Convincing the World to Support Your Ideas

Government agencies, private sector companies, and philanthropic foundations have billions of dollars to support your ideas, ranging from research projects to community development initiatives.  How can you gain access to these resources?

Millions of people are asking this question.  So, there are lots of competitors and your overall chances of success are quite small.  You might think this means that you have to respond to lots of RFPs (Requests for Proposals).  Writing loads of proposals will increase your chances; perhaps even get your probability of success up to a still frustrating level of ten percent.

Think about this process from the perspective of those receiving your proposal.  A few years ago, I unwittingly participated in a proposal effort where 30,000 proposals were submitted and 100 funded, so 0.33% chance of success.  This is not as bad as playing the lottery, but it is headed in that direction.

What did the review team do with 30,000 proposals?  If it was similar to many of my other experiences, their first task was to eliminate 29,000 proposals, for any credible reason.  One common reason is that no one on the review team knew anybody on the team associated with the proposal.  Unknown?  Gone!

So, the first principle is — Don’t be unknown.  You can become known by winning a Nobel Prize or a MacArthur Award, but this makes as much sense as expecting membership in sports Halls of Fame, before making the teams.  You win these awards after you are known, providing further evidence of the first principle.

The question, then, is how to become known.  The first step is to get to know people in the funding ecosystem of interest.  A good start is attending the same meetings they attend.  Introduce yourself.  Provide your business card.  Be vocal in discussions, making reasonable points, of course.

Prepare 2-4 page white papers on your ideas.  Keep the readers’ perspectives in mind.  Few, if any, of them will be focused on advancing your career.  Some, but not many, will be primarily focused on contributing to your academic discipline.  Many, if not most, will be concerned with how your ideas will benefit society in general, and domain-specific stakeholders in particular.

The second principle is – Articulate your ideas from sponsors’ perspectives.  If done well, they will ask you to elaborate.  What will you do to yield the benefits sought?  How long will it take?  How much will it cost?  Now is your opportunity to develop your ideas more thoroughly, knowing that your chances have become much higher.

Let’s assume your proposal is funded.  Is that the finish line?  It might be if you do not aspire to any more funding in your future.  That is seldom the case.  Future funding depends on how well you deliver on the current funding.  Actually, over delivering is a good idea.  There are no credible excuses.  If someone on your team is not delivering on promises, you have to make up the deficit.  The third principle is – Delight your sponsors; Don’t just satisfy them.

Let’s make another assumption.  Your idea succeeds!  You get great results and your publications are accepted in first-rate outlets, or you get glowing newspaper reports of your community project.  You are on the way to promotion, tenure or whatever matters to your career.  However, will one home run be enough?  If you want to sustain your nascent streak, you need to communicate the benefits of your success to your sponsors in terms they will appreciate.  The fourth principle is – Keep your sponsors in the loop; Communicate in their terms.

The bottom line is that success does not depend solely on your being very intelligent, highly motivated, and having lots of ideas.  You have to know how to convince the world to support your ideas.  The four principles outlined above will help you to succeed. 

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