If you read legal thrillers, you know that clients chronically give incomplete information to their attorneys—which, in legal thrillers, inevitably makes the attorney look stupid in the eyes of people she respects (like, say, judges). Keeping secrets from attorneys also seldom works in the client’s favor: it’s almost always better for the client and the lawyer to disclose that, yes, you were sleeping with the wife, the sister, and the mother on the day in question. Besides, the lawyer has seen or heard or done worse anyway.
Better to look bad in the eyes of the lawyer than to be convicted.
We often analogize what we do to what lawyers do, because there are so many similarities: our clients are really buying our expertise more than they’re buying our work products; we prepare written documents on abstruse topics that nonetheless shape much of the world; we sometimes bill by the hour; and we often give opinions about courses of action. Those opinions may turn out to be wrong*, usually for reasons beyond our control, but they’re based on decades of experience in preparing grant applications.
In addition to those similarities, our clients should tell us as much as they can. If they don’t, we’re more likely to (unintentionally) make mistakes that could screw up their application. Or we’re like to stumble, accidentally,** into what they’re trying to hide. They’re rarely hiding anything as salacious as sleeping with the wife, the sister, and the mother—which is why people write legal thrillers and not grant thrillers—but what they do hide can scupper or weaken their application.
A mistake can lead to embarrassment and the potential loss of millions of dollars. So, when you’re in doubt, err on the side of honesty and disclosure to your grant writer. Save the dubious stories or evasions for your Board of Directors.
(There are stories behind the general principle above, but grant writers are also like lawyers in that we know when to be discreet. We don’t name names and, when it would hurt our clients to tell a story, we don’t tell it—even if the clients aren’t paying us anymore.)
* In The Fellowship of the Ring Frodo encounters a group of high elves tarrying in Middle-earth before they depart forever, and he asks one of them what he should do: he is being pursued by dark riders and Gandalf has not arrived:
‘… The choice is yours: to go or wait.’ [Gildor said.]
‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo, ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’
‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor. ‘Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.’
“All courses may run ill:” it is true in Middle-earth, grant writing, and life.
** We don’t go looking for dirt and neither should you. For one thing, there’s plenty of it in plain sight.