Grant applications differ substantially depending on the individual funding organisation, and each funding organisation has its own organisational aims, which are important to understand when you are considering which grant to apply to. Some funders ask for a shortened application or ‘Letter of Interest’ in the initial case, to determine whether your project is suitable before completing the full application. Others require full information upfront.
In this article we provide practical tips and information for writing grant applications, which can be applied to grant applications of all sorts, from fellowships to large funding applications.
Finding funding opportunities
Funding is available in various forms; when talking about ‘grant applications’, the usual funding options tend to be charitable or non-profit funders, such as the Wellcome Trust, Gates Foundation, EDCTP, MRC, FHI360, Chatham House, etc. The Global Health Network’s ‘Funding Opportunities’ pages are updated with general grant opportunities, but there may be specific opportunities available in your field, so do ensure that you google regularly and sign up for newsletters from relevant agencies.
Once you’ve found your opportunity
Once you’ve found a relevant funding opportunity, don’t just sit down and start writing. Instead, familiarise yourself with the aims of the organisation, and all the relevant information about this specific grant – for example, things they will and won’t cover (e.g. some won’t cover flights, others computers, others staffing costs for people already employed, and so on). Other grant opportunities have specific caveats, for example you may need a partner organisation in another institution, or to be in a specific location. Reading this information thoroughly before you start work will pay dividends with the writing, especially since you’ll thoroughly understand the reason for the grant being offered, and can therefore fine-tune your research idea to be in line with this.
The next stage is to plan the research proposal – this should be done clearly before even thinking about writing the application form itself. You need to start by outlining to yourself, the following:
• Aims – what your research is aiming to do
• Methodology – how are you going to achieve it? How will you measure it? How will you know if it ‘worked’?
• Outputs and deliverables – what will be the end result of your study? A new vaccine? A workshop? A book?
• Impact – why does your research matter, how will it change things? How will you ensure this will happen?
• Requirements (staff)
• Requirements (time)
• Requirements (budget)
• Requirements (specific equipment, travel etc)
It’s likely that you’ll need to go through several iterations of the notes above, until you come to a practical plan. It is advisable to build yourself some useful tools such as a costing template and a GANNT chart of the project’s proposed timeline, with key milestones clearly conveyed.
Next, look back at your key objectives to determine whether each is SMART:
- Specific – have you made sure your objectives are narrow enough to measure? For example an overly broad objective is ‘understand the role of the research nurse’ – this is so broad it could mean anything, so it’s hard to know if you’ve achieved it. A more specific, and therefore more measurable and achievable objective, could be ‘understand the key factors affecting career progression in the role of the research nurse in a hospital in India’.
- Measurable – there is no point having an objective which you can’t measure, because both you and the funder won’t know when you’ve achieved it. Specify how you will measure it, qualitatively or quantitatively, and if there are limitations to your measuring (for example, it is difficult to measure capacity building programmes), then note this down for later, as you’ll need to talk specifically about it, in your written application.
- Achievable – goals need to be things that can be achieved within the remit of the project; there’s no point saying you will ‘cure malaria in my country’, because this is so generic and difficult to achieve, but you might, for example, do a cost effectiveness analysis of current treatments to determine which is the most effective in practice in your situation.
- Realistic – The outcomes, method and aims need to be realistic – this links to being specific and achievable.
- Timely – the timeframe needs to be considered and needs to be appropriate given the problem. In a disease outbreak, you need to have measures in place to put your research, and its outcomes, in place quickly for example, but without impacting quality.
Once you have a clear plan in place for your project, you can begin to consider what you need in terms of practicalities. Start by working out the time and staff costs involved, and next work out the other budgetary requirements (equipment, travel expenses, overheads, etc). For your own purposes, you’ll need to distinguish between the costs you’re asking from the funder and the Full Economic Cost (FEC). The FEC is the actual amount the research costs, including things that might be provided by your organisation, such as office space, legal support, human resources, perhaps your time, your own equipment, and suchlike.
When you have a clear idea of the practicalities of the project, you should do a ‘sanity check’ – discuss the project with colleagues both within and outside your department, to make sure it makes sense and that you’ve correctly planned your resource requirements, before beginning writing. If your organisation has a Research Services department who review grants, it is now the time to let them know what you are planning. Send them all the details and wait for their feedback.
It is important to communicate with any collaborators (including co-applicants) throughout the process. Aside from needing time to give input into the project proposal and allocation of tasks etc., they are also likely to have their own institutional timelines for internal review, including for contract-related issues.
Who will review my work?
This varies from institution to institution, but reviewers for funding bodies usually work in a panel, and usually come from a range of different disciplines. Therefore you need to make your application clear enough that someone can understand it, even if they don’t work in the same discipline as you. Keep in mind that they will be reviewing many – perhaps hundreds – of different applications, so you need to be as clear and concise as you can to keep their attention. For this reason you should also be careful with attention to detail, for example spelling, punctuation and grammar, and ensuring you’ve correctly filled all the sections. Errors such as these may seem small, but will be off-putting to a busy reviewer who has many applications to sift through.
1) Don’t oversell. Reviewers will be reading your document and comparing it with many others. They are used to reading and assessing different research frameworks. They will therefore be adept at picking up projects which have been “oversold” and will not be able to deliver what they intend to. You should write confidently, but don’t promise things that you won’t deliver, or write as if you’re writing for marketing. To suggest confidence, avoid suggestion in your clauses – for example instead of saying ‘we aim to’ and ‘we hope to’, say ‘we will’.
2) Writing needs to be practical and straightforward. The reviewers have many applications to read, the short and practical sentences will help to keep them on board. If your writing is too convoluted, they may miss salient points.
3) Don’t use flowery language: avoid buzzwords, jargon, and terms which are only known to people in your discipline; use your ‘sanity check’ reading from someone outside your group to check this.
4) DO discuss the limitations of what you’re doing. Every study has some limitations, and if you outline them, it shows that you’re aware of them and have thought through the study properly. Define the scope of the project, define what is out of scope, and discuss why your project is still worthwhile.
5) Make sure you connect the dots between what your research does and what the impact is. This is really important, as funders have lately had a real push on impact. Make sure you discuss the impact, and don’t be vague. For example, don’t just say you’ll publish a paper, make sure you explain how your research will make a difference in the real world, and how you’re going to ensure that will happen. If the research won’t have impact immediately, discuss that too and why it’s still necessary to carry it out. It’s important to understand that disseminating your results is not seen as the same as impact. Impact types include conceptual impact (contributing to understanding issues and reframing debates), Instrumental impact (influencing policy or practice) and Capacity building.
6) Work hard on your opening sentence and paragraph. Writing a grant application is not the same as writing a research paper or essay: these usually start with the general background information and then zone in to what’s relevant. A grant application needs to explain the project immediately, so that your busy reviewer is in no doubt about what’s relevant. The first sentence should be either a succinct explanation of the project, or a rhetorical question which grabs the attention of the reviewer. Here are some examples:
“Clinical Research in Low and Middle Income Countries is imperative to provide evidence to drive improvements to health outcomes across the world’. This opening sentence is not ideal; it tells the reader that the project will be about research, but does not tell them anything else. The busy reviewer has to keep reading to begin to understand the project.
“How can understanding the role of the research nurse facilitate clinical research in Nigeria?’ Is a better opening sentence. The question catches the reader’s attention, and as a reader you immediately know that the project is going to be about understanding the role of the research nurse, and the overall aim to facilitate research in Nigeria.
7) Before covering the background, discuss the aim of the study and the impact it will have. Although it’s important to include background information to your study, instead of putting this first in your opening paragraph, put it later on, perhaps in paragraph 2 or 3. This allows you the space to open your application with clear opening statements which show your intention and aims.
8) If you’ve got a large section such as ‘project proposal’ which is e.g. 2000 words, break it down by subheading and bullet points and such like – this not only helps you organise your writing but helps reviewers to quickly find information they seek.
9) Include information about quality control and measurement. It’s important for both the funders and for you to know how you’re going to measure the quality and outcomes of your work, so make sure to include information about this, even if it’s not specifically requested in the form.
10) Get someone (ideally several people) to proofread and check your work. As researchers, we all spend a great deal of time working in our own research ‘bubble’, and have all explained our work hundreds of times before to different audiences. As a result, it’s sometimes hard to get any perspective on one’s own writing about a project – and a fresh pair of eyes is always helpful. It is therefore very important, to ensure the rigour and clarity of your proposal, to get somebody else to read it; ideally someone who is not familiar with your usual work. This could be a supervisor, or a colleague in a different department. This particularly applies if English is not your native language.
Information for further reading is provided below. In essence, providing yourself the time and space to plan effectively and discuss your project with your colleagues is of vital importance. Be clear and be confident – good luck!
On the Art of Writing Proposals (Adam Przeworski and Frank Salomon) http://www.ssrc.org/workspace/images/crm/new_publication_3/%7B7a9cb4f4-815f-de11-bd80-001cc477ec70%7D.pdf
How to write a good funding application http://www.vawcvs.org/online-advice/write-a-good-funding-application
Points to bear in mind when preparing a grant application (Wellcome Trust): http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/Funding/Biomedical-science/Application-information/wtvm052727.htm
How to get a grant funded (David Goldblatt): http://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/317/7173/1647.full.pdf
Very catchy article. Thank you.
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very useful education on grant writing!
sampled examples would be an added guide to effective grant writing.
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The article on grant writing was useful