February 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 1 // Ideas at Work // 1IAW1

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Use of "Hard Talk" to Evaluate Grant Proposals

This article discusses application of Kettering's Hard Talk process to selection of grant proposals within CES. Comparison is made between organized and disorganized selection processes. In addition to streamlining site visits, use of a tool such as Hard Talk also improved working relationships between local applicants and the project management team overseeing distribution of resources. The author calls for further research comparing Hard Talk to traditional approaches to resource distribution in Extension programming.

Michael Score
Extension Associate
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky
Internet address: mscore@ca.uky.edu


Extension workers are often faced with the responsibility of selecting proposals for participation in funded program initiatives. This article focuses on the use of Hard Talk as an evaluation tool in selection of grant proposals for Extension educational initiatives.

Case Study

In 1994, a grant was awarded to five Kentucky agricultural institutions for the purpose of conducting a study in integrated farm systems and farm system sustainability. Reference to the original proposal reveals a commitment to a complex set of criteria for distribution of grant resources at the local level.

Publicity about state-wide goals and objectives was circulated through participating agricultural institution networks. Forty-seven applications were received. Site visits were arranged as proposals came in. The purpose of the visits was to determine to what extent local initiatives were compatible with overall project goals and objectives. In preparation for the first two visits, a questionnaire was designed to gain insights into what groups wanted to accomplish through participation in the project and why their desired outcomes were important to them. Attempts to specifically address criteria representing the common ground of the project management team resulted in a survey that required three hours of intense dialogue to complete. Site visit teams were pleased with the detailed reports they assembled. However, the blunt and cumbersome evaluation tool resulted in one of the visited groups withdrawing from consideration, spreading negative reports about the invasive and offensive query throughout the state.

A new method was needed to gather detailed and accurate descriptions of proposals. The Hard Talk process served as a tool that allowed site visit teams to respond to this challenge effectively. Originally designed as a format for discussion of community issues, Hard Talk was adapted for use in site visits. It resulted in moving groups from discussion of preferred activities to consideration of the broader implication of proposal implementation on farm communities. Hard Talk-based site visits only required two hours to complete. Project management team members found no difficulty in identifying the same type of information from responses to the broader, more organized questionnaire used in the second set of site visits.

Hard Talk Process and Application To Proposal Selection in Kentucky

Hard Talk begins with participant reflection on the broader vision of what each person wants for his or her community. The site visit team cooperates to make sure that responses to this question move beyond the immediate concern at hand. For example, in a site visit focused on a grant request for farm systems study, participants can be asked to think about areas of their communities outside the farm gates if responses cluster too tightly around production goals and farm income. After a variety of responses is collected, the group is asked to discuss which community goals relate to the proposal they have submitted. The first step helps the group securely weave planned activities into the fabric of broader community life and helps funding agencies avoid supporting isolated ventures.

The second step utilizes questions about conditions that need to exist in order for the proposal under consideration to be successful. In the Kentucky experience, questions about required resources other than grant money were asked.

The third step focuses on human capital available during implementation of the group's strategy. In Kentucky, we adapted Kettering's question, asking what group members would do personally to successfully implement this proposal. We followed up by inquiring who was missing from the group if goals were to be met.

The meetings were closed with open discussions about the overall initiative; obligations of groups selected for participation; clarification about resources available through the project for funded and non-funded groups; and accountability expectations for program participants. The site visit reports included a record of the dialogue, collective observations of the site visit team regarding compatibility of the reviewed proposal with initiative objectives,and individual letters by site visit team members explaining perceived strengths and weaknesses.


Feedback about this process, in comparison with the initial site visit format, was positive. The group that withdrew after their site visit requested an opportunity to enter back into the selection process. Three groups that were open about their reluctance prior to hosting site visit teams expressed their surprise at how helpful and refreshing the site visit process actually was. The contrast can be attributed to the clarity, brevity, and the effective indirect searching that can take place within the Hard Talk format. The results of this applied test suggests a need for more controlled, vigorous research comparing use of Hard Talk to traditional tools used for selection at the community level.


The Kettering Foundation. (1988). Hard talk: A discussion and process guide for moderators of forums on education and the community. Dayton, OH: Author.