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Academic grant writing tips from a pro (and lessons from a rookie)

A grant is a great tool to help you build or enhance your project or program, said Erin Comeaux (the pro), formerly a professional grant writer for Lone Star College System, and now a grants coordinator for Pasadena Independent School District in Pasadena, Texas, and Jennifer Travis (the rookie), a professor of mathematics at Lone Star College-North Harris, during their presentation at the 2016 Conference in San Antonio in June. The two recently partnered to write Travis’ first grant proposal.

“The process of finding, choosing, preparing, researching, and writing a grant proposal is similar to choosing and following a training program to prepare your body for an athletic event,” said Comeaux.

In the best case scenario, they said, your progression would start with your idea, move on to defining your goal (what you want to accomplish), then to choosing your funding source, preparing your proposal, and lastly, to submitting your proposal.

Outline your idea

You’ll probably begin with an idea that is vague and fuzzy, said Comeaux, but write about it every day. Start trying to conceptualize your idea in writing, and as you do that, your vision will gradually be refined. You should eventually have a semi-cohesive one-page summary that includes an overall project goal, objectives, outputs, outcomes and long-term impacts, she said: “They don’t necessarily have to be completely and well fleshed out, but you need to be able to produce this to move forward.”

Jennifer Travis
Jennifer Travis

Travis learned about the one-page summary approach when taking a National Science Foundation (NSF) short course. “One of the NSF program officers said that if you have a question about whether your idea is applicable, you should email the program officer,” said Travis. But he said that if anyone ever emails him with a question, he always asked them to send a one-page summary, she said, because if he couldn’t answer the question himself, he could take it to a colleague. He said it also helped him sort out serious inquiries from non-serious ones.

“So my goal was to make a one-page summary that was logical and clear enough to share so that I would have the option of emailing a program officer with a question,” said Travis. “And it turned out to be useful for other reasons, also. In fact, when I first partnered with Erin, that was what I brought her.” The one-page summary also came in handy when it was time to share her idea with the college administration.

Erin Comeaux
Erin Comeaux

Said Comeaux: “It’s [the one-page summary] much further along than we start with a lot of grant projects. Someone generally approaches you with a very underdeveloped idea, but when Jennifer came with this, we were able to hit the ground running.”

Another great way to shape your idea is to use a logic model, which is sometimes a requirement when applying for some grants (see the Department of Education’s logic model). “It’s a really good place to start when you’re early on with your ideas because if you can’t come with the particular stages of the logic model, you may not be ready to move forward and invest the time and effort into a project,” said Comeaux.

Define your goal

What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to purchase books for underprivileged children? Build a state-of-the-art science lab for your college?

Choose your funding source

Look at all the available funding streams and choose the one that best fits your idea, said Travis: “For example, if you are looking for a science grant, you probably want to look at the National Science Foundation.”

Some tips for choosing the right funding source, said Comeaux:

  • Confirm that your program is the right fit before moving forward. You don’t want to force your grant idea into a funding program that it doesn’t fit. You’re probably going to irritate the funder by doing so.
  • Browse previously funded grant proposals and abstracts. You should be able to go to the funder for a list of prior winning abstracts. Compare what others have done and what’s been funded in the past to get an idea of whether your project would be funded.
  • Determine your eligibility. Some funding programs have very strict guidelines. For example, the Department of Education’s Hispanic-Serving Institution Program requires that a certain percentage of the students served are hispanic.
  • Network at conferences. Reach out to colleagues at other institutions who have successfully obtained funding for programs similar to your idea. If you can connect with the principal investigators of programs funded by the same funding source you are pursuing, their advice is incredibly valuable. (The principal investigator is a common term for the person who runs an institution’s grant-funded program.)

Prepare your proposal

Funders will generally give you 30 to 60 days to produce a proposal, which can be up to 100-plus pages, said Comeaux. A tip for completing it in that timeframe: Utilize the resources available. “Ask for assistance from your institution, especially if it has a grants department, ” she said. “See if your analytics and institutional resources department has data on students that you might use. But allow sufficient time to gather those resources.”

You need to do several other things before you can submit your proposal, say Comeaux and Travis, including:

Assemble your team and equipment. Who will you need to write a competitive grant proposal and then operate it after it’s awarded? If your grant proposal gets funded you need someone to actually operate the grant.

Recruit an external evaluator. Funders will want you to have an outside person to come in and ensure your program is on track. Recruit a community partner to serve this role.

Solicit institutional commitment. Is your institution willing to give you space to run/offer your program? Will they offer student workers to help you operate it? Can you use your institution’s accounting department to track the money? If you can demonstrate this, it shows that your institution is supporting your project.

Learn the rules. Closely and repeatedly read the Request for Proposal (RFP). “If you don’t know the rules of your RFP, you’re probably going to get kicked out before the reviewer ever reads it because you forgot to put it in the right font,” said Comeaux. “It gets that difficult.”

Develop a requirements matrix. This is a chart that keeps track of what the requirement is, where it is, who’s going to take care of it when it needs to be taken care of, etc. “When you have 100 pages of instruction, you need some sort of chart to make sure you’re hitting all those instructions,” said Comeaux. View a sample requirements matrix in TAA’s Templates & Samples Resource Library (members only).

Write the proposal. Once you know the rules, you can get started with the bulk of the writing. The proposal includes several sections, including a justification or need for the project (“Why do you need this program?”), goals and objectives (“What are you going to improve and what will be the measurable outcomes?”), activities and program design (“How are going to do this and how will the program be implemented?”), and project management (“How are you going to operate and manage this program?”). It also includes an evaluation and budget section, and supporting documents, such as the CVs of those involved in the program or project, or a data management plan. The RFP will detail all of the mandatory supporting documents that you will need to gather.

“When writing, I generally print out or copy and paste the proposal instructions exactly as they are, then start to break out each clause and each section of those instructions into a section of different narrative, and then answer one clause at a time,” said Comeaux.

Make it reviewer friendly, by adding figures and tables and using bold and italics to highlight major points, she said: “Some poor schmuck has to read six of these in a day — 100 pages of possibly pretty dry academic writing — so you want to make liberal use of figures and tables if you can, break up the walls of the text, which also saves space.” Academics get told often not to bold or italicize text, said Comeaux, but for this world, “bold is your friend. If you’ve got a reviewer who is on his fifth review of the day and you bold something, he’s going to read that.”

Solicit feedback from experts and non-experts, said Travis: “There are a lot things anybody can give feedback on, like, ‘Is this clear?’ ‘Can you see what we’re doing?’ But you can also go to special experts, like the principal investigator of a successful proposal in your funding stream.” Wait until it is pretty complete and schedule a time that you can send it to them with a specific deadline for feedback, she said.

Keep good records of each step that you go through in the process, said Comeaux. It may in some instances be six months before you look at the plan again and launch the project, you want to keep a good record of your reasoning and logic behind everything you did.

Submit your proposal

In preparation for submitting your proposal, be sure you assemble all the pieces of your proposal package, said Comeaux, which can grow to be quite huge. Determine in advance how long your institution typically takes to approve grant proposals for submission. “Be sure to build that time in so you’re not waiting at the last minute stalking people to get them to sign off on your proposal,” she said.

Some pro-tips from Comeaux:

  • Double-check your formatting. It’s always good to print and read it on paper. It allows you to see the mistakes that you may not see on a computer screen
  • Double-check the RFP (Request for Proposal) against your requirements matrix. Be sure the proposal is in the correct font and has the correct margins, because if it isn’t, it will go in the trash.
  • Submit at least one business day before it is due. Almost all proposals are submitted through a web portal, and they don’t always work the way they are supposed to, especially when it’s overloaded with 200 people all trying to submit their proposals. Log into the system ahead of time and familiarize yourself with it and any other requirements that weren’t in the paper version.

After you submit, it could take up to six months to hear back from the funder, said Comeaux: “And your notice could come within weeks of your start date, so be prepared in case the notice says, ‘We’re going to give you this money, but we need you to start this in two weeks.’ Your proposal will become your rule book for the life of the project so keep a copy of it; dog ear a copy, put labels on it, whatever you need to do so that you find everything.”

Be prepared for rejection, said Travis: “Realize that lots of people get rejected. That’s a normal part of the process.” If your proposal is rejected, she said, you can learn from the reviewers’ feedback and make it better the next time you submit.