10 Grant-writing Tips for Novice Grant-writers From the Desk of the Most Reluctant of All Grant-writers
Clinical Impact Statement: This article is designed to be practical and have immediate utility. It is a hybrid of information, electronic resources, and folk wisdom that will demystify the grant-writing process and encourage professionals, especially ECP’s, to fund and implement their innovative ideas.
This article is written for everyone in mental health who has a great idea and a shortage of cash. It is informed by a 20-year career with countless funding applications and almost $5M in awards. That $5M doesn’t reflect some innate grant-writing talent, rather, it reflects persistence and the efforts of great teams and some codebreaking—all of which I will share with you here. This compilation of traditional and non-traditional wisdom is intended to serve as motivation so that each reader feels empowered to look and apply for external funding. It should probably be accompanied by an actual textbook or grant-writing guide materials.
One important note is that these tips apply to clinicians and leadership staff but especially to early-career professionals. ECP’s often (mistakenly) assume that the world of grant and foundation funding is exclusive and the dollars unattainable. While it is true that reductions to federal agency budgets have created greater competition for grant-writers it is also true that there are more “unobligated dollars” (read: unspent grant money) in grant agency bank accounts than ever before. These 10 tips are written especially for the novice or reluctant grant writer….you have everything you need—now, go build your empire.
Tips for the Reluctant Grant-writer
1. Find the stash of cash. Here we are talking about grants or pools of money earmarked for a specific purpose—either to fund people, programs, infrastructure, policies, or some novel idea. By definition, grants are “non-repayable funds or products disbursed or given by one party (grant makers), often a government department, corporation, foundation or trust, to a recipient” (“Grants,” n.d.) There are “spendable” grants but there are also “endowment grants” and “matching grants” among others—but those latter two categories are outside the scope of these tips. The universe of external funding incudes the hundreds of billions of dollars in governmental funding (e.g., federal grants, state grants) and the much more diverse pool of non-profit and private foundation funders or grant-makers. Traditionally, institutional grant writers begin with a search of federal grant opportunities via the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA), which lists all of the available funding. There is also a search feature on Grants.gov that allows you to filter for specific opportunities and agencies. If you are serious about going after those big federal dollars, you should bookmark Grants.gov and set your email subscription preferences to reflect your search results.If, however, you are new to grant-writing, are working with a smaller team or program, or if you are interested in a more “bespoke” funding opportunity, you can find a LOT of support (financial and otherwise) from philanthropists outside of the state and federal government. That includes nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses. The Foundation Center and Community Foundation Locator both feature comprehensive lists of grant-makers and funding opportunities.
2. Read the instructions first. If you are the kind of person who finds themselves with orphan parts left over after furniture assembly, this tip is for you (and hello and welcome, you are my people). The materials advertising the funding—sometimes called a notice of funding opportunity (NOFO), funding opportunity announcement (FOA) or request for proposal (RFP), are absurdly cumbersome and over-written which makes reading them a tedious chore but this is *the* most important tip. You should highlight and underline and make comments and take notes—this document will dictate the next few months of your work life (did I mention that the typical turn-around from announcement to award is six months? And that includes reviewing all of the submissions). This document will outline the eligibility criteria and your first stop is to confirm that you are, in fact, eligible for these award dollars. There are usually criteria about who can apply (e.g., if the funds are earmarked for a non-profit vs. for-profit partner), prerequisite registrations for the application (e.g., a DUNS number, or Data Universal Numbering System, which is your unique numeric identifier), and also any requirements for academic or institutional partnership (more on that later). Those announcement materials will also outline the details of the actual award (e.g., eligible expenses and time-frame [one year or multi-year]) and the criteria for review (more on that later, too). The announcement will also outline whether or not you need to FIRST submit a brief “letter of intent” (LOI) before being invited to submit a complete grant application or in addition to but before the entire application. I have been in both unfortunate positions—writing an entire proposal before realizing that I had missed the deadline to submit the LOI for review and also waiting in limbo for a response to an LOI that was never intended to hold up the application process. That is the absolute worst.
3. Build a team. It occurs to me that I think that every one of these tips is the most important, but this one has been the key to all of my successes. Think of grant writing like professional sports—any sport that requires a team of people with specialized expertise and function (and then forget I tried to make a sports analogy). The team you build will include people with the expertise you need to get the proposal (and, ultimately, the project) done. That includes your official team (your budget director/expert and specific collaborators for example) and also the co-worker/collaborator/colleague/friend with extraordinary copy editing or cheerleading skills. You should have a larger circle of support that includes the grant officer at the actual agency. On larger grants, that person will host Q&A sessions online or by phone, and with local agencies that will be someone in the office. That said, there will ALWAYS be a person(s) responsible for ensuring that the best proposals are submitted for review. You should check out the webinars (or the recordings or transcripts) and make a point to introduce yourself by phone or email. With local non-profit partners, you can even meet in person for brain picking. Remember that their objective is to spend their $$ on the best-fitting projects, but they are also invested in reducing the busy-work burden on their reviewers (busy work that comes from reviewing proposals nowhere near on target)—if they can save you or their reviewers time, they are all for it. There is truly no way to reproduce the insight and advice you can get from the actual insider. And speaking of insiders—leverage your professional network to find a colleague who has (or has had) funding from your target agency and ask that person to review your idea and materials—that person will also be an integral member of your team. With my most recent federal grant application, we asked my long-time friend (and the busiest woman I know) to review our “final” draft and, much to our chagrin, she made suggestions that required the entire project be rewritten—and (much to our delight), we got the award.
When you are planning your empire, reach out to local colleges/universities and/or medical centers. This will obviously be key in cases where the grant-maker or funder requires it, but it will yield unexpected benefits in every case. Academic departments can extend your reach with student employees/interns and faculty expertise. My colleagues and I welcome those emails. And finally, if you are interested in more grant-writing or writing for larger grants, consider joining the largest possible team (e.g., Funding Information Network) for networking and professional development.
4. Write for your audience. As someone who is famous for overdoing everything, I am loathe to allow you to work harder than you need to do. I have two suggestions with this tip—the first is to remember the “operational definition.” In my graduate Issues in Measurement class I teach a lot about “operational definitions”—in short, an “operational definition” is the WHAT and HOW of a thing. In psychology, we have our own unique jargon and that language is even more specific in our respective workplaces. We use terms like “client,” “intake,” and “treatment” as if there are universal definitions. Our idiosyncrasies are exaggerated in grant-writing with terms like “psychotherapy outcomes” or “community impact.” Assume every term you use has no meaning unless you define it in your text. In this example, what are the very specific outcomes you expect to see and how and when will you measure each of them? Assume the reviewers know less than your non-psychology peers about your work and write for that audience. Which begs the second important point in this tip: Write for your audience—the reviewers. The reviewers will either be grant-making agency personnel or experts recruited from their fields (n.b., volunteer to serve as a grant reviewer for local, state, and federal grants to get some insider information for yourself). They will be assigned to review a whole pile of proposals using a set of objective criteria (for federal grants, there are actual checklists to accompany the narrative review). For larger grants (state and federal grants especially), the actual “review criteria” are provided in the NOFO/FOA. And, because the first thing you did was to read and highlight that section of the announcement, you are ready to write to the criteria. It’s not at all cheeky to use the actual review criteria as the outline for your submission. Use their format, their language, their emphases (for example. italics or bold font from the NOFO/FOA should appear the same in your proposal). You can assume that the reviewer “checklist” is the text from the reviewer criteria—in this way, you are making it easy for the reviewer to check boxes. And checked boxes=$$.
5. Plan for pain. I wish this weren’t a tip or that this tip included instead recommendations for mindful meditation and stress management, but the plain truth is that, despite your careful planning and Gantt charting (a wonderful addition to project management, btw) it will ALWAYS feel like firedrill just before the deadline. That includes all of the things that are certain to go haywire (e.g., internet goes down, laptop goes on the fritz, promised letters of support and biosketches are missing) but also the reality that you review your proposal with a different “intent” just before the deadline (hawks have nothing on your eyesight in the hours before a deadline) and you are sure to find something that warrants your attention. You can assume that this final review and submission process will take 10x the time you planned—plan your workload and life accordingly.
6. Beware the DEAD in deadlines. That last reference to dead laptops and unexplained internet outages is from real-life. If your submission process requires that you drop-off 10 hard copies of your proposal in person, you can bet that the printer will jam and run out of toner and the traffic will be unprecedented. You will be distracted and, frankly, a menace. One time I was racing to FedEx to have a proposal bound in advance of a midnight shipping deadline and I parallel parked like a demolition derby audition—I practically totaled another car in the process. People have horror stories about forgetting how to safely climb stairs (with resultant ankle and foot injuries) and showing up to work in bathroom slippers. Your work life will revolve around the final deadline. You don’t have a viable grant until you meet the deadlines. This tip is also a reminder to check deadlines for “letters of intent” and DUNS registration. More than anything, this tip is to be good to yourself—drive slowly, check your shoes, and be careful out there.
7. Practice and patience make perfect. This tip is to assure you that you will NOT get every award for which you hope. I polled my grant-writing colleagues here at the University of Denver about their ratio of submissions to awards. The range is anywhere from 2 to 100 to one. The larger federal agencies are very competitive, with a single digit percentage of proposals-to-awards made, but the state agency and local foundation grants top 50%. And, believe me when I say, there is comradery in reviewing the disappointing news, reading the comments, and rallying for the next submission. You have a chance to debrief about the process and to retool for next time. The upside is that you will get a lot of mileage from each proposal you write. There is SO much boiler-plate language in each submission, things like “agency descriptions,” “biosketches,” and “statement of need” that are hard to write the first time and easy to copy-paste from there. You’ll not only re-use a lot of your previous work on the next project but you will also have the benefit of the review feedback. Which leads me to the next tip
8. Grow thicker skin. Personally, I think we all talk a good game about wanting constructive feedback. The few masochists who are actually invested in objective feedback will relish the review process, but I still wince every time I read reviewer comments when a project isn’t funded. I read them “sportscaster” style where I periodically interject with rebuttals and points of my own. For the most part, the reviews are anonymous and designed to be helpful for your future proposals. I did once receive a notice of no-award from a state agency with the reviewer feedback AND their names attached. To this day, I avoid eye contact with this senior colleague who offered a particularly caustic evaluation. Here, I should really take my own advice—get over it. The reviewers certainly aren’t speaking to your personhood or to your capacity to be an exemplary professional—they are evaluating your operational definitions alone. And don’t forget, someday you’ll be reviewing grants too (remember? to get the insider perspective) and so you will be in a position to offer feedback that is productive and kind. Pay it forward.
9. Hot Potato $$. This tip serves as reassurance that you WILL get funding for your brilliant project—the world needs more innovations in mental health so you can’t give up! Once you get your award—kudos to you and your team—your grand ideas will unfurl according to plan and this tip is to spend your $$ like it’s a hot potato. You would be surprised to hear that grantees often have a hard time spending their $$—either before a deadline (fiscal year end for example) or at all. Because you read the fine print in the announcement, you will know whether you can “roll over” funds from an award one year to the next and you will also know that those dollars are (more likely) forfeited by you and sometimes by the funding agency too. You would be surprised to hear how often this happens. This 2018 paper (“Unspent Funds Across Federal Agencies”), a student thesis for the Master’s of Public Policy Program at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, details the amount of unspent money in federal agency accounts. The authors reported unliquidated obligation balances (read: unspent grant dollars) of up to 88% of the total budget authority for some federal agencies (Donovan, Zhang, Link, & Suchde, 2018).
And the more depressing reality is that if you fail to successfully complete a project, you have less capital when applying the next award—and by “capital” I mean reputation, goodwill, letters of support, and a solid agency track record. This is a tip you can’t imagine you’ll need but the stakes couldn’t be higher.
10. Rinse and Repeat. Congratulations! Now, do it all over again. In truth, writing future proposals is easier (for all of the reasons I mentioned) and you accumulate more “capital” from each project you have for each project you propose. I have colleagues who absolutely abhor the work of grant-writing but do it anyway—they are committed to finding funds and support for new ideas and the promise of change in the field. But there are other colleagues who happen into a grant-writing role and fall in love with the quirky, imperfect, stressful process. One good friend was lured away from a neuroscience lab at Johns Hopkins after her first experience writing a grant. As for me, I fall more nearly into the former category—hopefully my angst adds credibility to the tips I’ve shared here. My commitment here is to demystify the process and encourage you to build your own team and get started. Your empire is waiting.
Cite This Article
Gorgens, K. (2019). 10 Grant-writing Tips for Novice Grant-writers From the Desk of the Most Reluctant of All Grant-writers. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 54(3), 32-36.
Donovan, B., Zhang, J., Link, J., & Suchde, K. (2018). Unspent Funds Across Federal Agencies. Retrieved from https://datalab.usaspending.gov/data-lab-data/college-playbook/Full-Report.pdf
Grant (money). (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved July 27, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Grant_(money)&oldid=908161060