that will make your program attractive to the larger-scale Research Experience for Undergraduates funding from federal agencies.

Maintaining relationships:

Given that requests usually exceed resources, it is important to approach the “ask” professionally and to maintain a collegial relationship with the person making the decision.   As mentioned earlier, phrase your proposal as a request for partnership or assistance, rather than as a demand for an entitlement.  This engages the potential sponsor in thinking about how your project could help his or her own larger goals.  When submitting the request, ask when you might receive a response; seek status updates sparingly, and only after the response deadline has passed.

If your project is denied support, this may sting – but do not take it personally or act as if a friend has unreasonably declined to do you a favor. Instead, follow up to ask the reasoning behind the denial so that you will be better-prepared next time: Was the project ill-matched to the purpose of the resources? Was the broader impact of the project unclear?  Were there more urgent requests in the pipeline? Are there alternative sources of support that you could explore? Remain courteous throughout, even if you feel the denial was unwarranted or poorly communicated, since you may need to ask this person for help again in the future.

How to Receive

A successful request yields additional responsibilities.  Above all, you must  document your use of the resources and your project’s outcome for whatever follow-up report is required by your sponsor.  Pay careful attention to content, format and deadlines; those who fail to do so may find their future requests for support declined.

Some faculty members ask, Once the resources are in hand, may I redeploy them as needed?  Unless the written rules explicitly permit this, do not assume it is allowed. If in doubt, talk to your sponsor.  Some funds may be allocated for broad purposes such as “improving outcomes in freshman writing courses” that offer a bit of latitude.  Money awarded specifically to “purchase computers for teaching laboratories” or “support a research assistant” should be used within those strict constraints.  However, if you belatedly discover a better method of reaching the original aims of the project, do ask whether you may use the given resources to support the new approach. 

Others wonder, “Is it better to ask for forgiveness than permission?”  Generally not. This has the potential to alienate those who distribute resources, especially if it becomes seen as your standard modus operandi.   Moreover, going over budget or redirecting funds may carry serious financial or disciplinary consequences.

Finally, if you ask successfully, be prepared to give in return.   Not necessarily in the same coin – I am not aware of deans or federal program directors who dun their awardees for funds.  But you are likely to be asked to invest time in helping others. If you win a federal grant you may be invited to serve on a review panel.  If your course revision proves successful, you may be asked to assist colleagues piloting their own innovations. 

My advice is to respond to such requests positively and take the work seriously.  You were granted resources because your professional expertise was seen as worthy of support; that same expertise makes you a valuable consultant for others. And, of course, helping others now at the request of your sponsor may bolster your own chances for future support.

 

 

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