At February’s eSchool News Grants and Funding conference in New Orleans, federal program officers were unable to attend because of the change in administrations. This dilemma led me to start one of my sessions with the following piece of advice: You can visit program officers at their offices, and you should!

Program officers are responsible for providing information about the grant program they are affiliated with and giving technical assistance to potential applicants. The contact information for a grant’s program officer can be found in the grant’s request for proposals (RFP).

I just attended an RFP workshop in which the federal program officer actually gave his home eMail address and said we should not hesitate to contact him on weekends if we needed to. Take advantage of this contact information, but don’t abuse it.

Don’t be afraid to get in touch with program officers and draw upon their knowledge and expertise. I have found many program officers to be extremely helpful and receptive to answering my questions. In some cases, this has saved me from submitting a proposal that would not score high enough to be competitive.

I suggest that you contact program officers to do the following:

o Discuss your intended project before starting the proposal, especially if you are not clear whether there is a “tight fit” between your idea and the purpose of the grant program.

o Ask specific questions you might have related to your project, your proposal, or the grant program itself. Do not, however, pick up the phone and call a program officer if you haven’t even read the RFP yet. Program officers are far too busy for these types of “fishing expedition” phone calls!

o Ask them to refer you to a prior grantee who may share some similarities with you in terms of project ideas or demographics.

Depending on your level of interest in federal grants and the travel funds available in your district’s budget, it might be worth your while to schedule a trip to Washington to visit with several program officers face to face. This is easy to do, because the various grant offices are located in close proximity to one another. I would encourage you to schedule these visits during “down” time (usually the summer), rather than at the height of the grants season. It is conceivable that spending a day or two in Washington could result in your seeing as many as 10 or more program officers!

Prepare in advance for your visit with the program officers. Review the RFPs for the grant programs you are interested in and make a list of the questions that you have regarding the RFPs. Write brief abstracts of your proposed projects, so the program officers have something they can read and react to. Take careful notes of your discussion, so you have something you can refer to when you return. Ask the program officers if they will review a draft of your proposal before final submission (yes, it’s hard to believe, but some federal program officers in certain programs will do this!).

Remember, program officers want high-quality proposals—and they want to help you produce them. View them as important members of your grant-seeking team.