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How to write the perfect grant proposal

A step-by-step for grant writing, from how to find the perfect funder to meeting the deadlines and what type of language to use.

Writing grant proposals is an important part of being a researcher. But writing a good proposal requires a good understanding of your field, an ability to write simply and clearly, and an ability to persuade people. These are skills that anyone can learn.

What follows is an easy step-by-step guide for writing a successful proposal. It is based on a booklet on research management produced by the RIMI4AC project in collaboration with Research Africa. The full booklet can be downloaded from the link to the right of this article.

1. Finding the right funding opportunity

The first step is to find the right funding opportunity.

If you are reading this on the Research Professional website, you are one lucky fish. Research Professional is the most effective way to search for research funding in Africa. The platform collates information from the donors worldwide, and advertises over 12,000 funding opportunities each year. Researchers at subscribing institutions can streamline their search for funding, using filters and alerts to ensure that they are kept informed of all available grants.

There are other, complementary strategies. If your institution has a research-management office, helping researchers to identify likely funding opportunities is probably one of their roles. Ask if they can offer you guidance and help.

Journals and magazines specific to your discipline should contain notices about grant opportunities. A search engine, such as Google, does not offer a good filter for research funding, and could lead to time-consuming investigation of opportunities for which you turn out to be ineligible.

Many funders have become increasingly keen to fund cross-disciplinary collaborations within universities, or interdisciplinary work between universities, as a way of enhancing the relevance and reach of the research they fund. So asking for recommendations and advice from peers and colleagues can be a good idea, but be aware that project teams tend to guard such information quite jealously.

Local embassies of high-income countries are also worth visiting. Sometimes they run funding programmes or provide information about donors in their own countries seeking to fund research in your area. If this is the case, ask the person at the embassy who is responsible for this work to add you to their mailing lists.

2. Choosing the right funding partner

Once you have identified a likely research grant, the next step is to make sure that you and the funder are a good match. Mine the internet for information about the donor. Work out what they value, and find out what kinds of research they have funded in the past. If possible, try to meet or find out about their local representative. If there isn’t a local representative, find who is responsible for managing research grants made by that funder to projects in your country or region.

Simply completing grant application forms is often not enough. Obtaining a grant often depends on your reputation and the network of mentors and colleagues you have built up. Your institution’s reputation also counts, so it is vital that you know your institution well: try to find which funders have supported its research efforts in the past, and how that went.

3. Read the small print … twice

Usually a call for research grant applications comes with an application form. Before you begin filling in the form, read it and all correspondence that comes with it extremely carefully. As with any relationship, the devil is in the detail. Does the application form stipulate that the money is to be used only for data collection, and not for travel expenses? Does the form state that certain kinds of expenditure—such as buying laboratory equipment or administrative salaries—will not be covered?

Now ask yourself: Is this call for applications in line with the research project I have in mind? Will the funding help my research, and will my research help the funder?

Remember: a funder who puts out a call for research on livestock in Kenya is not going to be interested in a project that is researching livestock in Namibia or sunflowers in Kenya, no matter how well your write the proposal. The objective of your research must match the aims and objectives of the funder.

If you think you have found the perfect match, return to the application form.

Don’t write anything until you have read the form a few times and are sure that you know what you need to do. Remember that writing a research proposal is an opportunity to show what you have to offer both the funder and society more generally.

4. Diarise the deadline

If you prioritise just one thing in the application process, let it be meeting the deadline.

One of the most common reasons that applications fail is that they are not submitted on time. Submitting late is probably worse than not submitting at all; it creates an impression that you are unable to plan your work or prioritise your time; that you are unreliable and may not be worth supporting. So, before you do anything else, diarise the deadline and work backwards to calculate how much time you can spend on planning, writing, editing and having your application checked.

No successful grant proposal can be written in a day. Make sure you have plenty of time to gather your thoughts, to collate all the information you need, and to write a clear and well-thought-out proposal. If you have never completed a funding application before, try to set aside about 14 days over a period of about a month to pull are the necessary information together. If you are setting up a research consortium, with multiple research partners and several research sites, you may need more time. Either way, until you become highly experienced at writing such proposals, you will probably want to edit and change what you have written many times before you are satisfied that it is perfect.

5. Make a checklist of requirements

Make a list of all the forms and documents that need to be included in the final proposal package. Then tick them off when you have completed each one. Tick them off again as you put each one into the envelope you are going to send. If the application has to be submitted electronically, make a special folder for all the attachments that you are going to email or upload. Remember to keep a hard copy of the whole application for your own records.

The reputation of your institution, as well as the qualifications and reputations of the individual researchers in your team are really important. Make sure you obtain CVs from all members of your team, and that you are fully aware of their competencies and achievements so that you can summarise and highlight these if required to do so. This information should take up less than one page of your submission, and only if it has been specifically requested—about 150 words about each of the lead researchers in your team should be sufficient.

6. A few words on the writing process

There is just no way around it: being an effective researcher includes mastering the skill of writing. Plans, proposals, papers and books all require you to write.

Most of us tend to ‘binge write’ in big blocks of time when our deadlines are nearly upon us, but many experts suggest that writing is a bit like fitness: the more you write the better at it you become. So it can be good to get into a habit of writing 15 to 30 minutes every day. Keep the time short enough so that making time to write doesn’t seem daunting. You will be surprised how easy writing begins to seem, how polished your writing becomes, and how many more creative ideas come your way.

Remember you have to entice your readers into reading your entire document. You have to capture their attention and keep their interest throughout. A good proposal, like most good writing, is interesting, clear and persuasive.

Writing a winning proposal is done one word at a time. Some you will delete, some will stick. Slowly the proposal will grow until you have something you can be proud of.

7. Persuading readers

Think about who is going to read your proposal. Usually, a team of specialists read all the proposals and relay their opinions to a selection committee. The specialists’ recommendations help the committee reach a decision.

Like most of us, these specialists and selection-committee members suffer from having too much information and too little time. The more concise and to the point you can be, the more likely it is that your whole application will be read. Make sure that you provide only the information that is asked for. Don’t get carried away and start adding information that you happen to find interesting.

Write clear, short sentences. Ideally, limit yourself to one idea per sentence. Try to avoid using adjectives and adverbs, which tend to be seen as fluff and often add little to what you are trying to say.

Don’t see writing proposals as a waste of your time. Refining your application will enhance your ability to excel at other writing tasks such as research reports, journal articles, and chapters in books.

8. Speak the funder’s language

All funders have certain aims and values that reflect what they see as important, and indicate how they wish to make an impact on the world. Try to show how your work incorporates their aims and values.

Look carefully at their websites, and any other information you can find about them, and analyse the words they use. Some of the terminology and technical language in the application forms may be unfamiliar. With careful reading you can almost always work out what is required. Don’t be too proud to circle (in pencil that you can rub out later) any words you don’t know. Then look them up so that you are left with no doubt as to what each word in the application form means.

Note, also, that different funders use different words to mean the same thing. For example, instead of the word ‘objective’, funders might use words such as ‘mission’, ‘research question’, ‘purpose’, ‘intention’, ‘goal’, or ‘target’. A good trick is to use the same words that the donor uses. However, make sure that you fully understand all the words you use. If you use technical terms out of context, the funders may think you don’t know what you are talking about.

9. Formulate a clear objective

Your objective is the first thing that a funder is going to read when considering an application. Therefore make sure that you conceptualise the problem you want to address, and the objective of your research carefully and write this clearly. Ideally, aim to capture your objective in one sentence. Never use more than three sentences or a short paragraph.

One way to achieve this is to use SMART objectives, which will help to make your aims, competitive, eye-catching and to the point. SMART objectives are:

  • Specific (detailed, pointed and not vague)
  • Measurable (you can track its progress and measure how close you are to your goal)
  • Attainable (the goal is reachable and circumstances exist for you to achieve aim)
  • Realistic (what you want to achieve is not a dream, you have calculated the time and effort involved and are clear about your intentions and your capacity)
  • Time bound (there are deadlines, in particular a date to start and a date for completion)

To write a SMART objective takes time and much rewriting. Each time you rewrite, try to be more specific, more concise until the words are crystal clear.

As soon as you have a SMART objective, your plan of action will probably flow logically from it. Once your plan is clear, the writing of the proposal should fall into place fairly easily too. In the plan, summarise the actions you will take to reach your objective, and list the people who will be involved in each part of the process. Any outputs or tangible products that will result from the research are an important part of the plan, and should be mentioned in your objective.

10. Calculate the costs

Once the actions and outputs are listed, you can work out how much the research will cost. Putting a budget together can be intimidating if you have never done one before, but budgeting is not a mystery—it is a skill that is relatively easy to learn.

Application forms often include a budget template to guide you. If not, familiarise yourself with your institution’s own budgeting processes and use these to guide you. If there is no research management office that can help, try to find someone in your institution’s administration or finance department who can assist.

Be guided by the value of the grant for which you are applying, and be realistic about what you ask for. If the grant excludes equipment, make sure that you don’t include equipment costs in your budget.

Indirect costs, overhead costs or facility costs and administrative costs are terms that funders use interchangeably. They refer to costs that can be linked to several projects simultaneously, and cannot be readily identified as being incurred solely as a result of a single project or activity. Make sure you know whether the grant you are seeking covers such costs and, if so, work out how to calculate them.

11. Explain the potential impact

To explain the impact of your work is to answer the question: how different will the world be if this research is carried out?

Impact is about measuring the significance of your research findings (outcomes), and working out how you will make your findings known (via outputs). In other words, if you can measure how widely researchers or policymakers in various economic, social, environmental, educational, policy or research arenas respond to your outcomes and/or cite your outputs, you will be able provide evidence of impact.

One helpful way of understanding the difference between impact and outcome is to consider the process of policy development. A policy document is an output, but the adoption of a policy can have a long-term impact and change behaviours.

Impact is difficult to measure as it can take a long time for the impact of an intervention to be felt. Because of this, some funders, but certainly not all, have stopped asking for impact measures to be included in funding applications. One mistake researchers make is to state the impact of research projects in terms that are too broad to be measurable. For example, one applicant claimed that the impact of a specific health intervention would result in ‘a healthy community, free from infectious diseases’. Can you see how huge this claim is?

It may be useful to make the distinction between qualitative and quantitative assessments of impact. A qualitative assessment of impact includes a description of specific outcomes and changes that may occur as a result of the research taking place, and the findings being disseminated. A quantitative assessment of impact may be based on one or more measures of outcomes and outputs. For example, citation indexes and document-download statistics provide quantitative ways of measuring research impact.

If your proposal is a long document, say more than six pages, include a very short summary of your research project on the first page. The summary should give a brief outline of your objective, planned outputs and the impact that your research will have. Make sure that the summary takes up less than a page. 

12. Be prepared to submit ongoing reports

Grant money is often paid out in tranches over a period of time, say every six months over the life of the project, or on completion of certain project milestones. In almost all cases, reports have to be handed in according to agreed deadlines before funders can release the next tranche of funding.

Remember that funders also have networks, and they share information with one another. Make sure that you manage your reputation well when it comes to writing reports. If you fail to send in the necessary feedback, or if you compile them carelessly, you may lose out when it comes to your next funding application. Your institution’s reputation may suffer, and you may even put your colleagues’ future research projects at risk.

Image credit: Jani, Flickr

This guide was produced by the RIMI4AC Project funded by the European Commission’s Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Science and Technology Programme. © 2013 Research Africa