6 essential features of a clear and compelling grant application

Grant applications are usually competitive with multiple applicants applying for the same funding source. A limited pool of money will be available and grant reviewers have to decide which projects are most likely to produce a successful outcome. Ensuring that your grant application is clear and compelling can give you an edge over the competition.

1. Hook the reader from the beginning

When grant applications are reviewed, they often go through an early triage process to rank the applications, with some applications removed from further consideration early on in the review process. Ensuring that your application is clear and compelling from the start may encourage the reviewer to read on and seriously consider the application.

A catchy and concise title that engages the reader is an important first step. Titles should be short, free of jargon and abbreviations and understandable to the lay person.

If the application guidelines allow, first present a brief overview that neatly encapsulates the entire application. Include a clear summary of the background to your topic, a statement of the problem and why it is important, followed by a brief statement of why your project is the most obvious way to solve the problem. Clear, simple diagrams on the first page that visually describe the problem can be helpful to the reader.

2. Explain the relevance of your project

Grant agencies usually clearly outline their scope; this is a description of the type of grants and areas of research they will fund. You need to state how your project fits within the agency’s goals at the beginning of the application.

Once you have defined the problem that your project will solve, the next step is to convince the reader that the problem is important and urgent. How common is it? How many people does it affect? What could happen if this problem isn’t solved soon? What does this problem cost the government, the tax payer and the community? Can the costs of this unaddressed problem be given an estimated dollar figure? Use statistics to back up your claims and cite government documents or published literature wherever possible.

3. Tell a story

The most compelling grant applications tell stories that make the reviewer want to find out how they finish (and they will want to give you money to see how it ends). Ensure that the reader has all the information presented to them in a logical order, so that they can easily follow the story. Explain each concept before moving onto the next and make sure there are no gaps that will leave the reader confused. Don’t assume that your reader is familiar with the nuances of your project.

Outline the big picture: begin with an introduction to the broad topic area that over-arches your project. Then narrow your focus to discuss the problem that your project will address. Simply describing a problem and stating that ‘it is important’ is not sufficient. Provide the reader with sufficient background information so they can easily understand why this issue is so important. Never assume your grant reviewer has in-depth knowledge of your topic. Explain all aspects of the problem and then discuss what is not known, so that the reader has an understanding of what will be needed to solve it.

Gradually weave your research intentions into the story, to show how it fits in. What prior knowledge or relevant expertise do you have? Explain all aspects of the problem and your role in the solution, so the reader can easily see what your project will do and how you aim to solve the problem.

4. Show why you are the best person for the project

Convince the reviewer that you are the best person or team to execute a successful project. What sets you apart from others that have worked in this area? What have you successfully completed in this area? What unique resources or special skills do you have?

Give examples of your previous work or publications where possible. If the project involves developing new skills or techniques, the grant application should explain how you have been successful in developing other skills or techniques in the past.

5. Demonstrate that the project is feasible

The reader should be left with absolute confidence that you can get the work done on time and on budget. Phrases such as “…we have already established…”, “…now that we have found x, we will investigate y” convey momentum and establish feasibility. The grant should drive home the message that the only thing stopping you from completing the project is lack of money.

At the end of the story, tell the reader what will happen next if it is funded. State the expected outcomes of your project. However, if listing additional benefits of the project, ensure that they don’t cloud the original aim. What you are likely to achieve and how this project will solve the problem should be abundantly clear.

6. Use clear and concise language

Clear and concise language is more engaging and compelling than writing that is dry and long-winded. Too many abbreviations can make the text difficult to read, so try to find a balance between readability and any word limits. Defining abbreviations at the beginning of the document and using bold text makes it easier for the reader to revisit the abbreviation if needed.

Avoid jargon (undefined terminology) and overly-complicated language. Define key terms when first mentioned and avoid using different terms for the same thing. Ensure that each sentence is clearly constructed. A good rule of thumb is to ask a colleague or friend to read the application and highlight any sentences that they had to read more than twice.

Thoroughly re-read and revise the application, gradually simplifying the language as you rewrite and edit, without comprising the integrity of your story. Ask an independent person to read the near-final draft to look for spelling or grammatical errors that could interfere with clarity and quality.

© Liza O’Donnell & Marina Hurley 2017

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