Reach Out to Your Program Officer

Russ Olwell writes that academics working on grants -- proposed or awarded -- need to remember what they tell students about how there are no dumb questions.


January 16, 2015

To call or not to call?

Each day, individual faculty members and teams ask themselves whether to contact an agency with a key question about a grant. In the case of an application, it may be about what is allowable spending for a budget, or whether an idea fits within the program RFP. For an existing grant, staff may have a budget shift or evaluation question in their mind.

The decision to contact an agency can make or break a project. The key contact for faculty at a funding agency is a program officer, a permanent employee (or an academic “rotating” through a position) who works for a funding agency to help decide who gets grants, and to manage already funded programs. This person may or may not be an expert in your field, but the answers this person gives you can be key to success or doom of your project.

In my own experiences, faculty often do not call or email a program officer at all about a pending proposal, or if they do, they fail to ask key questions. For most professors, fear is the biggest enemy. Academics are people who do not like to look dumb, but risk-aversion can cost many hours of work, and perhaps funding. Those from less research-intensive universities have particular problems contacting program officers – folks from more research-intensive universities dominate program officers’ time, often with questions just as basic, but offered with more confidence. This puts faculty at non-research universities as a double disadvantage, as they often lack on-campus resources to answer their grant questions.

Particularly heartbreaking is the work that goes into proposals that are sent in for a program that will not fund that type of work. There are situations where what looks like a good fit in a Request for Proposals or on a web page has a very different backstory that can be learned in a few minutes on the phone. I have seen situations where faculty members have invested hours into developing over 100 pages of material for a proposal, only to learn that it was outside what the agency would consider, leading to discouragement and loss of interest in applying for grants.

My own program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities shared that it is depressing to receive proposals 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.

Contacting an agency also shows you are serious about the process – while you are bothering people, they do want to be bothered with good questions. The application and review processes are time intensive, and calling and asking questions can save a lot of time and work on both ends of the process.

Just as professors sometimes tell their students, there really is no such thing as a stupid question – if you are asking via email or over the phone, you really will not look stupid, as opposed to a workshop or conference call.

Some key questions I have had to ask program officers include:

  • Does this program still exist and is it funded? Is there still funding available for new program? We had been hoping to apply for funds from the U.S. Department of Energy to fund solar projects at area institutions. But a call to the program officer showed us that clouds had moved in, leaving no funding for our proposal or future efforts in the field.
  • 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. Finding out  the preferred type of applicant will help you plan ahead when working with partner agencies.
  • Are certain types of expenses not allowed? In many cases, scholarships for students cannot be part of a proposal, and including them will only make you look unprofessional. 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, that therefore needs to be built into the evaluation component of the application. Agencies are increasingly looking for evidence that the program “make a difference,” but this can be highly agency- and program-specific.

Even if your proposal is not funded, keep up 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 changes, as this (or another individual) will form part of the team monitoring your progress on the project. Always keep up contact with a program officer after being funded – do not make program officers come looking for you.

Many times, early in a grant, program officers will seem heavily focused on the successful and timely start of your project. It is important not to take this concern personally, as agencies have a strong sense of the key activities that lead to a successful launch. An experienced program officer will have endured some painful experiences of watching fledgling programs fail to thrive, and will probably be harder on PIs in year one of the grant, then become more supportive in subsequent years.

Always contact program officers when adverse events occur in your project. Do not be scared to call a program officer if something has gone wrong on the project – the sooner you let program officer know what is happening, the more likely they can help you. I have had to inform program officers of staff resignations, failed hiring attempts, and criminal activity at a housing project where we provided programming. While the news I was delivering was bad, program officers always expressed thanks for the heads up, and not having to learn of adverse events through the grapevine or over the Internet.

The relationships you build and manage with program officers can lead to long-term success for both you and for the program that is being funded. Do not underestimate the importance of this relationship, and do not take the support of this individual for granted. Keep her or him in the loop, and provide good news whenever possible to share with colleagues and superiors.

In many ways, working with a program officer for a grant is like adding a member to your team. In my own case, I will always remember my first program officer, Ann McNeal, who worked for the federal GEAR UP program from 2006-2011, always making sure that our spending and program activities were focused on the young people we served. Ann passed away in 2011, but left behind hundreds of people who had worked with her and respected her judgment, enthusiasm and commitment.


Russell Olwell is director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Communities at Eastern Michigan Universities. He has written and managed federal, state, and foundation grants, and has worked extensively with faculty teams to develop proposals in education, community development, and STEM.


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