Whenever I teach one of our Two Day Grant Writing Retreats, I'm usually quite insistent that the number one most important rule of successful grant writing is the follow the funder's directions. Ironically, I often find myself tempted to violate this iron clad rule myself, especially when I am in a hurry, facing a tough deadline or in the mood to dismiss the funder's tedious requirements as mistakes instead of directions. Luckily, my wife and staff are quick to remind me of this necessity.
When is it harder to follow the funder's directions?
Undoubtedly, it is hardest to follow those guidelines when they are ambiguous and open to interpretation. This often happens, for example, in large federal grants where different rules appear at the beginning of the grant application compared to the same rules written later in the application. Push comes to shove, I tend to make my first priority calling the program officer on the phone when I see this happen. Often, grant writers are nervous about calling the funder because they are worried they will blow it somehow. This is not a legitimate worry. The program officers want to see compliant applications and they are eager to help you to make that happen. A quick phone call or e-mail can quickly clear things up.
If I do not hear back from the program officer in time, however, I usually go with the interpretation that makes the most sense to me or the interpretation that occurs toward the end of the document. My view is that they probably got smarter as they wrote the application and put their best ideas at the end. No matter what, it is smart to document your e-mail or phone call requesting a clarification.