(This guest post was written by Karen Norris, grants manager for Montgomery College in Rockville, Md. She has more than 20 years of experience supporting educational institutions in the state of Maryland and as a grants consultant. She is currently a board member of the National Grants Management Association.) There are various opinions about the use of Congressional letters of support for federal grant proposals, and for good reason. Some federal program offices ignore them, while others are deeply affected by them. During the proposal process, it’s not something an applicant can easily ask a federal program officer about, either. Sometimes, applicants can review prior proposals that have been awarded or press announcements from Congressional offices to gain insights or hints about the use of Congressional letters of support for a particular program.
The Congressional offices vary widely as well. Some are very supportive of constituent attempts to submit proposals, while others are overwhelmed with responsibilities and limited office staffing that make responding to requests difficult, especially under the press of a tight submission deadline. Applicants who seek Congressional letters of support must be respectful of deadlines and the timing of their requests.
More importantly, the type of applicant can have some bearing on the appropriateness of requesting a Congressional letter of support. If the applicant is a public institution or an organization that receives public funding, it may become a compliance concern if Congressional representatives are asked to influence (support) the outcome of a federal proposal. This holds especially true in light of the federal lobbying assurances that are included with the proposal, and the presence of taxpayer dollars in the applicant’s operating budget.
What works well under most circumstances is building a relationship with your Congressional offices. As a standard business practice, get to know the legislative aides for your Congressional representatives. Email exchanges are generally sufficient. Most Congressional offices want to know about federal proposal submissions, so increasing their awareness about your submission is most appropriate rather than asking them to influence an outcome. Sending a note with an abstract or a copy of the proposal soon after submission to let them know about your initiative can be a welcome piece of news. There is no attempt to influence an outcome, no deadline pressure because the proposal is already submitted, and no uncertainty about the receptiveness of the federal program office. If the Congressional representative serves on a particular committee or has an interest in the proposed program, an unsolicited letter or phone call may be be forwarded voluntarily. Even after submission, it could result in the best of circumstances for those who seek a Congressional letter of support for a proposal.