How to Write Winning Grant Proposals
In this post, we’ll look at some of the basic principles of writing a grant proposal. In the future I’ll go into more detail.
Writing a grant is a lot of work with no guaranteed return on investment. It’s a daunting task for many academics, especially if you are early in your career or at a smaller institution. In this introduction, we’ll talk about a few minor changes you can make in your way of thinking that will make you more successful.
In my experience as a grant writer at both arts organizations and academic institutions, I’ve seen both good and not-so-good approaches to grant writing.
The Wrong Approach
The not-so-good way to write a grant goes something like this:
You see a call for proposals from a funding source that would look good on your CV. The deadline is coming up soon, but you decide to slap something together anyway. This often takes one of two forms.
1. You cut and paste some language from an old proposal that didn’t get funded. Or you cut and past from a smaller proposal that got funded and is finished, thinking it could serve as the “pilot” experiment. You make a few modifications.
2. You figure “I could do something that relates to what they’re looking for,” even though it isn’t really a good fit. You start with a project you’ve been working on, and then modify some of the language, especially in sections that ask for context, impact, benefactors/benefits, or the statement of need.
In either case, you inflate the budget as much as you can.
Then you realize you really should include the colleague who worked with you on this earlier, so you send your proposal to them for sign-off as co-investigator. They don’t have enough time to make comments, suggestions, or revisions, but they give the OK anyway.
Why This Doesn’t Work
Organizations that give grants receive far more proposals than they could ever fund, which means this is a competitive process. Because they evaluate so many proposals, reviewers very quickly learn how to see through any BS. Once they smell the BS, you are in danger of being put in the “no” pile. You might make it to the “maybe” stack, but what they really want is an obvious “yes!”
A Better Approach
The first step in grant writing is to plan ahead. A really good grant proposal takes a few months to get right. Take the time to talk to colleagues and think about what research you would like to do together. Create a document that lists the various collaborations and projects you would like to get funded.
Then, talk to the grants officer at your institution. Show her/him your document. Often times, grant writers get early notification of deadlines. If they see something that is a good fit for you, they’ll let you know about it so you have plenty of time to write and submit your proposal.
It’s also important to understand that it is the responsibility of your fundraising office to coordinate grant applications. The worst case outcome of the not-so-good approach is that your proposal reaches the grants officer and you’re told someone else at your institution already applied and so you can’t. What a waste of time!
Finally, planning ahead allows you to truly collaborate. If you already have an agreement with colleagues, especially ones at other institutions or in other departments, it will be much easier for you to complete the sections on support and personnel. Most importantly, a team that is already invested will be more engaged throughout the life-cycle of your research.
You may think the above points are basic or obvious, but I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them. However, this blog is supposed to be about writing, so I’ll give a few pointers.
How to Write a Grant that Sells
First, understand your audience for this piece of writing. Unlike with academic papers, at grant-making institutions there is no guarantee that the person who reviews your grant will be an expert in your field.
For example, you’re a painter who wants to send a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts. Probably the person who reviews your application will be a painter, but they may not be well versed in your style or technique, or the themes you want to explore.
The situation is similar for a biomedical engineer who wants to submit to the National Institute for Health. It’s possible that your proposal will be reviewed by and MD, maybe with limited exposure to engineering.
I point this out because one of the biggest mistakes I see in grant proposals is too much technical language. Especially in scientific writing, researchers use a lot of jargon. To you, it may be very specific language, but if your reviewer can’t understand your proposal, it is most likely to be rejected.
Take the time to carefully craft the abstract and the introduction to your proposal so that it could be understood by an intelligent person who is not an expert in your field.
Remember, you’re trying to communicate an idea or theory to a stranger. If they are able to see the importance of your work from the beginning, they will be more likely to look up unfamiliar terms later. Save the jargon, technical terms, and equations for the materials and methodology section.
One of the things I hate seeing in a grant is the same sentence or paragraph cut and pasted into multiple sections of the proposal. This looks lazy! By starting with simple language and increasing the complexity as you go down the page, you’ll avoid this, even if you are reiterating the same point.
In the future, we’ll have several posts dedicated specifically to simple vs. complex language. I’ll offer examples and case studies, so you can see how to do this effective.
Until then, start your planning process. And remember to allow enough time for all collaborators and the grants office to review and proofread the final document.