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Prolific grant writer shares his advice on landing grants

The key element in grant writing is attitude, said Kenneth Henson, distinguished professor at the Citadel’s School of Education, and author of a new book by Allyn & Bacon, Grant Writing in Higher Education: A Step-by-Step Guide. “You have to believe that you can take it as far as you want to as long as you’re willing to work hard,” said Henson. “If you don’t have a belief in your ability to succeed, it’s not going to happen.”

Henson, whose grant writing has brought in more than $100 million, said that pursing grant writing in an organized, controlled way will eventually lead to success. Start with your goals, he said. Decide where you are going professionally and then choose grant topics that will get you there. Identify the people who will be making decisions on your tenure and then go after those projects important to those people in their decision making, said Henson. For example, Henson’s first grant was based on a statement he overheard about 85 percent of physics teachers working out of field. He wrote a grant that would provide summer seminars to help teachers gain certification as physics teachers. The grant was not only funded once, it was refunded several times.

“When you get a grant, you want to get it refunded and refunded,” he said. “It’s not only easier to get the second and third grants, it looks good to those whom you are requesting additional funding.”

Henson shares some of the lessons he learned from his first grant:

  • Do it yourself. It might not get done if you don’t do it yourself.
  • You’ve got to do it. Don’t talk about it, do it.
  • Be flexible. Don’t be rigid with your project. If you see another possibility during your meeting with the proposal reviewers, go with it.

“Grant proposal reviewers look for unique features,” he said. “Include something in your grant that is different.” For example, when he wrote his second grant proposal for the summer seminars, Henson said that if the grantor gave him a car and gas money, he would visit the teachers who took the summer seminars every fall to see how they were using what they learned in the classroom. “The reviewers look at this as ‘he’s doing all this and then wants to visit these teachers in the fall?’ I just wanted to see the results of my work. I asked the teachers all the same questions (‘What did you bring back from last summer’s institute and use?’ and ‘What might the institute have offered that you could have used?’) and I used their answers to write the next year’s proposal.”

There are a whole lot of inexperienced people out there writing grant proposals, said Henson, yet there are also a lot of opportunities for grants. “So if you have some knowledge of grant writing, you can have success,” he said. “You can be as successful as you’re willing to work to be.”

Kenneth Henson a Fulbright Scholar and a National Science Foundation Scholar, has written and co-authored more than 300 national publications. His 50-plus books include five books on writing for publication and two 
Phi Delta Kappa fastbacks (monographs) on this topic.