For many years, I have worked as a consultant to units of government, as well as private institutions, to develop and submit complex proposals to the federal government. When I encounter challenges working on these projects, they are typically in one or more of three areas:
Thinking about these factors before you begin work with a consultant may help you get the best out of him or her.
Capacity: You're an Expert but You're Busy
My general experience is that public sector employees are experienced, hard working, and knowledgeable. Those with administrative and managerial responsibilities often have very heavy workloads. A consistent problem I see is the lack of availability of staff to contribute to the parts of the proposal they are best suited to address.
In most engagements, the substance of the proposal—in terms of programmatic content and supporting data—has to come from the staff. That’s why your participation is critical to your consultant in structuring a fundable project that reflects your needs. However, internal capacity is often a challenge. As already mentioned, public sector employees are stretched very thin as it is, and don’t usually have the capacity to add a large grant proposal on a rush basis. Often, information is gathered and design decisions are made too far along on the timeline. The quality of the proposal can suffer as a result. It may be wise to think about how you’re going to juggle your competing priorities when initiating a federal application. If the funding is important, then make the application a priority.
Finance: The Budget May Be the Hardest Part
I work with public and private institutions of various sizes, from medium-sized nonprofits to state agencies. I am often surprised how frequently I discover:
- A lack of financial literacy among some participants,
- A lack of experience creating budgets and budget justifications for federal applications, and/or
- That the people with the financial expertise and relevant experience are not available to prepare the financial sections of the proposal.
I often spend a lot of time making sure columns add up and checking that numbers are consistent across documents. This time would be better spent strengthening the narrative. It may be helpful to determine how your budget will be developed—and who will do it—before you begin.
Data: Have You Checked with Your Wonks?
Data is critical to crafting effective proposals and can also be a challenge. In some instances, data may not be available to support all of your application’s assumptions and proposed interventions.
Available data varies from place to place and state to state. There is substantial similarity in the kinds of data collected, but some state agencies in some states may collect or prioritize certain kinds of information, while other states do not. To cite one example, Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data, a survey of individuals that is collected and reported at the state and local levels, contains core questions but can vary from state to state because of optional modules and custom questions.
There may be particular data concerns in rural places. Low population numbers may result in reliability concerns. Further, in some instances, regulatory concerns may prevent you from using specific data in your application. For example, in a remote rural community, aggregate numbers may be so low in some categories that there is a risk that individual students might be identifiable. Thus, your legal advisor may conclude that these data should not be reported.
Truthfully, I have rarely written a proposal for which perfect supportive evidence was available. My advice is to assess your data needs against what is available as early as possible in the process. In particular, make sure that your core assumptions and proposed interventions can be supported by evidence that may include but is not limited to anecdotal data. Don’t overlook appropriate proxy measures, and a survey of the relevant literature is often useful. Finally, it is sometimes strategic to develop your own data. For example, a thoughtfully designed series of focus groups to probe a subpopulation about their needs can often be hastily arranged and may yield persuasive results!
Developing federal proposals is often intense and stressful, but anticipating some of the key challenges that may emerge can ease the work. I hope this brief overview encourages you to reflect on your own experience working with consultants on these applications, and think about possible process improvements.