Effective grant proposals, Part 4: Who are you writing for?

Today, the fourth part in my series on writing effective grant proposals. The first three parts were concerned with content, but in hindsight, I’m not sure that I put first things first. That’s because before you write anything, you should think carefully about who you’re writing for – and this is this is true in spades for grant proposals. Who will read your proposal, and decide its fate? If you haven’t answered that question, you’re throwing darts without knowing where the dartboard is.

So, who will read your proposal? Well, the answer is (as it is so often) “it depends”.

Different agencies have very different processes for evaluating grant proposals, and that means your readers could be just about anybody. If your experience is with major national funding agencies (such as the NSF or NIH in the United States, or NSERC in Canada), you’re likely to assume it will be a grant panel – a set of scientists in your own discipline, borrowed from outside the agency. The panelists won’t likely be familiar with your own study system or research questions, but they’ll probably be comfortable with your field’s open questions and general approaches. There’s variation, though, in panel composition: you’ll want to find out whether the panels are narrowly drawn (disease ecologists) or cover more ground (chemists of all stripes).

Outside the major national funding agencies, many more things are possible. At smaller government agencies or NGOs, your proposal may be read in-house, by staffers who may or may not have backgrounds in science. Alternatively, it may be sent out for expert review, and either the reviews alone, or the reviews plus proposal, considered in-house for a funding decision. The smaller the organization, the less likely it is that they’ll have staffers with knowledge of your own field, or of the systems you propose to work with or the approaches you propose to take. With, I guess, one exception: granting programs at small NGOs might be so tightly focused that they only know about the kind of work you do! It’s safe, for example, to assume that staffers at the Atlantic Salmon Foundation know quite a bit about Atlantic salmon. It may not be true that they know much, if anything, about orcas.*

It should be obvious why all this matters. Both the explanation of why the work should be funded and of how you’re going to do it can only be effective if they’re matched to the background knowledge, and the interests, of your readers. If your proposal is read by other scientists in your field, you can assume they’re aware of the major open questions your work addresses, or the power and shortcomings of current methods. They’ll be very interested in the technical details of your work, and want you to defend methodological choices in some depth. In contrast, if your proposal is read by staffers with business management backgrounds, you’ll need to pitch your work to appeal to them, and provide explanations they can follow. You’ll need to devote more attention to the big picture, but less to technical details that will be uninteresting or opaque to your readers. Getting this wrong, in either direction, means a grantwriting dart far from the bullseye.

OK, but how can you know who you’re writing for? Fortunately, much of the time you’ll be able to find out. In some cases, the agency will explain the process publicly, either as part of the Request for Proposals announcement, or on its web page (here, for example, is a way to find a wealth of information about evaluation of NSERC Discovery Grants.) In other cases, the information isn’t obviously public, but it isn’t secret, either: an email or phone call to someone in the granting organization will get you what you need. Some folks worry that making such contact is inappropriate, but it isn’t – in fact, many agencies’ “program officers” are eager to talk with prospective applicants. (Smaller organizations, like local NGOs, won’t have program officers, but you can ask to speak with someone who administers the grant evaluation process. The worst that can happen is that they say no.) Failing all this: you may well have colleagues who have reviewed grants for the agency you’re targeting, or who have written grants to that agency in the past. Ask around – and pay the favour forward later, when your colleagues come to you with similar questions.

Grantwriting is difficult enough, without throwing the darts in a room where you can’t see the dartboard. Turn on the lights, find out where the dartboard is, then throw your darts that direction.** In grant applications (as in anything else)  you write for a reader; do whatever it takes to know who that reader is.

© Stephen Heard  June 7, 2022

Image: A dartboard miss, © Mike Burns via Flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0. Not my dartboard, of course. My misses are worse.

Previous posts in the grantwriting series:

Prelude: Three key questions

Part I: Significance

Part II: Feasibility

Part III: Qualification


*^Which may be predators on those adult salmon while they’re out at sea. Atlantic salmon are one of the world’s most intensely studied species, and yet we know very little about what happens during the vast majority of their lives – which is spent in repeated visits to the oceans. So orcas matter to the Atlantic Salmon Federation; but it’s unlikely that their staffers know much about them. (I should point out that while there is a real NGO called the Atlantic Salmon Federation, I’m using this as a more general example. There may well be an ASF staffer who knows about orcas; but if so, that doesn’t threaten my point.)

**^Having been a grant reviewer and a member of evaluation panels, I beg you not to take this metaphor literally.

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