Federal grant program officers: They're just like us!

Do you read Us magazine at the grocery store checkout line? If so, you’re familiar with the magazine’s “They’re Just Like Us!” feature, which helps keep paparazzi employed for another week.

Celebrities feed the parking meter! They use airport luggage carts! They're just like us! (I'm waiting to see the picture of a celebrity reading Us magazine at the grocery store checkout line -- then I'll really know they're just like us.)

Here's a revelation that is going to change how I write federal grant applications in the future.... The people who make decisions about how to award federal grants are also just like us

Have you ever been lost in the maze of buzzwords and complex directions that comes with the typical federal agency RFP (request for proposals)? Have you ever despaired, thinking it was written by a computer -- a writing entity with a robot brain and no sense of humor or compassion?

Nope -- not true!

The grant program design and language was created by a team of dedicated, intelligent people. They are people who want to do something meaningful and enjoy life -- just like us. *

My new understanding of federal grant program officers comes from participating over the past few days on the Federal Funding Task Force,  a program of the Council for Resource Development (CRD). Each year, CRD sends about 50 community college fundraisers to meet with representatives of dozens of federal agencies, such as NASA and USDA. We ask the federal program officers to update us on their specific programs, and to tell us how they anticipate public funding and priorities for their agencies to change over the coming year.

I was so impressed with the folks I met with from various agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. They're engaging, informed, sincere and highly competent. Good job with the hiring, USAJobs!

The top tip I picked up from my experience with the Federal Funding Task Force is that federal grant program officers can advise you about how to submit a stronger grant application. They can steer your nonprofit organization towards resources and information that will help you create a fundable application. But to get these insights and put them to work in your application, you need to contact the program officer early in the grant application development stage -- not a week before the application is due.

Here's an important caveat: a federal program officer probably isn't going to tell you that your project concept is a weak idea, or a poor fit with the agency's priorities -- even if it is both of these things. My understanding is that federal agency officers aren't allowed to say "no" to prospective grantees who want to submit applications in response to RFPs -- due to rules about how public money needs to be fairly distributed. As long as your organization meets the eligibility requirements, you can submit an application. (This is in contrast to private foundation program officers, who have the leeway to restrict who can apply for grants, in any way the foundation wants to.)

The most that the program officer can do is to suggest alternate project ideas or funding sources, so try to be sensitive to the nuance of what the program officer may be telling you in response to your project pitch. 

Good luck in your outreach to federal grant program officers, and remember one thing: they're just like us!

* This insight into how people are "more similar than they are different" is from Guy Kuwasaki's fascinating book, Enchantment.