Interns- Intro to Grant Writing

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Why Write Grants?

  • Writing a grant for just the money is usually not a recipe for success. Rather, seek out grants that our tied to your goals and aspirations.
  • Think of grant writing as a way to fund your personal and professional growth. Grants are an opportunity to better understand your chosen field and are a tool for building and sustaining innovative projects.

Define Your Project

  • Take your time and define what you want to accomplish before working on your grant application.
  • Ask yourself some basic questions.

Where do I Find Ideas?

1. Identify a Problem

  • Use literature and research from your field, brainstorming with peers, and personal experiences. Search for issues and obstacles that intrigue and interest you. You could create a list of problems that you face, your field faces, your peers face, your institution faces, etc. and then decided what issue seems the most worthy for you to tackle.
  • Address unspoken needs and norms 
  • Clearly posed questions are an excellent way to begin a proposal   

Example: Are strong party systems conducive to democratic stability?

  • Stating your central point, hypothesis, or interpretation is also a good way to begin.

Example: Workers do not organize unions; unions organize workers. 

  • Some projects are too complex and some conceptualizations too subtle for such short messages to capture. Sometimes only step-by-step argumentation can define the central problem. But even if you adopt this strategy, make sure to leave the reviewers with something to remember, a message that will remain after reading many other proposals. 

Once you've identified a problem, the next step is to:

2. Frame the problem

Ask Questions:

  • What problem I am trying to solve?
  • What do I need to solve this problem?
  • What will the situation look like if its been addressed?

These questions will help you frame the parameters of your funding request and help you organize your ideas into actions and tasks.

Aim for Clarity

Remember that most review committees are composed of people from different disciplines and with different perspectives. Reviewers expect the proposer to meet them at least halfway. Try to provide a brief but lucid guided tour of the relevant research frontiers of your field. Avoid jargon as much as you can, and when technical language is really needed, restrict yourself to those words and technical terms that truly lack equivalents in common language. Also, keep the spotlight on ideas, concepts, and what, quite concretely, you plan to do. When additional technical material is needed, consider putting it in appendices if possible.

Establish the Context

Your proposal should tell the reviewers not only what will be learned or accomplished as a result of your project, but also what will be new about it. The proposal should summarize the current state of knowledge and current debates on the topic. 

What's the Payoff?

  • Appealing to immediate public concerns about an issue or problem is effective
  • Some reviewers are swayed by the claim that a topic has not been studied 
  • Citing the importance of the phenomena or events to be studied is another approach
  • It is crucial to convince reviewers that such topics are not just currently fashionable, but will illuminate some wider or more abiding problem    
  • Your project should aim to develop new facts, understandings, interpretations, practices, or skills. Proposals that replicate others’ work or simply aim to prove a foregone conclusion fare badly
  • Theoretical justifications need not go back to the roots of your discipline, but should situate the proposal in terms of its relevance to current theory or theoretical debates    

Use a Fresh Approach

  • Surprises, puzzles, and apparent contradictions can be convincing of the value of a project    

Example: Everyone expected that One Big Union—the slogan of the movement— would strike and win wage increases for workers. Yet statistical evidence shows just the contrary: strong unions do not strike, but instead restrain workers’ wage demands.


  • Review committees rarely have enough funds to support all the worthy proposals before them. Thus feasibility becomes another key selection criterion. 
  • Does the applicant have the capacity—the training; skills; experience; language competences; contacts; institutional, collegial, or supervisory support; and access to materials to carry out the project? 
  • Can the project be accomplished in the time allotted and with available financial resources?    

Specify Your Objectives

  • Proposals should describe the final product of the project   
  • Spell out your plans     

3. Find Possible Funding Sources

Consider the size of your project:

  • You want to have a large enough project so the funding agency sees value in what you are doing. However you don't want the scope or activities of your project to be so large that it becomes unmanageable or appears to lack focus.
  • You don't want funding request to seem like non-related activities thrown together. On the other hand, a project that's too narrow may have trouble appealing to the funding agency, because the project won't have a broad enough impact.
  • Questions like: Who will be impacted? How many will benefit? How long will it take to solve the problem? Can all help to frame the project's scope.

How Do I Find a Funding Agency?

Michigan State University has a great list for artist grants.

Understanding a Funding Agency:
  • A big part of a successful grant is understanding the funding agency. What are their mission and goals? What are the priorities of the organization? What have they funded in the past?
  • This knowledge can be gathered through research and active involvement with the agency providing the funding. Start with the organization's website. Many agencies also provide databases of past projects or list past awards as well.

Creating a Requirements Matrix:

Often grant applications are long documents with many sections and it's important to read and understand what is being requested and outlined in each section.

Once you have a feel of the basic idea of the grant, the next step is to create a requirements matrix.

A requirements matrix is a table that list every requirement of the grant application and the corresponding page and paragraph number of the requirement.

Listing all the requirements helps ensure that your grant will be compliant with the request of the funding agency. You may think that locating all the requirements for the funding agency would be straightforward, but sometimes requests are embedded within the language of the grant application.

A requirements matrix becomes especially important if you are working collaboratively, so no one is on the team lets something fail through the cracks.

Steps for Developing a Requirements Matrix:

  1. Have everyone read the grant application individually
  2. Identify the requirements of the grant
  3. Individual team members generate their own matrix and then compare each matrix developed by the group
  4. If an item is on everyone's list, it's definitely a requirement. If the item is only on one person's list, it needs to be revisited to determine whether or not it's an actual requirement. This process is effective for identifying all that needs to be done to satisfy the funding agency.
Requirements can be broken down into 3 types:

Submission Requirements: items like page count, font sizes, and spacing.

Project Requirements: the requirements that relate to the nature or your project. For example: From a media arts grant from the National Endowment for the Arts: Film/audio/new-media festivals and associated public programing that include artists, critics, and/or scholars, it has to be public, and it's content must show meaningful community engagement. There are 5 separate project requirements for just these few lines.

Institutional Requirements: These are requirements that the institution must abide by when creating the proposal. These can include cost sharing--when a portion of a total project's cost is not provided by the sponsor, which is sometimes mandatory--or in-kind contributions--goods, services, or any contribution that is not a monetary contribution. They can include requirements on reporting the grant, whose is eligible to serve as the principal investigator of the project, or that there must be an internal review board and approval is needed for all human subject research. These may not have direct impact on project outcomes, but do impact the administration of the grant.

Common Mistakes

  • Not having enough time allocated to writing the grant--craft a timeline to ensure you have plenty of time
  • Not having a good, simple title for your grant proposal--the title is the first impression and frames the remainder of what the reviewer reads
  • The proposal needs to clearly spell out the need and your solution--you need to have a clear beginning, middle, and end that creates an easy to read, coherent narrative
  • Too much detail or too little--reviewers read a large number of grants and appreciate concise clarity over superfluous details
  • Have a person not affiliated with your project read the proposal to see if they can gain an understanding of the proposal