Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"So far as I know, no one else has ever done this."

I can remember when I was in my 20s, writing my first grant proposal. I was writing to the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). Somehow I knew that it was important to be able to write in my proposal, “So far as I know, no one else has ever done this before.”
  1. Writing “so far as I know” was important, because I didn’t want anyone to be able to say my magical sentence was false. And, in fact, writing ‘so far as I know’ helped me justify not doing any search for existing practice. Because, if I looked hard enough, I might discover that my idea wasn’t unique.
  2. It was important to write, “No one else has ever done this before,” because that’s what funders value, I assumed: uniqueness, newness, innovation. If someone else is doing this, I shouldn’t be wasting my time with a proposal.
My proposal was turned down.

A year later, I’d crossed to the other side of the desk, to become a FIPSE program officer, and soon realized how silly my assumptions had been. In fact, my claim might even have been a reason that my proposal had been turned down.
  1. An idea that is truly unique is probably responding to a problem or opportunity that no one else has ever faced. Few foundations are interested in supporting such tiny problems or opportunities.
  2. Someone who is as isolated as I was (or, worse, as isolated as I was pretending to be), has no opportunity to learn from the achievements and mistakes of others.
  3. Someone that isolated is also unlikely to find it easy to disseminate the results of their work. Dissemination generally is part of what funders consider to be the payoff to their gifts or investments: wider impact and visibility for their work. That was certainly true for FIPSE.
So, the paragraph I came to look for as a funder was, "We're one of a number of pioneers in this area. Here' s what we've learned from the achievements and problems of others. Here's how we're connected with them. Here's what we want to do. And here's how those connections will help us share our experience with those pioneers, and with others who will want to adapt what we do with your money."

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