One of the most common themes we try to impress on our clients is for them to reach out to the various program managers well before they submit a proposal. The program managers are often your best resource in getting answers to your questions whether they are general, or specific for your specific topic or proposal. We always insist that you try to cultivate a healthy relationship with an appropriate program manager not only because they are a wealth of information, but also because in many cases they are very much like potential investors in your company. Different agencies have their program managers perform different roles; some are more involved in the review process than other, but they all ultimately have considerable influence in whether or not your project gets funded. There have been cases where proposals have been “on the bubble” or scored worse than others, that the program manager was a champion for and managed to get funded.
We recommend initial contact with a program manager three months or more before your project is due. Often the best way is to simply send an introductory email. You may wish to include a short exectutive summary of your project along with your email and request their advice and thoughts. If you are lucky, you might be able to organize a phone call with them to discuss your questions and their thoughts. Note that some agencies are more conducive to program manager contact time than others. NSF, for example has recently changed their methodology where they limit initial program manager contact and won’t respond to a direct email. They now allow you to submit an ‘optional’ Pre-Submission form for feedback directly on their website, and contact you on their own initiative after that. Other agencies require their program managers not have any contact with potential proposers after certain dates. These mandated ‘black-out’ periods reduce the appearance of favoritism to particular companies. Be mindful and respectful of these times. Initiating contact three months before the deadline will generally be early enough to avoid these issues.
While you are preparing you documents for submission and if the program manager is available, you can consider them a resource to provide information about topic fit, collaborators, budget limitations, and scope of work. Often they can provide or suggest other funding opportunities that might relevant that you may not be aware of. During your interactions, you might want to guage their interest in your proposal as well. This can be a subtle way for you to determine if it is really worth your time and effort to submit a proposal that really doesn’t fit the topic or interest the program manager. While they will likely never tell you to not submit a proposal, if they tell you the idea is a ‘better fit for another agency’, you should consider that a strong indication that your project will not be successful, and should seek funding elsewhere. While we do recommend healthy discourse with program managers, recognize that they are quite busy and will not appreciate being contacted often or for minor details during this period.
After your submission the proposal will wind its way through the review process and can usually be tracked for progress. There is generally not much needed to be done with the program manager at this time. The most common concern our clients have is “When will I find out the results?” Unfortunately, there is not a lot of specific assistance the program manager can provide, but sometimes they can give you general thoughts on timelines for review and decision making.
Finally, if you are at the point where a funding decision has been made, you can work with the program manager for next steps. If you are fortunate and funding is forthcoming, you will continue to cultivate the relationship and work with them more closely as your project proceeds. If you are amongst those who are not funded in this round, you can often request and get an opportunity to talk about the results and what your options are for future funding, either through a resubmission or for a different topic. Note that the program manager cannot provide details of who the reviewers were, nor can they ‘go back’ and reconsider your proposal based on your arguments or rebuttals. It is imperative that you are respectful and non-confrontational with the disappointing results.