Until you get a call from your congressman and sign a contract, grant notifications don’t count

Last week, a client got a federal funding notification e-mail for a proposal we wrote a few months ago, and and the client started celebrating… until an hour later, when the Federal department sent a second e-mail, recalling the first and saying our client hadn’t really been funded.

That hurts, but it’s also not the first time something like this has happened to our clients. It’s a truism that, in any business, until the contract is signed and the money obligated, nothing counts. There are innumerable stories in the venture capital world about analogous shenanigans, including small companies that have picked up and moved, only to be told “just kidding.”

The cliché “money talks” exists for a reason. It’s still a pretty nasty mistake, however, for a federal agency to tell a nonprofit they’ve been funded when they haven’t. Mistakes do happen and one learns pretty quickly in grant seeking that federal bureaucrats are far from perfect.

Many of our clients first learn they’ve funded for a federal grant not from the funding department, but from their congressperson, or from a press release via their congressperson’s office. Every SF-424—which is the cover sheet for all federal proposals—has an input box for the applicant and project area congressional district(s). Congresspeople love to take credit for money going to their district, especially if the congressperson exerts no effort whatsoever.

It is common practice for federal departments to notify the affected congressperson when a grant award is made, often before the applicant is notified. Thus, an applicant may hear from their congressperson or read about it in local newspaper, before they get their notice of funding award email. The good news about this system is that it tends to make the program officers, who send out the funding award emails, marginally more interested in being correct. Congresspersons* get very angry at mistakes like the one suffered by our client. They tend to make a much louder ruckus than any nonprofit or public agency. Imagine Congressman Frank Underwood, as portrayed by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, learning that the press release he just sent to the Gaffney Picayune Press concerning a YouthBuild grant to a local nonprofit having been sent in error because a DOL GS-12 sent award emails to the wrong list.

With our client, it’s pretty clear that both the proposal and client were fundable, but political machinations (or, more charitably, “considerations”) got in the way and the first email was sent in error. If you’re in the game, not every call goes your way. And the “game” here can refer to grant writing, but it can also refer to “life.”


* Is it “Congresspeople” or “Congresspersons”? Internet authorities appear split. Most seem to agree that it is a good idea to use “congressperson” as a lowercase, non-proper noun unless one is referring to a specific congressperson.

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