How not to talk to a program officer
You have a great idea for a project that is worthy of federal funding. Now all you have to do is pitch your idea to an agency like the Department of Education or the National Science Foundation. You are certain that the money should be flowing your way once they learn of it.
Don’t do your homework
The whole point of talking to a live person in charge of the money is to cut through the red tape. Only dummies read the request for proposals. It doesn’t matter that the person you may be speaking to actually wrote the solicitation: it’s just bureaucratic boilerplate. You can ignore it. Every agency is the same, and the requirements for your company and the application format will be identical regardless of which program you are applying for.
Don’t concern yourself with making an appointment
Everybody’s busy, especially you. Government officials have a phone, don’t they? Catch them at their desk, and you’ve cut to the head of the line. Program officers don’t mind dropping everything to listen to your idea. Their work can wait.
Don’t waste time listening
The faster you talk, the less chance they will have to interrupt. Even though many program officers have no say determining the scientific merit of grant applications, that inconvenient fact shouldn’t stop you. Your idea, your project, and your company are all that really matters. You have been living and breathing this venture for months, if not years. Now that you have your audience, fire away!
Don’t bother with titles, or forms of address
Everybody’s on a first-name basis in business, and the research institutions are no different. If the program officer addresses you as Mr. Smith or Ms. Jones, you won’t need to reciprocate. You set the rules of etiquette here,
Don’t prepare any questions
You will make the most of your time by letting the conversation go where it may. Amateurs will make a list of questions, and prioritize them, because they are fearful that the conversation may end too soon, and they want to make certain that they have the most important unknowns out of the way at the start.
Don’t take notes
Only amateurs jot down what they’ve learned. If you forget something, the answer is just a phone call away.
Don’t watch the clock
The program officials not only make talking to applicants like you a priority, you will make a bigger and more memorable impression if you monopolize their time. It is irrelevant that they may be handling over 300 applications. You want them to spend their precious time with you.
Don’t find a quiet place to make your call
If you are driving, or getting groceries, that shouldn’t prevent you from using that downtime to your advantage. If they have trouble hearing you, try shouting. If you drop the connection, it’s up to them to call you back.
Don’t send a thank you note
Why bother with a meaningless, vacuous expression of gratitude? You have more important things to do, and simply informing a program officer that you valued their time, patience, and guidance is not worth the effort.
How not to fail
By this time, I hope that have caught on, that there are plenty of ways that you can self-sabotage your interaction with a funding agency. The cardinal sin is failing to listen.
Preparation will make your call more efficient, and yield greater useful information. If you don’t read the solicitation, and if you don’t have a one-page summary of your project aims prepared ahead of time, most of the time on the phone may be wasted going over things you could have learned on your own—before the call.
Many of these officers have been in your shoes: they have had a career in research, and in startups like yours. They chose their present line of work because they truly believe in the mission of funding worthy projects. Let that sink in. Would you rather make the time they spend with you a chore, or a delight?
And you will make their job much easier (which is helping you succeed) if you only let them.