Tuesday, 17 April 2012

On Camels and Committees

There is a great expression which says that a camel is a horse designed ‘by committee’.

One can picture the meeting. While the coffee is hot, this horse still vaguely resembles a horse. It has four legs and a bunch of hooves. It is happy for someone to sit on it. Then someone around that committee table decides that it would be a great idea if this horse could carry its own food and water on, or indeed in, a pocket on its back. Another proposes that it ought to be better equipped for long treks along deserted sandy beaches, so could it have wider feet and sealable nostrils please. A third… you get the picture.

As it is with camels, so too it can be with funding proposals. I recently came across an all too obvious demonstration of how 'the committee' did not quite get it right in the budget section of a submitted request for grant funding. This section, which asked for a list of items to be funded along with their justifications and costs, merely contained the following statement (names have been changed):

“Dear Emma, the amount we can apply for is up to £5000 – any advice on how to break this down would be great. Sorry its [sic] not how to do a budget I know. Lesley”  

So – the committee can get it wrong by talking too much, or by not talking at all. Most often though, a group of people working jointly on one proposal gets it wrong by not giving one person the overall responsibility for ultimately getting it right. Crucially, giving one person the job to look after the integrity of the proposal will mitigate against some of the inevitable pitfalls that come with working as a group.

This one person will make sure that - be it horse or camel – the proposed four-legged mammal fits with the requirements not only of the committee who designed it, but also the person or body who will ultimately be paying for said beast. That same person will ideally lead the discussion in a way which allows all those with views or ideas to express them, but will not allow the conversation to stagnate on the number or the length of the whiskers. He or she will check that the right number of hooves and toes are present and correct at the time of submission, and must ensure that the proposal does indeed get submitted on time.

This person can be a fundraiser, an able research administrator, a keen academic, charity worker or a consultant. The point is that without this person, that horse – or camel – may not get out of the starting gate, let alone jump its first hurdle.

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