Grants as Writing Opportunities - From a Single Work to Multiple Scholarly Spin-Offs - Writing as Professional Development

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

Grants as Writing Opportunities
From a Single Work to Multiple Scholarly Spin-Offs
Writing as Professional Development

When you think about it, highly productive faculty members are making proposals to undertake new projects all of the time. They propose new courses, programs, projects, books, and so forth. They request release time from teaching, travel support, sabbatical leaves, and training opportunities. They send in their applications and CVs to be considered for honors and awards. Although it is common to refer to writing grants, what people actually mean by that is writing the a formal request/application, in the form of a proposal, to get financial support for a project or research. What proposal writers actually are seeking is a contract—a work order from the grantor that makes the expectations explicit (Locke, Spirduso, & Silverman, 2013).

A doctoral student in science confided that she once attended a grant writing workshop and the presenter included an anonymous excerpt from “the worst grant proposal we ever received”. As she began reading the material projected on the screen, the student was stunned to realize it was a proposal that she had submitted! Why had the proposal failed so miserably? It was because she wrote an impassioned plea for an audience consisting of like-minded colleagues when actually, the reviewers were nonspecialists seeking assurances that the money would be yield impressive results. It was not the case that she was a terrible writer, incapable of generating a high-quality grant proposal, or had a useless project in mind. However, she did not have a rudimentary understanding of grant writing, was operating on the wrong set of assumptions, and had failed to prepare herself adequately.

Several things about this event are noteworthy. First, the student went on to defend her dissertation successfully, publish her work, and get grant funding. Second, she was already taking positive action to remedy the problems of her first attempt at grant writing and improve her skills. Third, she shared her mortifying experience with her classmates in a doctoral course in the hopes that it might prevent others from making a similar mistake. Her sincere desire to improve, ability to rebound, and generosity in helping others controlled the damage that initial failure could have done.

Online Tool

Refer to University of North Carolina’s Writing Center website for guidance on writing grant proposals at

Grant writing is an evidence-based, persuasive writing task:

A proposal’s overt function is to persuade a committee of scholars that the project shines with the three kinds of merit all disciplines value, namely, conceptual innovation, methodological rigor, and rich, substantive content….Other things being equal, the proposal that is awarded funding is the one that gets its merits across more forcefully. (Przeworski and Salomon, 1995, p. 1)

Nationally, only about 10 % of the grant projects that are proposed are funded (Bourne & Chalupa, 2006)—a rate somewhat higher than the acceptance rate of many prestigious journals. How can you improve chances for success? The best way to gain support for such proposals is to study the guidelines, start the process very early, get feedback from knowledgeable others, revise the proposal accordingly, and submit all materials exactly as required. As with writing journal articles, audience awareness is crucial. Many times, your audience for a grant proposal consists of people who do not share your area of expertise. If competing for an “in-house” small grant at your institution, for example, the reviewers are likely to be a university-wide committee with varied areas of specializations. If competing for a grant in the local or larger community, the evaluators probably will be business people from the area. For state, federal and nonprofit grants, the evaluators are apt to be a distinguished, diverse group with little knowledge about your specific project or even your discipline (see CDC guidelines). Grant proposals fail when they take a “give me the money” approach and fail to show how others will benefit. They also fail when they take a “me too” approach and propose something that is routine, ordinary, and unremarkable. Table 11.5 contains a self-questioning framework that takes these audiences into account (Lunghofer, 2015).

Table 11.5

11 questions winning grant writers can answer

Before you start writing your next grant proposal, make sure you can answer these questions:

1. What problem or issue will your proposed project solve or address?

2. Why is it important to address this issue?

3. What will be different as a result?

4. How will you measure or document your results?

5. How does what you are proposing fit into your organization’s strategic plan?

6. Why is it important in the context of that plan?

7. What is your overall funding strategy?

8. How do grants in general and this grant in particular fit into that funding strategy?

9. How will the work accomplished under the auspices of the grant be sustained when the grant period ends?

10. Why should funders care about this issue?

11. How do the issue and your approach to addressing it match the funders’ priorities or areas of focus?

Source: Lisa Lunghofer, Ph.D. Good Causes • Great Results

Activity 11.5: First Steps Toward Grant Writing

Using Lunghofer’s questions that a grant writer needs to answer in Table 11.5 as a framework, write a brief answer to every question. Be sure that you are client-centered in your approach and that your answers are fashioned to your primary audience—the reviewers from the funding agency.

Grant funding can be tricky because it is affected by (1) the funding agency, (2) the discipline and (3) the institution. To illustrate a particular funder’s expectations, the director of a multi-million dollar foundation grant once told me that, when the short list of finalists came to make their presentations to the Board, only a few of them thought to include teachers, staff, parents, and students. From the committee’s perspective, it was a serious oversight to send “only the suits” from the central office when the grant initiative was focused on all of the stakeholders. So, when in doubt, they tended to rule in favor of those teams that demonstrated this inclusiveness. Knowledge of the priorities of the funding group is critical. The two broad categories of grants—those that support original research and those that fund service projects—require very different types of proposals.

From a disciplinary perspective, expectations for writing grants often differ considerably. Just think about how different the style of these grant proposals would be: an artist seeking support to produce creative work, an English professor conducting research on second language writing, a psychologist implementing a suicide prevention program for teenagers, and a medical research team conducting drug trials.

The expectations of the grant writer’s institution are pertinent as well. For faculty at major research institutions, success in attracting grant funding often is a key factor in tenure and promotion. In a way, major grant funding functions as verification that a faculty member’s research or innovative project rose to the top among those proposed by other academics. All three influences—the funder, the discipline, and the institution—must be taken into consideration before you begin. It is a good idea to read through a general treatment of grant writing skills for the layperson could have prevented some of these beginner mistakes (Karsh & Fox, 2014).

Online Tool

Take a short course in grant writing through The Foundation Center, available in four different languages, that will guide you through the proposal writing process

Activity 11.6: Thinking Through a Grant Project

Barbara Davis (2005) suggests that grant writers use the following questions to guide them in explaining the details of the project. Try writing a response to each one: Who is the target audience, and how will you involve them in the activity? How many people do you intend to serve? What are you going to do? What project planning has already taken place? Who is going to do the work and what are their credentials? When will the project take place? Where will the project take place? Use your answers to begin drafting a grant proposal (Table 11.6).

Table 11.6

Advice on securing grants

1. Identify resources. Your institution probably will sponsor at least one grant-writing workshop each year and may have a grants office to assist you. Major universities post grant writing tips, PowerPoints from presentations, and other resources for faculty. Don’t forget to search the funding organizations. At the least, they will have detailed guidelines posted

2. Study exemplary proposals. Study examples of well-written grant proposals such as “The Healthy Marriages Program” to support successful re-entry of prisoners into family life (McLaughlin & Jordan, 1999) or a cross-age tutoring program for children from Children, Youth & Families at Risk (CYFR) (see the example that begins on page 10 of Ask the grants office at your institution to see examples of funded proposals. Perhaps the best source for examples of successful projects with a comprehensive evaluation plan is a journal called New Directions in Evaluation

3. Look before you write. Increasingly, funding agencies require a letter of intent or a very brief proposal and review those first. This saves them many wasted hours because they invite a small number of proposals from the best ones identified during the preliminary review. As you might imagine, this procedure makes that short document very important. Try to identify some excellent examples by working with your grants office, asking colleagues, and attending conferences/trainings

4. Volunteer to evaluate proposals. Most universities have some small “seed money” grants and need committee members to evaluate them. Serving in this capacity can help you to internalize the expectations of proposal review committees. Look for opportunities to review proposals within your professional associations as well

5. Investigate modest funding streams. Many times, grant writers attempt to compete with the most experienced grants writers for multi-million dollar awards rather than honing their craft first with small grants programs. Be aware that, because the funding agency wants to be assured of results, their scoring rubric may give points for affiliation with a major research university and a history of successful grants. If you have neither, you may want to join someone who does. There may be few applicants for small grants and scholarships; in fact, these sources of support sometimes go unclaimed in any given year. Many businesses, institutions, professional organizations, honor societies, and institutions of higher education operate small grants programs

6. Seek additional training. Large higher education institutions often have a person in charge of grants who will make presentations to a group or consult with individual faculty members on their proposals. Webinars and YouTube videos also provide free training from experts. Find out who the successful grant writers at your institution are and ask for their advice

7. Be client-centered. Although there are grants to support individual faculty research, it is more commonly the case that a grant is a project designed to help others. This makes it very important to write proposals that focus on benefits for the end-users

8. Demonstrate collaboration. When your proposal demonstrates that you have convinced others to work with you, it communicates two important points. First, others have given the project their “seal of approval” and second, you know how to mobilize human and material resources effectively to achieve your goals

9. Observe deadlines and plan for time sinks. Most institutions require a sign off from your dean. You won’t want to invest months in preparing a proposal only to get bogged down because an administrator is traveling when you need a signature

10. Understand your institutions policies regarding grants. For example, you may be seeking release time to serve as the project coordinator and find out that your university has restrictions on this or that this budget line was cut when the proposal was funded

11. Work with the funding group. The reviewers are not the enemy. Be mindful of reviewers’ time and make your proposal clear, concise, and complete. Follow the guidelines. Find out who the grant administrator is and do your homework. What projects are they particularly proud of? It might be useful to make brief contact with the administrator of the grant program; ask for advice from knowledgeable colleagues on this

12. Write as you go. Instead of waiting until the project report deadline arrives to begin writing, start writing a related journal article or book chapter while the grant is underway. This not only makes for a better report—perhaps one worthy of additional financial support in the coming year—but also increases the likelihood that at least one publication will emanate from the project

13. Keep searching for support. If you were awarded one grant, it improves your chances of getting another one. Each award received is a vote of confidence in the project that can be leveraged into additional funding. If you were denied a grant, search for alternative sources of support and repurpose the proposal for the new funding source. After you have implemented a project successfully, think about ways to expand the initiative to other contexts