The grant writing process: the importance of side benefits

The grant writing process: the importance of side benefits

I spent much of last week writing a grant application*. The grant application form I had to fill in was well designed – easy to understand, short and asking for succinct information. To have dismissed it as simple would have been a mistake – writing good persuasive documents is like writing haiku where the challenge lies within the requirement for succinctness. To take a complex idea and render it into a distilled yet compelling argument takes a great deal of thought and cleverness, and, if undertaken with integrity**, can be an acid test of the idea itself.

Fox writing with a quill pen (1852)

My usual approach to writing these things is to write them as if my life depended on the outcome and then, once submitted, forget they even existed. The reason for this is that obviously I want to give myself the best chance so I work damned hard on the application; but I also acknowledge that the mathematical odds are probably against me being successful. Grant programs attract a lot of competition and can only ever fund a minority of applicants. Grants are not ‘free’ money. In return for the cash you will ‘pay’ in time spent applying for, managing (compliance and relationship management) and acquitting the grant.

So why invest serious time and thought into something you have a fair chance of not getting? Is it worth even trying? How do you decide?

This is where it is useful to consider the side benefits of writing a grant: does the process of researching, planning and then writing the application have benefits that can feed into other parts of your professional practice? Some examples of such side benefits could be:

A chance to revisit and maybe even refine your vision and strategies. Explaining what your purpose is to others is always a great test as to how well-defined that purpose is.

Creating (or refining already existing) text about who you are and what you do. If you come up with some nice pithy phrases to put in your application to ‘sell’ yourself then keep them – this material may come in handy when you are next updating your marketing materials or writing your next report or funding application.

A chance to do some forward planning. This is what I found myself doing last week. I had to think through, in some detail, as to exactly how I was going to implement the strategy I was seeking funding for; I even was able to identify which parts of this strategy I could implement without the funding (albeit more slowly or on a smaller scale). This exercise was as useful as it was clarifying and inspiring.

If you are writing the grant application as part of a team, this is a great opportunity to check that everyone is on the same page – has the same understanding of and confidence in your team’s goals.

Conduct something of a risk management or contingency planning exercise. Ask yourself: ‘What will I do if I don’t get this funding? What could I do if the funding body offers me a lower sum of money?’

Take the pulse of your current network of allies: do you have anyone who will be a referee for your application or write you a letter of support? Would anyone partner with you within the grant? Who in your networks is ‘friendly’ enough to help you research your application?

What do you think? Can you think of any other side benefits?

*Wish me luck!

**I have seen clever grant writers – weasel wordsmiths – bullshit their way through funding applications with very little forethought and no integrity. This is a waste of time if they don’t get the grant, and a real menace if they do – badly planned projects that have been funded for spurious reasons can open up quite a can of worms governance wise.

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4 thoughts on “The grant writing process: the importance of side benefits

  1. Good article on taking a strategic view on grant writing. Especially liked your second footnote. You would think funding organisations would’ve developed good BS detectors by now.

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  2. I really connected with your final post-script. I know of a PI who is extremely articulate and convincing at grant writing, but does not care about thoughtful scientific research, scientist mentoring or research planning on a daily basis. (An particularly egregious example would be proposing a new grant where 2 aims out of 3 have already failed and also refuted the hypothesis at times). In these extra difficult times, it is hard to see such proposals awarded more money.

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    1. Absolutely, Ed. Makes my blood boil, in fact, because I think of all the genuinely well researched and comprehensively thought through funding proposals that miss out on the money just because whoever wrote them wasn’t quite as good at grant writing.

      And, I mentioned above, these ‘bogus’ applications can be a can of worms if they do get the funding. In the past I have been hired to project manage funded projects that, when I actually set to work, turned out to be nonsense – what looked convincing in the application turned out to be difficult (in one case impossible) to implement in real life. This led to a huge waste of time and money and caused real disruptions to the cultures of the teams working on them.

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