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Must Haves for a Winning Grant Proposal

Contributed by Simon Peyton Jones, Alan Bundy and Marcie Wagner

grant_proposalWriting a winning grant proposal doesn’t have to be a daunting task. In fact, most on-line grant applications are straight forward and allow an open dialogue with the funding organization if you have questions regarding the proposal.

  1. The most substantial part of any grant application is your “Case for Support” or “Statement of Need”. It is this case which will persuade the funder of the value of your proposal. You can improve your “Statement of Need” enormously simply by ruthlessly writing and rewriting, and getting a third parties opinion and feedback. Further, remember that funders and panel members see tens or hundreds of cases for support, so you have one minute or less to grab your reader’s attention.
  2. Ask others to help you improve your proposal. grant_proposal2Give it to your colleagues, your friends, your spouse and listen to what they say. If they misunderstand what you were trying to say, don’t say “you misunderstood me”; instead rewrite it so it can’t be misunderstood. If they don’t immediately see the value of what you want to achieve, rewrite it until they do.This isn’t a big demand to make on someone. Ask them to read your proposal for 10 minutes. Remember, most panel members will give it less time than that.
  3. Make sure that the first page acts as a stand-alone summary of the entire proposal. Assume that most readers will get no further than the first page. So don’t fill it up with boilerplate about the technical background. Instead, present your whole case: what you want to do, why it’s important, why you will succeed, how much it will cost, and so on.
  4. Along with the “Case for Support”, here are the major criteria against which your proposal will be judged. Read through your case for support repeatedly, and ask whether the answers to the questions below are clear, even to a non-expert.
    • Does the proposal address a well-formulated problem?
    • Is it an important problem, whose solution will have useful effects?
    • Is special funding necessary to solve the problem, or to solve it quickly enough, or could it be solved using the normal resource.
    • Do the proposers have a good idea on which to base their work? The proposal must explain the idea in sufficient detail to convince the reader that the idea has some substance, and should explain why there is reason to believe that it is indeed a good idea. It is absolutely not enough merely to identify a wish-list of desirable goals (a very common fault). There must be significant technical substance to the proposal.
    • Does the proposal explain clearly what work will be done? Does it explain what results are expected and how they will be evaluated? How would it be possible to judge whether the work was successful?
    • Is there evidence that the proposers know about the work that others have done on the problem? This evidence may take the form of a short review as well as representative references.
    • Do the proposers have a good track record, both of doing good research and of publishing it? A representative selection of relevant publications by the proposers should be cited. Absence of a track record is clearly not a disqualifying characteristic, especially in the case of young researchers, but a consistent failure to publish raises question marks.
  5. The grant writer must ensure that his or her budget is to be used in a cost-effective manner. grant_proposal3Each proposal which has some chance of being funded is examined, and the panel may lop costs off an apparently over-expensive project. Such cost reduction is likely to happen if the major costs of staff and equipment are not given clear, individual justification.
  6.  

  7. Here are some of the ways in which proposals often fail to meet these criteria.
  • It is not clear what question is being addressed by the proposal. In particular, it is not clear what the outcome of the project might be,grant_proposal4 or what would constitute success or failure. It is vital to discuss what contribution would be made by the project.
  • The question being addressed is woolly or ill-formed. The committee are looking for evidence of clear thinking both in the formulation of the problem and in the planned attack on it.
  • There is no evidence that the proposers will succeed where others have failed. It is easy enough to write a proposal with an exciting-sounding wish-list of hoped-for achievements, but you must substantiate your goals with solid evidence of why you have a good chance of achieving them.

This evidence generally takes two main forms:

  • “We have an idea”. In this case, you should sketch the idea, and describe preliminary work you have done which shows that it is indeed a good idea. You are unlikely to get funding without such evidence. It is not good saying “give us the money and we will start thinking about this problem”.
  • “We have a good track record”. Include a selective list of publications, and perhaps include a short paper (preferably a published one) which gives more background, as an appendix. If you make it clear that it is an appendix, you won’t usually fall foul of any length limits.
  • The writer seems unaware of related research. Related work must be mentioned, if only to be dismissed. The case for support should have a list of references like any paper, and you should look at it to check it has a balanced feel – your panel will do so. Do not make the mistake of giving references only to your own work.
  • The proposed project has already been done – or appears to have been done. Rival solutions must be discussed and their inadequacies revealed.
  • The proposal is badly presented, or incomprehensible to all but an expert in the field. grant_proposal5Remember that your proposal will be read by non-experts as well as (hopefully) experts. A good proposal is simultaneously comprehensible to non-experts, while also convincing experts that you know your subject. Keep highly-technical material in well-signposted section(s); avoid it in the introduction.
  • The writer seems to be attempting too much for the funding requested and time-scale envisaged. Such lack of realism may reflect a poor understanding of the problem or poor research methodology.
  • The proposal is too expensive for the probable gain. If it is easy to see how to cut the request for people/equipment/travel, etc. to something more reasonable then it might be awarded in reduced form. More likely, it will be rejected.

We hope that this blog will help you to write better grant proposals, and hence to be more successful in obtaining funds through grants. This is not just about writing better grant proposals to obtain more money. It compels grant writers to regularly review and re-justify the direction of the work. Behind poorly presented grant proposals often lie poorly-reasoned project plans.

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