Professionally Pooped (I)

Two weeks have gone by since my last post.

This is partly because I am worn out from all the professional activities that I’ve pursued since my new grant adventures began in May. After attending the NORDP Annual Conference sessions with titles like “Maximizing Efficiency: A Case Study in How to Avoid Saying ‘No’ in a Resource-Limited Office,” and having 3½ months to reflect on my “off” time, I’ve decided that I don’t advocate this crash-and-burn philosophy. Rather than burn out, it’s better to share my reality. Right here.

While hard, saying ‘no,’ is probably inevitable. Well, eventually. Not ‘no’ to a person or activity, in this case.

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Information addiction

Some who learn of my new “self-employed” status have various thoughts on how I might (or should) be spending my time, i.e.:

  • “It would be nice to sleep in.” (I haven’t been sleeping in.)
  • “You must love having time off.” (I haven’t taken an actual vacation yet.)
  • “You should think about what you like to do.” (I already know what I like – and don’t.)

In addition to being an artist, a memoir writer, and a swim-bike-runner, I’m an information and a deadline addict. So I’ve been working even harder than when I had a (more than) full-time job position. Without the comfort of a steady paycheck, “standard” hours, or interaction with familiar staff, now the stakes are even higher.

I love learning new things; but I don’t approach this process in a simple or random fashion. Fragmented material gets tied to goals. Lacking a job description to strive towards, I have envisioned a series of new bins with subtopics to tackle. Meanwhile, keeping some habits alive.

Checking the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts. Reading “Rock Talk.” Tues New York Times Science Times.

In essence, I’ve applied my personal trainer’s FITNESS CALENDAR approach to my labor flow. Daily, weekly, and monthly goals drive my time. And they are set at the beginning of each month. Freed from the imposed structure of the “typical” work day – commuting, in person meetings, and so on – early on I decided to create an alternative structure.

The key to this transition was what so many grant professionals love: THE LIST.

List living

“Lists of what?” you might ask?

A truism in grant and in scientific work: You’ll never keep up with the pace of information. But you can set parameters for growth. And a feasible list to match. Within each subt opic, I’ve got a series of narrowly focused interests; and on my calendar, the steps to pursue them. Always going back to the spirit of the ultimate objective.

Professionally pooped I - GIF

Some of my activities are, most definitely, income generating. Others, no less crucial, are credential building. Participating on the executive boards of grant professional organizations (like NORDP and GPA), for example. Each of these boards and the composite members are quite distinct in composition, constituency and operation style. From these colleagues, I continue to learn valuable lessons – outside of the content I am so accustomed to mastering in science – in how to command meetings, organize material, and tackle grant challenges.

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Salty-sweet prescription

Right now, I plan to say “yes” to all the opportunities that arise. Information goals, however, need to be partitioned and attached to a deadline. I’ll be practicing how to demark this virtual “no” line as I follow the explorations that my home office has triggered.

Quizzical Insider

Challenge

On my track to launching the GrantAscent blog (see: About), I gathered up hand-written scraps and printed electronic notes into one pile. I then spawned a list of potential topics. Next, I sorted each of them under my blog-declared target categories: Information, Opportunity, Change.

One topic that really snagged me was peer review.

First, I grouped this under “Information.” This disturbed me though. How could I write something new – anything informative — about what so many had already written and lectured about at length – and from experience on peer review panels?

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Un-highly trained

I had been an ad hoc reviewer for two federal agencies – Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and National Science Foundation (NSF) – each with very different proposal subjects and styles. But it didn’t give me a satisfying density of peer review knowledge. And I’d had no formal introduction to how to be a peer reviewer; I was selected based solely upon expertise area. Perhaps the first insider reveal of how peer review impacts grant scoring:

  • Consistency may be lacking, as training is not extensive for occasional reviewers. Take into account the idea that reviewers may just get some simple instructions.

Reversely perverse

Ironically, this was one intensive requirement of my work: providing advice of how to improve grant quality. What is termed “pre-submission review” of proposals is actually a mix of strategic advising, content review against instructions, and editing. I’d reviewed hundreds of proposals, and I could say that the basis of my feedback style is an assorted formal-informal combination:

  • What I’d learned over the years working with others on their NIH grants +
  • What I’d read by grant writers about how to improve grant scores +
  • What NIH and other grant agency websites describe about how the peer review process is conducted.

Despite my experience, I wasn’t much interested in writing a “how-to” blog post.

So…what then?

Alternatively, I set out to research trends in contract peer review organizations. Some time ago, I was working with a research group on a foundation proposal and discovered that the foundation contracted out their peer review. Wondering how their criteria and process may impact the fate of our efforts, I inquired with the program contact. This seemed like an interesting, perhaps important, trend. I put it on my thought-shelf.

Just like so many adventures, this one came from veering off the intended route.

My recent blog list-making was a prompt about the old query. This past May at the 2014 NORDP Conference, I was sitting at a breakfast table with a group of strangers. Conversation led to the name of a peer review contract organization that one of them knew from her experience at a foundation.

Upon return to Houston, I pursued this tip. Exploring the contract organization’s website, the “Become a Reviewer” tab caught my attention. “What the hell?” I thought, as I clicked on the entry form. The best way to see how it works is not to read about. I should participate.

Within minutes, I ended up as an approved contract reviewer – and with a grant in my new “Incomplete Review” inbox.

Keyword enigma

In the contract peer reviewer online assessment to determine your qualifications, you have to select expertise areas from a drop-down menu. These predetermined field and subfield descriptors may not be the keywords that I would exactly use. Yet I tried not to overthink it.

I matched!

That is, I was “automatically” approved to be a reviewer in the online screening process. There may be a human behind this selection. It happened so quickly that I would not assume so. I read the grant title with delight. “This peer review system works pretty well,” I thought. I felt sufficiently qualified to be a peer reviewer on this application. And I quickly agreed to do it.

  • Face it. It’s all about keywords. Use this to your advantage.

Criteria mania

As a real reviewer (vs. a pre-submission reviewer that provides suggested changes in no pre-specified format), I was given a template to fill out for evaluation of the proposal. I was required to fill it out as written – whether I felt the given criteria or questions were an important or useful way to assess the grant.

  • Grant professionals aren’t leading you down a blind alley when they advise: “Write to the peer review criteria.”

Some points about my own experience writing and providing pre-proposal reviews did occur to me as I daydreamed while reading the structural biology minutia of this grant proposal. I was under pressure, with only two weeks to complete this review. And I can’t hope to become a structural biologist in this time frame.

  • Entertain me. Make it come alive with some bullet points, shaded headers, summary figure titles, or any simple mechanistic figure.

It’s unlikely, even with optimal keyword expertise matching, that any one person can be expert in every subfield in a given proposal. So it has to be written accessibly for each type of data. Don’t assume knowledge of the terminology and subtleties of techniques – ranging (for example) from isothermal titration calorimetry to autophagy assays — for the proposed project.

  • “A picture is worth a thousand words,” maybe? But don’t forget to describe that picture as if for a new (grant) reader, rather than just pasting it as-is from the journal publication.

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Completing the peer review for this particular contract organization was simple and logical. This gave me insight into potential for opportunities beyond the traditional R01-type format and scope that scientists often mimic, regardless of the granting agency. Often even a quick scan of another investigator’s Biosketch can provide a creative push to identify unconventional strategies and sources of research funding – particularly for growing a lab up with seed money.

Scientists are generally loath to think like marketers. But essentially they are marketing their science to other scientists. This should make the conceptual shift easier.

Change is hard. So I’m thinking to start with a look at alternative writing style opportunities presented by a newly emerging partner in funding decisions – the contract peer review organization. Get to know the parameters, even with a brief phone call under the guise of clarifying the instructions. Don’t waste time and detail in an 11 page research plan if the criteria don’t fit.

Take the marketing transformation slowly, and make it just a tiny bit fun.

Team Zero

Challenge Unpuzzled

X-FACTOR RATING

This past week, I found myself in session with a series of academic and administrative leaders who wished to assess how I would handle large, complex proposals. This question – or rather their question barrage of increasing intensity – caused me pause.  I refuse to believe that undertaking these highly prized “X-factor” grants (i.e., NIH P01, NSF STC, DOE EFRC) is different than any other. This attitude prevents me from being intimidated by new grant challenges.

As I see it, a proposal is a proposal.

I distill the essence of completing a grant package into the following elements:

RFP graphic

The actual grant preparation process involves:

  1. Carefully reading and following the instructions
  2. Designating a grant team
  3. Constructing a research plan within the scope
  4. Assembling the required supportive documents to complete the package.

There’s a request for proposal (RFP). It contains the instructions. You create the checklist from the list of required elements in the RFP. You move step by step according to the timeline. And hurrah! You’ve got a grant package. Some take longer than others; some are larger (more pages, more ancillary documents) than others. And there are a variety of factors that impact the efficiency of the process. Nonetheless, to answer this query about my organizational style, I turned to “best practices” (BP) to educate myself on how other research development professionals approach large, complex proposals. I sought nuggets of BP wisdom among recent conference presentations, professional blogs, and published articles.

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DEFINITIONS FIRST

What I found initially is that the terms “large” and “complex” abide further breakdown.

  • Fields differ.

Hence: Inter- and/or Cross-disciplinary.

  • Institutional structure varies.

Hence: Cross-departmental and/or multi-institutional.

  • Package requirements are numerous.

Hence: Integrated team and/or multi-project with a) complex elements, b) large budget/cost sharing, and/or c) unique peer review criteria.

I’m not one to spend a lot of time reading best practices. The very thought of it bores me. I hate to admit that as a science-trained individual on my path to becoming more grant-professional, I’ve had to turn my attitude around.

BP as SOP

One selling quality of BP documents is their “how-to” potential. Thinking of a BP as a standard operating procedure (SOP) gives it appeal. The absence and deficits of technical SOPs in the laboratory is well known among scientists. It’s not that we have a lot of these, in fact, there’s a real issue (see: here). In the lab, we could use a few more SOPs to save time, samples, frustration – and lost data opportunities. The same applies to organizing grant submissions. Often a little tweaking of BP language is needed, however, to reflect the world of scientific research grants. Really though, a BP is more like an outline or overview of an SOP. One of my disappointments in BP sources is that they tell you what you should do, but not necessarily, in detail, how.

BP as guidance

BPs on large, complex proposals do present recommendations – guidance – for tackling the organization of a grant submission. Insights into the breakdown of the process abound (see: Dressler et al. NCURA Mag. 2013; XLV (2): 19). A whole new perspective on how not just to pursue a particular grant, but the contribution of research development to strategic grant planning is being offered by the growth of the “Science of Team Science.” Again it’s quite appealing for a scientist to believe that you can create structure by examining the parts and ordering them into bins. Yet BPs often do not help you to resolve the vexing situation when the process is NOT working. Deadlines are being missed. Power struggles are witnessed. Passive aggressive behavior and lack of know-how (and inability to admit ignorance) jam up the grant timeline.

It’s my mentality to be skeptical—and to look for the pitfalls. It’s what the BP documents minimize or leave out altogether that are valuable lessons to evolving your own style for tacking large, complex grants.

PERSONALITIES LAST

My answer to how I would handle large, complex grants ultimately came not from BP reading, but from my experience and intuition. The tricky part of putting together any grant package is identifying a team—and understanding how it will gel. It’s actually the institution setting(s) that you have to get to know. Who does what? And even better, who knows how to do what grant tasks? With every grant opportunity, you have to gauge the features of people.

I was never one to study personality theory. I always had a pretty sharp idea of what I was about. So why take a Meyers-Briggs personality test? I had myself all figured out! What I didn’t have figured out was how other personalities played into how putting together a grant submission would take shape. BPs offer myriad conceptual approaches from which to pick. Many derive from business such as Project Management, Business Acquisition Plan, and others. Regardless of the required components – or the process you choose, try to put leadership, management, and other organization theories to the test in an academic setting (see: here).  Still, you might have to seek out some “personality psychology” resources (see: True Colors) to resolve the biggest challenges of putting together large, complex proposals.

For every grant, you are starting at zero with the team. Assume nothing. Except that Team Zero needs delineation. Best practices help you along. Whether you’re at the pre-pre-planning (scientific collaboration, strategic planning), pre-planning (strategizing to submit, making “Go-No Go” decision), or proposal development (responding to an RFP) stage. But you have to go back to your intuition and experience with the composite institutions to break the grant down into the team designees, not just the document list.

Success in getting a particular award is complex. Success in putting together a quality grant package and meeting the deadline – regardless of the grant size and complexity – comes down to the grant team. And, ultimately, to relationships and to personalities.

Once you kick off the process, repeat the mantra “Be Flexible” 20 times, and you’ll be ready for Team Zero.2.

Prospective ABCs?

This past Friday, I had the occasion to represent the one of my local professional groups, the Southeast Texas Chapter of the Grant Professionals Association (GPA-SETC), at a sister organization’s Houston meeting: the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). I would not exactly classify myself as a fundraiser. However, I often reason that work elements of grant professionals and fundraisers would understandably intersect. We’re all tasked with finding means of getting funding for essential needs or project(s) that organizations and the composite individuals – or groups of individuals – wish to conduct.

In my endeavor to ascend (see: About), I felt it worthwhile to learn more about successful grantsmanship by seeing what local giving representatives of three major funders – namely Episcopal Health Foundation, Shell Oil Company, and Kroger Co. – say about successful strategies to get funding.

So I put on my little black suit and headed up the 610 loop to The Junior League of Houston, Inc. for AFP’s Annual Funders Panel Luncheon.

The ABCs

Despite the realization that fundraisers speak a different language from grant professionals such as myself  (see: About), one of the panelists made a point that struck me as critical to almost any grant or fundraising professional:

“Do your homework.”

Now I don’t know about you, but it has been a long time since I’ve done homework. This disdainful word springs forth images of an assignment that is given to me by a teacher to complete according to their specifications. What sets the task of a grant professional above the level of homework is that we must set our own standards of distinction. We must do more than homework.

In parallel with the GrantAscent tenets, understanding the funder’s perspective requires:

  • Information – in this case: funder’s instructions.
  • Opportunity – in this case: funder’s current priorities.
  • Change – in this case:  fit to the funder’s guidelines.

Let’s pick up a magnifying glass and take a closer look.

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Prospectively Defined

The panelists were all emphatic on the “homework” point. What they effectively meant was: “DO PROSPECT RESEARCH!” This was a term I encountered for the first time when I joined GPA. It refers generally to the process of searching for grant opportunities, that is, “prospects.” More specifically, grant professionals search a database of funding agencies (nonprofit organizations and corporations, for example).  The Foundation Directory, GrantStation, and The Grantsmanship Center provide a few options.

Interestingly, many of us scientific grant writers toil away without utilizing any centralized or consolidated database.  The most frequent search strategy is to punch key search terms for your project (e.g., aging and stem cells) into the internet. One reason for this is lack of knowledge about the software. Scientists write grants, to be sure. But they are not trained to be grant professionals. Another reason is lack of access. In their respective organizations, scientists are, more often than not, outside of the circle of fundraising teams that use these search tools. And some organizations are relatively small and do not invest in such resources, although they may be available locally (i.e., at United Way of Greater Houston).

Ask a scientist – and maybe even a scientific grant writer – and you are likely to find that many of them haven’t even heard of those options for efficient searching. Yet this is not the only tool-gap issue.

Prospectively Sourced

Access to central repositories for all-things-grants in the sciences/research is still limited, despite some recent tools on the horizon. In fact, I consistently discourage scientists from relying on second-hand sources – listservs, blog sites, and even an agency’s summary list. They often contain out-of-date or inaccurate information. Instead, I spend a lot of energy teaching scientists to locate the SOURCE document – the Request for Proposal (RFP) – and how to decode one.

A predominant example of a SOURCE listing is the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts (GC Guide). Although you may find extensive lists of opportunities on a particular NIH Institute or Center (IC) webpage, these sites are only updated as quickly as the designee (such as NHLBI) can capture changes posted on the GC Guide. Unless you go to the source RFP – and subscribe to updates, you could be holding meetings about a grant that is no longer offered.

Prospectively Decoded

From the RFP, you must determine if it meets the funding needs and capabilities of the organization/PI/project. This information, minimally, is necessary to assess the fit.

Some critical categories of information include:

  • RFP Scope: Grant Type1, IC Participation, Topic, Budget, Years
  • RFP Eligibility: Institution, Applicant (e.g., Principal Investigator)
  • RFP Requirements: Deadline, Forms, Submission Process (e.g., grants.gov)

1 e.g., for NIH, the “Activity Code

Prospectively Upcycled ↗

Inside Scoop

The AFP Funders Panel had opinions about telephone contact with them – at both extremes.

In the scientific realm, this usually means the Program Contact (PC) listed in the RFP. This is what NIH has to say: http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2011/06/29/should-i-contact-a-program-officer-before-i-apply/. Truly, the NIH equivalent of the fundraising “cold call” doesn’t often yield much information. Pursuing another level of prospect research is worthwhile. Once you’ve thoroughly identified the critical features of the RFP, an entry to a conversation with the PC is to note down any ambiguities or missing information pertaining to the decision of whether or not to apply. When considering options for projects and their focus, it is useful to send the project idea(s) in short summary form, along with your questions, to the PC – especially to one in the IC of interest. The next step is to request a telephone appointment.

Still, there’s a lot of information you can and should get – before taking a stab at the PC.

RFP History

An important touch in the art of prospect research is to prioritize (not just find) opportunities. To make strategic decisions about putting resources into working on a grant, it’s productive to dig deep into the data on trends. This is now vastly improved by NIH Reporter (or can apply to other data/databases provided by the funding organization). As for the ABCs, you can find another layer of information that will reveal the tendencies beneath the stated guidelines:

  • Grant Type: Total number of awards (on active and expired “prior” RFP), awards by IC
  • RFP Scope: Specific projects awarded, range and average budget awarded
  • RFP Eligibility: Awards to the given type of institution (e.g., nonprofit vs. academic)

News Pulse

While on the prospect research path, you’ll come across copious materials. If not, think harder.

Press releases on awardees, on one extreme, can be used to understand the IC’s interests — and even to identify potential contacts within the organization, as they often have quotes from program officers.

On the other extreme, when reading news or peer-reviewed articles by experts in the field, review the acknowledgement section; it includes the list of grants that funded the research. The same can be gleaned from scientific presentations. You never know; peers may be willing to share information on what they know about trends or their experience with an agency. Or you can just get a flavor for feasibility of funding opportunities. And pick up the scent of a few new tracks to follow.

I say: do more than just your homework. Get your ABCs, for sure. Go ahead and prospectively Source, Decode, and Upcycle your efforts too.

It might save you time at the stage “GO.”

Sample Right

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The Write Query

In the process of exploring new pathways in the grant sphere (see: About), I’ve been asked for writing samples. Some requests came in the form of self-reflective questions. I’ll call these mini-samples. A few of these queries took an unusual form: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be and why?”; others seemed more like they were designed for a kid out of college rather than an experienced professional. Others were more substantial, and significantly more curious: “Please send us a technical writing sample detailing how to make a peanut butter sandwich.” Pause for reflection, all equally. “What exactly is my philosophy about writing samples?” I thought. “And how will I address them?”

My response relates directly to the mission of this blog, which is to highlight some unique features of grant writing – in the scientific research realm.

The Write Response

Being a task-oriented person, I cheerfully tackled the imminent peanut butter (PB) sample. However, further contemplating the assignment, I concluded that this would not be the last such request. And so I shouldn’t be satisfied with just one sample.

Grant seeking requires more than simply grant writing.

It involves:

  • Various pre-planning steps – a) searching for prospects, b) prioritizing them according to best fit (in itself a complex matrix), and often, c) getting more information and input from the contact at the agency for the RFPs under consideration. (See: Grant Pre-Planning)
  • Different grant types  a) foundation, b) government, or c) federal agencies. Between and within each category, requirements are unique.
  • Alternative writing styles  a) highly specialized, b) lay audience – or often c) on a scale between a/b. Most scientific grants should be targeted to an audience of scientists who are not specialized in the field of the proposal.

To think carefully about this particular PB writing sample, I would need a framework to put it in context of my range of professional capabilities and objectives.

 

Henceforth, I drafted a Table of Contents for my Grant Development Portfolio. This included a judicious scope of writing:

  • Technical  highly detail-focused and instruction-oriented

e.g., standard operating procedures

  • Strategic Reports – content-dense and conclusion-driven

e.g., prospect research priorities, consultations on specific RFPs

  • Proposal Narratives – rationale-rich, data-driven, and descriptive

e.g., Letter of Intent, Specific Aims Page, Research Plan

  • Social/Media – entertaining-educational, big-picture, and “tech- light”

e.g., press releases, website material, blog posts

Each example addresses a specific question that a client (or a series of clients) might — and should – pose of the consultant. “Can you write – for my needs?”

The Write Conclusions

Grant samples – whether “mock” or “real” grant applications – suffer from many flaws, if used to evaluate the capabilities of a grant professional.

The Real Deal?

The two major objections of complying with a request for a grant proposal for those of us working in the sciences:

  1. Confidentiality: The grant is the property of the institution and the principal investigator. While sensitive, it is possible to obtain permission to distribute grant documents. It would not be possible, however, to effectively redact the identifying information. The content, including citations, would – by design – identify the PI. This begs the question of…
  2. Representation: The grant and associated preliminary data is the primary conception of the PI, and most likely, other investigators. While the grant professional may have had significant influence on the proposal, it rarely represents original writing. To be competitive, scientific grants must be multidisciplinary, or at the very least, collaborative. It’s increasingly rare that a PI – or by extension, a scientific grant writer — have subject matter expertise across all the disciplines in the grant. Hence, it would be disingenuous to suggest, by providing the grant proposal to a prospective client, that the writing is exemplary of the consultant.

The Mock Deal?

Mock-ups also suffer from issues related to Representation.

Grant proposal development requires more than simply grant writing.

Writing is more than editing; editing is also more than writing. Or, even better put (quoting a technical writer that I know): “Editing is writing.” This is certainly arguable.

However, grant proposal development is, in iterative (independent and collective) repeat combinations:

  • Brainstorming
  • Outlining
  • Coordinating
  • Writing
  • Blending
  • Restructuring
  • Critiquing
  • Re-writing
  • Proofing

Grant professionals’ titles vary widely, reflecting their contribution to assorted stages of the grant submission process — and extends (at best) beyond grant-writing-in-isolation.

Our ultimate challenge, in seeking grants and credibility with clients, is to spread this message.

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http://estherjames.com/why-i-am-not-a-grantwriter-and-why-you-shouldnt-be-one-either/

http://www.nordp.org/assets/RDConf2013/presentations/nordp-2013-credibility.pdf

Surprise Solutions

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Early in May, I was contacted about a promising editorial project. I’d worked with this person before, although at a different institution — and as a staff member.

Not as an independent consultant.

The Back Story

I was pleased to get the call because this was a quality individual with whom I’d enjoyed working for several reasons. We had established a compatible work process; clear expectations had been stipulated by the institute leadership; and I not only applied my science knowledge base, I also learned about new technology and fields of investigation at each deadline. In turn, the communication was as I preferred — open and inclusive. Information was shared appropriately, deadlines respected, and I was invited to attend related conferences, a gesture which I viewed as a sign of respect and acknowledged by attending.

This project – and this new arrangement — appeared to be a “yes” for both of us. So I set to work. That is, to working out the contract.

And in the process, I have had a few productive surprises.

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The first surprise: I am a Vendor – of services.

Initially, the project coordinator informed me that because this was a state institution, I would have to be approved as a vendor. Not particularly thinking of this project as a discrete item for sale, I had to adjust my perspective.

What exactly is my product?

Like any skilled grant professional, I cheerfully researched vendor requirements. I quickly identified the online resources to educate myself about the institution’s policies & procedures. Yet just as rapidly, at the menu stage, I was confronted by a dizzying array of documents. Each clickable link contained terminology unfamiliar to me. Somehow I lost track of the purpose as I anxiously pull up PDFs that did not seem to relate closely to the services I would provide. The time I had allotted to tackling this subject had been consumed.

Now what?

I put a stop to the downslide of confusion when I recalled the original conversation with the project coordinator weeks ago. The task requested was to justify my services as sole source. I was quite accustomed to writing just these sorts of justifications at a prior institution, albeit for the purchase of lab supplies. But I am also quite capable of describing my own expertise as distinct and necessary to a given project. So I straightforwardly provided this context to my point of contact.

And I moved on. Or so I thought.

Weeks later, at my first in-person meeting with the project coordinator, I was told that detailed justification was going to facilitate approval of the quote. I was then introduced to my “procurement specialist.” Time to get started — again.

Solution: Trust in the assigned professional.

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Surprise No. 2: Rate Debate.

While I had researched the appropriate rate for my services, I had not taken into consideration the institution’s history with other contractors. Clearly, this would impact the approval process. When the project coordinator called to tell me that my rate was higher than what the institution had agreed to before, I was initially a bit defensive. After all, I was blind to the information that would have been used to set the prior rates: the expertise of contractor, the project to be done – and how the two related. Upon calmer reflection, I reasoned that for parallel editorial services, some of the sophisticated knowledge (upon which my well-researched rate: expertise level was based) was not needed – for this project. I was willing to accept that a rate adjustment was reasonable.

For the sake of this and future prospects, compromise was warranted. Recalling my working motto, “Building relationships ♦ Building capacity” helped me clinch the mental impasse. I was committed to this project and was excited about developing new relationships with the other faculty going forward.

Solution: Favor rate reasonableness.

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Surprise No. 3: Time does not equal money.

Days ticked by as I was consumed with developing what amounted to a brief SOP for the project. I went back and forth with the project coordinator on the fine points, but I began to question whether the level of detail was even essential.

Was I just consuming my unpaid time?

But when it came to parsing out the quote, the contract deliverables were clear and logical. They were based directly on the SOP. In essence, I had laid a foundation for working on this project.

And this pleased me for two reasons.

First, the prospect of avoiding consultant (my) dissatisfaction.

LinkedIn, E-lists, blogs and other online grant professional forums are bursting with consultants’ posts about their frustrations in dealing with clients. Most of their grouses hinge on: clients’ failure to provide information on time, lack of commitment to the project, or deficits in understanding of what putting together and submitting the grant package entails. Often grant consultants murmur about having to constantly “educate the client” about what they do.

Second, the prospect of avoiding client dissatisfaction.

I have heard clients (at or outside my own institutions) voice disappointment about the way a consultant works and/or their final product. In one case, a group complained that the contract stipulated the consultant would “do everything, including the online submission.” Yet the institution’s staff had to step in to complete the work.

Both complaints have merits. Stating in the contract that “the client will…” and “the consultant will…” can help resolve this.

Solution: It pays to SOPize.

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Just do it already?!

The process of getting approved to provide services as an independent consultant (whether classed as a vendor or contractor) may seem like tedious unpaid labor. The more specs I provided, the less ambiguity remained about what I would provide. And most importantly, how I would provide it.

Also, the more I understood the client’s vision for the project.

Some examples of points of agreements that benefited from the “SOPize-It” approach between the client and the contractor:

  • Level of client input: Information, documentation, and/or feedback — who decides what and at what stage.
  • Determination of schedule: Time frame — for giving and receiving information and documents.
  • Features of product(s): Intermediate (draft) and final documents – elements of each file and depth of review.

Careful consideration of the contract deliverables is likely to improve the product by enhancing the steps in conduct of the project. This approach doesn’t only apply to independent consultants. It is valuable to staff members working in a system where the deliverables are nebulous (or infinite) and the process, undescribed.

It gets us all – client and consultant — thinking a little bit more carefully about the project AND our expectations.

Everyone profits.