How to Contact Program Officers

December 13, 2016

The role of a Program Officer (or Program Manager or Technical Point of Contact, depending on the sponsor) varies a lot between sponsors. For example, while it is extremely difficult to get Department of Defense funding without talking to the Program Officer, it is quite common to get funding from the National Institutes of Health without Program Officer contact.

But no matter the sponsor, there are three reasons why you might need to contact a Program Officer while working on your grant proposal:

  1. You need to clarify something contradictory or ambiguous in the solicitation.
  2. You need some guidance on whether or not your project is a good fit for the funding agency or program.
  3. You need to get to know the Program Officer and vice versa (although this does not apply to all sponsors).

Let’s face it; this is an intimidating situation. You need something from someone you don’t know. Everything you know about successfully asking someone for something pivots on the notion that you know the person well enough to know how to ask. In this situation, so much seems to be riding on a good conversation with a stranger.

First, know your audience

With the exception of some foundation Program Officers who actively discourage you contacting them (and you will know who they are because there isn’t a contact name to be found), most do tell researchers to contact them. However, Program Officers are busy. Program Officers may be answering to their supervisors about budgets and projects, traveling to conferences, overseeing review boards, or otherwise not sitting at their desks responding to email. So, when you are ready for contact (and we’ll get there in a bit), you will need to be thoughtful, clear, and focused. Also, you will have to patient.

Second, do your homework

Think about the interactions that annoy you. I’m willing to bet at or near the top your pet peeves list is people who ask you questions they could have easily answered themselves. So, to stay off the Program Officer pet peeve list, do the following before making contact:

  • Read the solicitation and any cited background material thoroughly.
  • Review the sponsor’s website, and make sure you understand both the program and the agency’s purposes and goals.
  • When possible, check out what projects have been funding by the program.
  • Draft a brief summary of your research (a project summary only).
  • Ask your friendly grants specialist, research development person, and/or a colleague.

Third, pick a method of contact

Okay, you and others have attempted to answer your question, but you still do not have an answer. It is time to contact the Program Officer. But how? Should you call or email?

You should email first asking for a phone call if necessary. Because since you have done your homework, your question is going to be somewhat complex, and giving the Program Officer some time to think about the best answer benefits you both. Emails also reduce the chances of playing phone-tag and enable the Program Officer to answer easily when away from his/her desk.

Fourth, write the email

Like any time you are writing clearly, you will discover that creating a clearly worded email takes time. But there is a pretty set structure which can make it easier for you:

  • Preview the purpose in the subject line:
    • This gives the Program Officer some content to your message before reading it.
    • Example: “NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards in FY15?”
  • The Hi: the purpose of writing/reading the email:
    • State the purpose of the email as early as possible—in the first line if you can.
    • Example: “I (in the Research Office at The University of Texas at Dallas) have some faculty members interested in the NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards in FY15.”
  • The Tie: the details that support the purpose:
    • This is where you put enough information so the Program Officer understands why you are unclear about something.
    • Example: “My understanding from the website is that while there may be a call in FY15, the NIH is still waiting on official budget information from Congress. However, the information is several months old, and a call would have been released about six weeks ago.”
  • The Bye: The logical, purposeful transition from the message to the next steps:
    • Give your email a “do-to” statement in which you say what you want the reader to do and why it’s beneficial to/for them.
    • Example: “Is my understanding correct? If not, would you please correct it so I may give my faculty members the correct information?” Here, the implied benefit is that the reader will not get multiple emails on the same topic from the same institution because the writer will distribute the information.

Keep in mind as you are writing that many organizational gurus tell people to go through email and answer any that will take two minutes or less to answer. If you can word your email so that a response can be short, then you are more likely to get a reply. In the email examples (which I am pretty sure you all know is an email I wrote a few years ago) above, I got the following response: “We expect the FOA for FY15 to be published in the next couple of weeks and with approximately the same receipt date (late January).”

Fifth: if there is a phone call

Often, the desired result of an email is a phone call meeting with a Program Officer. When that happens, there are a few things you should do to ensure you get the information you wanted:

  • Have your questions written down
    • Open-ended questions are best, such as: “What are some of the main concerns you have had with past proposals responding to this solicitation?”
    • Even the most successful phone calls can get off on different topics, and often, those topics are well worth exploring. However, if you write down what you must know before you get off the phone, you are much more likely to get that information than if you just try to remember.
  • Send any documents/white papers at least 24 hours before the call with a confirmation email.
  • Watch the time and make sure you end the call on time.
    • It is best to say “I could talk for hours about this, but I only have you for thirty minutes so I need to wrap this up” rather than having the Program Officer cut you off.
  • Recap any next actions required of both sides.
    • “So, I told you I would send you a 10-page synopsis of my work and you said you would email me about your upcoming conference schedule. I should have that paper to you in a couple of weeks. Did I miss anything?”

And, a few last tips for you, no matter how you contact the Program Officer:

  • Really listen to what the Program Officer says even if it isn’t what you wanted to hear. If the Program Director says your work isn’t a fit for the program you asked about, better to ask for suggestions on programs that would fit better or how your research might be modified to fit than to either argue with the Program Officer or submit it anyway.
  • Program Officers often attend conferences in their interest areas. Take the time to introduce yourself at those conferences whenever possible.
  • Don’t ask if your proposal will be funded. That is not a question the Program Officer can answer. They can tell you if your research is a fit (except for the Department of Defense whose Program Officers are not allowed to talk to potential applicants after the RFP has been released. If you have a question about a DoD RPF, you will need to get it clarified by an administrative contact).
  • Be patient. You should wait at least a week for a response before trying again. And, if you emailed the first time and didn’t get a response, consider a phone call and vice versa. But after an email and a phone call go unanswered, look to see if there is another point of contact for the program.

Getting to know the Program Officers is a good use of your time, and it is always a good idea to contact them to discuss your research and specific interests of the program. By doing this, you will gain a better understanding of the sponsor’s needs and how your research can best support that. It can be the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship.

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