Please note that this advice is designed for contacting program officers at federal agencies. Please contact Corporate & Foundation Relations when applying to foundation or other private opportunities.
A program officer is your point of contact for understanding the organization’s response to your submission. POs manage a “portfolio” of grants, and they are rewarded for having a set of very solid grants – they want your grant submission to be good! The following advice is based on NIH, but much is applicable to other funders.
When you should contact a PO
At the start of the research proposal:
To decide if your research idea is in line with the priorities of the program or agency, or if another division – or a tweak to your current plan – would fit better.
To gauge the level of enthusiasm this particular agency has for your proposed area of research – particularly if you have multiple agencies (or NIH I/Cs) that you could submit to.
When a major question of suitability or fit arises (e.g., if a division doesn’t deal with clinical studies; if a certain form of analysis is welcome).
To discover if a particular foundation is interested in your proposal.
During the writing of your proposal when you have questions about:
Specific agency policies such as Data Sharing, human subjects, etc.
Grant award specifics, such as possible award minimum/maximums, whether or not a particular budget item can be funded, etc.
Which study section to request when submitting your cover letter.
When you receive your score or reviews:
The PO can help you interpret critiques, provide guidance on when to resubmit, what to focus on and, if he/she was present at the study section, provide additional input into reviewers’ responses.
What to prepare before contacting a PO
Check the agency or program’s website and all available documents for answers to your questions, as well as the RFA.
Your question may not be answered there, but you can frame your question in terms of what information is already available.
Prepare one or at most a few clear, succinct, relevant questions that are in the PO’s purview.
Prepare a 1-page research summary (specific aims page works well) and include it in the body of your email, along with a specific question about your project or a request to discuss whether it is a good fit for the program. (The GWSW workbook suggests “maximize the programmatic relevance.”)
Assume a technically literate reader but not necessarily well-versed in your specific area.
Keep it focused, draw clear, explicit connections to significance and innovation, and make clear the expected outcomes and deliverables.
How to contact a PO
Email first! This gives the PO a chance to get back to you on his/her own time.
Introduce yourself and your project, with specific, focused information and questions that show that you’ve done your due diligence with publically available materials.
Make sure that your inquiry makes it clear why you are asking, what information you hope to get from the PO, and what your deadline is.
Give them ample time pre-deadline to respond, and expect delays in response right after an RFA comes out or just before a deadline.
Make sure that you’ve examined their online documents and that you know the PO’s name.