JHM Professional Development and Career Office
In the increasingly competitive funding landscape (see NIH funding success rates here), the difference between success and failure often results not just from the quality of the science, but from the quality of the grant application. It is critical that every aspect of a grant application be as strong, accurate, and “clean” as possible, as well as targeted to the call for proposals and the funding institute’s priorities. Below are strategies to consider in writing and preparing your proposal:
- Significant – It solves a problem, answers a perplexing question, and expands the knowledge base. It is critical to identify an important, “big” question or gap in our fundamental knowledge; this can be a new question, or an old, unanswered question with a new approach to solve it. The question can’t be so broad and general that it is unanswerable in a funding cycle, nor can it be too narrow or irrelevant to the funding agency.
- Innovative — It takes a new approach, new method, or puts ideas together in a novel way.
- Better – than other approaches in this research area.
- Understandable — Know your audience and make sure the reviewers will understand. Could your parents understand?
- Has a Payoff — It makes a contribution, provides benefit, and has defined outcomes.
- Withstands Vetting – Be sure to run by colleagues.
Do your research
Competition for grants has never been more intense. The European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme is the European Union’s largest-ever research and innovation programme, with nearly €80 billion (US$89 billion) in funding set aside between 2014 and 2020. It reported a 14% success rate for its first 100 calls for proposals, although submissions to some categories had lower success rates. The commission has published its proposal for Horizon Europe, the €100-billion programme that will succeed Horizon 2020. In Australia, since 2017, the National Health and Medical Research Council has been funding less than 20% of proposals it receives. And the US National Science Foundation (NSF) received 49,415 proposals and funded 11,447 of them in 2017 — less than 25%. That’s tens of thousands of rejections in a single year from the NSF alone.
Being a renowned scientist doesn’t ensure success. On the same day that molecular biologist Carol Greider won a Nobel prize in 2009, she learnt that her recently submitted grant proposal had been rejected. “Even on the day when you win the Nobel prize,” she said in a 2017 graduation speech at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, “sceptics may question whether you really know what you’re doing.”
To increase the likelihood of funding success, scientists suggest doing an extensive search of available grants and noting differences in the types of project financed by various funding bodies. Government agencies such as the NSF tend to be interested in basic science that addresses big, conceptual questions, says Leslie Rissler, programme director at the NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology in Alexandria, Virginia. A private foundation, however, might prioritize projects that inform social change or that have practical implications that fit into one of its specific missions.
6 Tips to Improve Your Grant Writing Skills
1. Review the Guidelines Carefully
Like we mentioned above, one of the main reasons grants don’t get approved is because the applicant didn’t review the application guidelines before sending in the materials.
While grants usually require the same information, it’s still a good idea to review the guidelines of each grant you are applying for. This will help you put together your proposal, including an outline to get you started, and ensure you send in all the necessary information.
If you’re going to apply for multiple proposals at different foundations and organizations, we recommend creating a folder for each of the different grants you’re applying for. This will keep each grant and the materials required for each separate. You should do this even if some of the materials are the exact same.
Within the folder, you should also keep a copy of the guidelines for easy reference. And don’t be afraid to have it open when you’re working on that grant or refer to it often to ensure you’re not missing anything.
2. Write an Outline
Using your grant guidelines, you can put together an outline that details all the sections needed for a complete grant proposal. Typical grant proposals include: Letter of Inquiry or Cover Letter, Executive Summary, Statement of Need, Goals and Objectives, Program Design or Methodology, Evaluation, Project Sustainability, Nonprofit Organization Information, and Budget.
Within your outline, write notes about specific items that should be addressed under a certain section or add details about where you’re going to get information regarding a key point to keep yourself organized. You can also give each section a due date to keep the grant writing process moving – and help you meet the final deadline.
Once your outline is complete, have someone review to make sure it makes sense and meets all the key points. This is also a good way to ensure you’re meeting the grant’s guidelines from the very start.
When you begin writing the Statement of Need section, remember to explicitly state your need for funding. Why are you requesting the grant? And how is this going to benefit the community / your mission?
The people reviewing your grant proposal are not going to read between the lines or try to connect the dots throughout your proposal to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. Tell them exactly what you need and why.
You can write the best grant proposal out there, but it won’t mean anything if no one can read or understand it. Grant proposals are already complex documents, dealing with budgets, goals, and strategies. These items, when written improperly, make reading them even harder – and the person who has to review all the grant proposals is not going to spend hours deciphering your application.
The best thing you can do is simplify your writing. And one of the easiest ways to do so is to write as if you were trying to explain your organization and goals to your grandparent, child, or parent. They likely will not have the inside scoop on what you’re trying to accomplish, which will make you write differently – and for the better!
- Avoid vague words and empty phrases – Ex: nearly, almost, about, or roughly
- Don’t use jargon, technical language, acronyms, or clichés
- Don’t use words you wouldn’t use in normal, everyday talk, meaning there is no need for a thesaurus
- Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs to help readers follow along and stay engaged
- Use charts and graphs to help explain your points – these also help break up text and make documents easier to read
- Use headings and subheadings to help control the flow of your proposal, and let readers know they are entering a new section or a sub-section of content
- Don’t be overly formal. You should write conversationally while staying professional.
5. Organize the Budget
The budget is probably the most crucial aspect of your grant proposal. It can determine whether your project is brought to life, or left on paper. To make your budget easier to read and understand:
Visuals are much easier to read and understand, especially when it comes to money. If your grant guidelines allow it, consider adding charts and graphs to your proposal. Not only will this help break up the text, but can give the reviewer an easier (and better) way to see just how impactful your organization can be should you be awarded the grant.
You might also want to get a second pair of eyes on the numbers to make sure they’re accurate. You’re spending a lot of time to get your proposal right, and definitely don’t want to be denied because your numbers don’t add up right!
Before you submit your well-researched and organized grant proposal, review your document for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, in addition to checking for the necessary proposal guidelines.