6 Steps to Better Team Communication

Writing a grant proposal is rarely, if ever, a solo activity. Unless you are starting a nonprofit on your own and trying to land that first grant, preparing a grant involves multiple people. The proposal team could be configured different ways: You might have several people writing content, or maybe one person doing the bulk of the writing and a handful of people involved as reviewers. Either way, more than one person will be involved. For most grant applications, you’ll also need a finance person to prepare the budget unless it is a very simple application requiring only a summary budget figure. You may also need help from HR staff to get copies of CVs for existing staff or to understand what is involved with posting positions if the proposed project requires recruiting new staff.

All of these individuals—the writers, the reviewers, the finance people, the HR staff—require coordination. Central to that coordination is regular, clear communication. If you are planning to serve in the role as the team coordinator for a proposal, clear and effective communication (particularly written communication) is an essential skill you’ll need to cultivate.

Writing clear emails, and emails that actually get read, takes practice.

How to Write Emails that Actually Get Read

  • Keep the emails short. If there is too much to share to keep it short, move some of the content to a Word document and attach it to the email, or consider holding in-person meetings or conference calls;
  • Use bullets to highlight key points so they don't get lost;
  • Keep paragraphs short so visually the email has lots of “white space” and doesn’t appear overwhelming to the reader; and
  • Close the email with a summary of key points. If the email is simply informational, no action items, a bulleted list of what the email covered will do. If you need the reader to do something, end the email with a clear call to action (i.e. “Due Dates” or “Next Steps”).

Managing a proposal team can be challenging because the members may represent a variety of technical areas and have different communication preferences and work styles, and even (in the case of large proposal teams representing multiple partners) different employers. You may also have team members who work remotely and in a different time zone than the majority of team members. With all of these variables,  communication within the team can quickly go awry, with deadlines misunderstood or not met, decisions around the proposal’s direction being misinterpreted or ignored, and persistent confusion around team roles.

Setting Your Team Up for Success

No matter how great your organizational skills, miscommunications will still occur to some degree during the proposal-writing phase. You may find yourself repeatedly handling questions such as:

  • When is my section (or the proposal) due?

  • When is the proposal due?
  • Who is on the proposal team?
  • How do I contact the other team members?
  • What is going on? I haven’t heard an update on the proposal in a while.
  • Where can I get a copy of the proposal?
  • Where can I get a copy of the proposal calendar?
  • Where can I get a copy of the funding opportunity announcement?

The following six communication strategies can help reduce questions like this and encourage better team communication and a more effective collaboration:

1. Discuss how team communication will be handled

After there has been a decision to move forward with a grant opportunity, you’ll want to schedule a meeting with all stakeholders as soon as possible to discuss the proposal calendar, roles for each team member, and plan the proposal’s content. During this kick-off meeting, the team members should decide how they will communicate with one another. Some things to discuss include:

  • Are all communications going to be handled by email? If so, are all team members to be included in all communications or are there going to be subgroups (e.g. anything related to the budget will go the finance and proposal leads only)?
  • If email is not going to be the main form of communication, what will be used? Is the group going to rely on a Web-based work platform such as Microsoft’s SharePoint to post questions, upload sections of the proposal, download proposal drafts for review etc.? If a Web-based worksite will be used, make sure that everyone in the core group will be able to access the program (e.g. no special software required), that it is easy to add and subtract members, and that the site is secure and provides regular backups of your files. If SharePoint or something similar is chosen, it is  important to confirm the willingness of the team members to use a Web-based site instead of relying on email as most people tend to prefer email and will default to that.
  • How often will the group meet? Weekly? Daily check-ins? Are the meetings going to be in-person or by phone/Skype? What time will the meeting be, factoring in all the time zones represented by the group?

2. Collect and distribute contact information

At the launch meeting, if not before, you should create a team contact list. Information to collect could include: name, email address, phone number and/or Skype address, role on the team, and organizational affiliation (if multiple partners are involved with the proposal). The contact list should be distributed to team members after the initial meeting, after everyone has had a chance to look over the list and confirm that his or her information is complete and correct. 

3. Maintain a proposal calendar with current due dates

A proposal calendar can be  informal, such as a  bulleted list with due dates and deliverables, or it can be a formal, weekly calendar with the due dates for each deliverable added under the appropriate date. The bulleted list approach may be best if you are planning to use email for all team communications; a more traditional calendar could work well if the proposal will be managed through a platform like SharePoint, which includes a customizable calendar feature. Regardless of the format you choose, it's important to keep the calendar up-to-date and to share the revised version with the team.

4. Send reminders of upcoming deadlines

Sending individual team members reminders of upcoming deadlines is usually appreciated, especially by those who may leave writing assignments to the last minute. However, it can be tricky to calibrate your reminders so you are sending just the right number of reminders at just the right time. Too many reminders may come across as nagging, while too few reminders, or reminders too close to the deadline, may not serve their intended purpose. To help address some of these challenges, one approach is to go over how reminders will work during the initial team meeting so there are no surprises (e.g. the team could be told that "email reminders will be sent out 3 days before every deadline").

5. Create an email template so team members learn what to expect from your communications

It doesn’t have to be a formal template, but some kind of standardized flow for your email updates will help team members know what to expect from your communications and, if they are scanning the email, where to look for the information of greatest interest to them. As an example, you might find that an effective structure for emails consists of the following parts:

  • Reminder of upcoming deadlines
  • Summary of the most recent team meeting
  • Status report on the latest proposal draft
  • Updates on team members (e.g. change in contact information or schedules)
  • A copy of the current proposal calendar

Before you settle on an email template or outline, you may want to test different email formats for the first 1-2 weeks of the proposal process to find out what gets read and whether you are hitting on the right themes. 

6. Keep the team members informed with regular status updates--even when there is nothing to report

Related to #5 above, if you committed to sending a weekly updates to the team at the kick-off meeting, send out the weekly update even when you don’t have any new information to share. A quick update that says “No new updates for this week—here are a few reminders of upcoming deadlines” will be appreciated. It will also prevent team members coming to you wondering what is going on because there was no update.

Click here to download a sample checklist for the initial proposal meeting. You can also find an editable team contact list for download at The Organized Grant Writer.