How to write a grant proposal: tricks I learnt

Summary

  • Grants are made available by funding bodies like government departments, large companies, charities and trusts.
  • A grant proposal is a written document submitted to a funding body to request a grant to fund activities or a project.
  • In academia, consult your Research Support team for funding advice and visit Research Professional to view funding opportunities. Use the UK government website for guidance on funding opportunities for businesses.
  • Funding bodies publish a call that advertises societal challenges and invites experts in the field to submit grant proposals.
  • Word clouds can be useful in identifying keywords in the call text that need to be focused on in the grant proposal.
  • Get your hands on past successful grant proposals to help guide you through writing your own.
  • Remember that you will likely face stiff opposition, so try your best to make your grant proposal sound and cost-effective.
  • In the event of success, great! Just always be willing to be flexible with the demands of the funding body.
  • If you’re not successful, don’t despair. Get back on your horse and take that criticism and use it to build another stronger grant proposal.

Introduction

The definition

Let’s begin by defining a grant and then a grant proposal. A grant is a specified sum of money made available to grant recipients for the purpose of carrying out a project. Grants are typically issued by funding bodies such as a government department, large company, charitable organisation or trust. A grant proposal is a document written and submitted to one of these funding bodies to request a grant. Now, each funding body has its own set of objectives and criteria for issuing grants. So, it’s imperative that applicants tailor their grant proposal to demonstrate how they intend to fulfil these objectives and address each criterion.

The approach

Much like a job application, you wouldn’t normally put one together for some fictitious role and then search for a vacancy that matches your application form. You’d browse applicable job vacancies and then tailor your application to show how you’d meet the essential and desirable criteria.

A similar approach is used when putting together a grant proposal. You begin by shortlisting the most relevant funding bodies for your proposed idea. Once you’ve got this list of funding bodies you can visit their respective websites to find out what topics can be funded, how much funding is available and when the submission deadline is. This is so important because without this key information you cannot put together a solid grant proposal. If you’re in academia in the UK, I’d suggest visiting the Research Professional website. Alternatively, you can just consult your Research Support team. However, if you’re not in an academic setting you could always search online for funding opportunities. In the UK, the government website is always a good place to start.

The call for grant proposals

It may seem pretty obvious, but you want to base your grant proposal around themes and topics that funding bodies are aiming to fund. I’ll use an example of a funding body like the European Commission (EC). Now, the EC will identify societal issues that need addressing and put together a list of these problems categorised into themes or topics which they want solving. Throughout the course of the year, the EC will publish calls for grant proposals advertising the problem to be solved to experts across the EU. A call will contain information on a particular topic like:

  • A description of the challenge in more detail.
  • Objectives that need to be accomplished.
  • The amount of money available for a project (budget).
  • Project duration.
  • Submission deadline.

The consortium

It’s possible that you will be working as part of a large team. Perhaps the team may span many companies, institutions and universities which is known as a consortium. Based on the nature of the call, you should be able to assemble a formidable team or consortium that bring to the plate the necessary skills and experience that will effectively solve the problem put forth by the funding body.

Know your budget

Pay particular attention to the project budget available for your proposed project as this will dictate how large your team/consortium can be and what activities you can realistically afford to undertake. I have witnessed projects that were so underfunded that there was insufficient money to pay the project coordinator for the whole duration of the project. This can be fatal to the project

The project duration is key too. Alongside project budget, you can make valid estimations of your direct and indirect costs and better understand how many people you can afford to pay to work on and deliver such a project.

Make the most of your time

Grant proposal writing is a project in and of itself. Imagine, it’s a project to write a grant proposal to secure money for a project. Something I learnt in my time in industry: take the deadline and work back from that date to plan your tasks. For example, if the deadline is three months away you can start by dividing that time up to assign to vital tasks. For instance, you want to leave a couple of weeks before the deadline to review and revise your grant proposal. Allow your first two weeks for assembling your team or consortium. Now you have around 2 months in between that you can dedicate to writing the grant proposal splitting. This time can be split between the various sections like abstract, introduction, literature review, work plan and so on.

Be methodical and organised. One thing I remember learning in project management is that you have three key resources to contend with: time, money and men. When writing a grant proposal, the submission deadline is fixed and doesn’t move. Once time passes, it won’t return so it is critical to use it as effectively as possible.

The grant proposal

So, in this example, the EC has outlined the requirements for obtaining the grant within the call. The information residing in the call will help you to write that solid grant proposal. Now, before starting the monumental task of writing the grant proposal see if you can get your hands on past successful grant proposals. These gems will form the blueprint and model for your own grant proposal. Some funding bodies may make these past grant proposals available to new applicants. Also, you could ask one of your colleagues for copies of their successful grant proposals. The more of these you can get into your possession the better your chances of success. Study these grant proposals paying particular attention to the language, the presentation of data, the work plan and so forth.

If you’re not fortunate enough to get your hands on past successful grant proposals, don’t despair! The key in this instance is to not go at it alone and seek the advice of a more experienced colleague for guidance where needed.

The way I’d approach writing a grant proposal

As a disclaimer, my approach isn’t the only way to prepare a successful grant proposal. My method is something that I have tried and tested and seen measured success. On to my approach.

If it’s your first time writing a grant proposal, or maybe you already have the experience, I’d highly recommend studying past successful grant proposals for inspiration. If you can’t find such grant proposals for your targeted funding body, then do an online search for past grant proposals sent off to other funding bodies as a last resort as they will still have some value and relevance.

The power of the cloud

The call text is your guide. It will help you build and flesh out the fundamental parts of the grant proposal. Of course, your grant proposal will need to address the points mentioned in the call. A handy tool I’ve used previously is a word cloud. Simply copy and paste the call text into a word cloud generator to see which keywords appear most frequently. I like to use the generator at www.jasondavies.com/wordcloud, no affiliation here, I just prefer this one but go ahead and use others if you wish.

Why am I bringing up word clouds? Put yourself in the shoes of the person or people assessing your submitted grant proposal, let’s call them evaluators. Usually, evaluators will assess your grant proposal against the call text to better understand if the applicants have adequately addressed the scope of the call. A word cloud enables you to see what keywords are important to the funding body and hints at what to focus most on in the grant proposal. Have a look at the example in Figure 1.

Word clouds can be extremely useful in writing a good grant proposals.
Figure 1 A word cloud is a really effective tool in highlighting keywords within the body of the text.

Get writing: breaking down each part of the grant proposal

So, now you have witnessed the power of a word cloud, you can start work on the first draft of your grant proposal. A word of warning: your grant proposal will more than likely go through several iterations and versions. This is perfectly normal, especially when there can be so many individuals involved in the grant proposal writing process. In the example of the EC, I was able to download a grant proposal template that contained instructions for each section. This template will be your foundation from which you will build that solid grant proposal. The following is a general idea of what parts can make up a grant proposal, so they may vary in minor ways depending on the funding body.

Project title

At the start of the grant proposal, you will need to pick an eye-catching title or project name. This could be an acronym or a play on words just let your imagination do the work here, but keep it simple and sensible.

Abstract

Next is the abstract, this will be written last as the content of your grant proposal is liable to change many times by the end. The abstract is probably the most read section of the grant proposal and it will crystallise all of the key elements. By now, you’ve probably familiarised yourself with abstracts. If not, then I highly recommend reading the various abstracts for different grant proposals, articles and the like. In short, they tend to be 200-300 words in length and outline the contents of your grant proposal.

Introduction

Now you’ve identified the many keywords in the call, begin to flesh out the introduction, aims, objectives, project delivery and so on. It’s critical to address all if not as many as the points found in the call. Remember, the evaluators will be assessing your grant proposal against the call’s criteria.

Literature review

The literature review can be quite lengthy, but it represents your knowledge of the area of interest and gives you a chance to critically discuss the past and present findings. By doing this, you essentially provide a concise history of the field and present the lay of the land. Moreover, you can expose gaps in knowledge or problems yet to be solved, which you as the expert intend to address. My advice: visit Google Scholar and search for review articles using appropriate keywords and key phrases that relate to your mission. I suggest using review articles published in high-impact factor journals that have a relatively large number of citations. Another handy tip is to then refer to the publications found in the review article’s references section to further branch your review out.

Research/Experimental data

If the nature of your proposed project involves research or experimental work then it may be worthwhile including current data to support your case for your work. This data can be sourced from published or unpublished work that you may have and will help to substantiate and cement any claims or arguments that you present in your grant proposal. If you can use data that you have previously published to demonstrate the need for future work, then great. Published work typically undergoes intense scrutiny during the peer review process and can add the needed weight and credibility.

Work plan

So far, you’ve made a series of aims that you want to achieve, but how exactly do you plan on doing this? That’s what every evaluator wants to know. Referring back to the call, you are now familiar with the stated objectives so time to come up with a plan that will span the advertised project duration and will fall within the allocated budget.

Create objectives and associated tasks

Take each objective in turn and ask yourself ‘how would I go about completing this?’ You will then find that you come up with a list of tasks. Now for each task, you must decide realistically how long this would take to complete. A particular task may take days, weeks, months or longer to complete, but ask yourself ‘how long would it take me?’ This may seem highly subjective. It is, however you can have others review your plan for scrutiny. You will then need to get an idea of how many man-days, man-weeks or man-months will be necessary to complete each task. A man-day is one person’s labour time for a single day used to complete a given task. This concept will be addressed later in the context of the budget.

Form the work packages

Once you have systematically gone through assigning suitable tasks to each objective you can begin forming your work packages. Work packages are like sub-projects within the overall project. Essentially, you group all related tasks into a work package, have a look at Figure 2 to get an idea of the big picture. You can get some idea of how work packages fit into the grand scheme of things. Note that for each work package, a list of objectives and a description of the intended work is spelt out. I’d recommend assigning a work package leader for each work package from your team or consortium. Work package leaders will be in charge of managing tasks for their particular work package and will normally report to the project coordinator. The project coordinator will be responsible for overseeing the entire project.

Each task within a work package can be delegated to one or more participant and deliverables can be assigned to an individual participant for a timely delivery. You can go even further and specify how many man-days/weeks/months each participant will allocate to each work package.

What are your deliverables?

Often times, you can attach deliverables to some or all tasks within a work package by a specified date. To clarify, deliverables are outputs that are the outcome of certain project activities and may include writing a report, designing a website or building a prototype. Make sure that these are realistic and achievable as they will be a metric to assess the success of your project. Then, you have milestones which are not necessarily tangible items but are more like checkpoints set throughout the course of the project duration. Examples of milestones could be the kick-off meeting, wrap-up meeting, successful completion of a trial for a prototype or the sale of a certain number of products.

An illustration that depicts a work plan template that can be used in a grant proposal.
Figure 2 A visual representation of all the key components of a project. Here, you are able to see how a project is divided into work packages which in turn are divided into tasks that have deliverables and milestones associated with them.

Make the Gantt chart

Now you’ve identified all of your tasks, deliverables and milestones and you’ve bundled them into work packages, how do you now display everything comprehensively into one graphic to present to the evaluators? Well, one of my preferred ways is to use the trusty Gantt chart like the one shown in Figure 3.

The Gantt chart in Figure 3 is a very simplistic one based on a two-year project using the information shown in Figure 2. This is to show you how Figure 2 can be represented as a Gantt chart. The Gantt chart in Figure 3 essentially shows the duration of each work package and associated tasks. The months in which deliverables and milestones are due throughout the course of the two-year project are also shown. These durations and deadlines shown in Figure 3 are arbitrary since the nature of the project and objectives have not been defined and are more of an example to go by. You can use all sorts of software to create your Gantt chart, but I used Microsoft Excel to create mine.

An example of a Gantt chart that be used in the work plan of a grant proposal.
Figure 3 A very simple example of a Gantt chart based on the project shown in Figure 2. Here, you get to see the various elements of a project represented in chart form including the work package (WP) duration, task duration as well as the deliverable and milestone deadlines.

Risky business

You have gone through the trouble of fleshing out a robust work plan, but what if things go wrong? What kind of problems do you anticipate? What kind of contingency plans will you have in place to tackle such problems? How do you evaluate and measure the progress of your project? All of these are likely to cross your mind and will absolutely be entering the thoughts of the evaluators. So, it’s quite important to explain what you will do. Your natural inclination is to find a different way to your destination. One that will ideally get you there without compromising too much on time and cost.

Make a contingency plan

During the final year of my PhD, the one piece of equipment that was central to my research was damaged and out of use. At the time, I felt like this was a catastrophe, but I quickly gathered myself together and devised new experiments to perform on a different piece of equipment to report in my thesis.

It’s all about finding an alternative route. You’re travelling from A to B and you are faced with road closures. Naturally, you’ll have to find another way. So, you may face such a challenge in a project that is dependent on various equipment and/or machinery that are integral to the success of the project. But, perhaps in some unforeseen circumstances, the kit is inaccessible for a long period or is broken. This is a very real possibility, so it’s worthwhile having access to alternative backups to ensure the continuation of the project. Another example is that you may not be able to procure certain resources or raw materials that are key to your project. It’s always handy to have a list of different suppliers that can provide the same stuff or, at the very least, something very similar.

Measure your progress

You need to find ways to gauge your progress towards achieving certain objectives. So, you need some form of an indicator and the type of indicator will depend on the goal you are trying to accomplish and then you need some form of a protocol to remedy a problem.

For example, one of your objectives could be to perform 200 trials of your prototype. You then carry out the task of trialling 200 of your prototypes with a certain target audience in order to receive consumer feedback. Your indicator, in this case, would be the number of successful trials. You find that the deliverable deadline for this particular task is fast approaching and you only have 100 trials completed. What do you do? There are various things you can do, it may be that one of your protocols is to invest more into marketing the trials to your target audience through various channels like social media, online advertisements and so on. Or, you may find that you need to offer an incentive to your target audience in the form of a store discount, gift voucher or just straight up paying them for their time.

Of course, the evaluators would want to see such precautions as it will demonstrate that you have put a lot of thought into your plan and have a plan B or even C on standby.

Dissemination

A good strategy should be devised to share the key findings and information discovered during the project with the community at large. But it’s essential to check whether your chosen funding body wishes to have the new discoveries disclosed to the public. Nevertheless, there does exist a myriad of dissemination channels that you can exploit like:

  • press releases,
  • a project website,
  • newsletters,
  • social media pages,
  • outreach activities,
  • conference presentations,
  • and open access publications.

Budget

The costing of your project is absolutely one of the most crucial features of your grant proposal. You may have a robust grant proposal, but if it costs more than what is on offer by the funding body then you’ll have a tough time convincing the evaluators that you are the one for the job. Too little, and you risk bringing your plan into question. However, you must come up with a figure that is fully justified and determined accurately to improve your chances of success. I was fortunate enough to have access to a finance team that would be responsible for crunching the numbers, but you must provide them with the correct data.

How many man-months will you need?

This brings us back to the concept of man-months. A man-day was previously defined, but for clarity, a man-month is an individual’s labour time for a working month used to complete a specific task. At this stage, you should have a work plan in place where you have determined the total man-months for your proposed project. You also should have an idea of how many man-months each participant from your team/consortium will be contributing.

So, to get a total costing of your project, you must find out how much each of your participants charge per man-month and attempt to come up with a best estimate of costs for personnel, consumables, equipment, travel and so forth. This will give you an estimate for your direct costs. Then you can go ahead and estimate your project indirect costs, which may primarily be overheads. Your finance team may use a percentage of the personnel cost or total direct costs to calculate a figure for the overheads.

If all of this financial-speak seems alien, which is understandable, I recommend checking out Investopedia to define all of the aforementioned terms.

Example budget table

Table 1 is a budget table using example figures to help give you an idea of how costing is done. Based off of how much each participant charges per man-month you can compute their associated personnel cost. In this scenario, Participant 3 requires 5,000 GBP for consumables and 10,000 GBP for equipment costs in order to carry out their assigned project duties and will be included in the direct costs. You may even allocate 5,000 GBP to each participant for travel costs to attend project meetings throughout the duration of the entire project.

In Table 1, the overhead cost was determined by taking 50% of the total direct costs. So, in the case of Participant 3 the overhead cost was determined like so: (63,000 + 5,000 + 10,000 + 5,000) × 50% = 41,500 GBP. Therefore, combining the direct and indirect costs for Participant 3 you get a total of 124,500 GBP. To arrive at the total cost of the project, simply sum the totals of each participant which in this case is 458,250 GBP. Now, if the funding body is advertising in the call that 500,000 GBP is up for grabs then great! But, what if only 350,000 GBP is made available? Now all of a sudden, your project is too expensive. There are a few things you can do:

  • You can reduce the number of man-months for certain participants, but be sure that this won’t jeopardise the outcome of the tasks and activities they are responsible for.
  • You can no longer include one or more participants in the project, but that could risk over-burdening the remaining participants with extra tasks.
  • You can request additional funding from the funding body; however, this can be risky particularly if there are competing consortia that can do the job for less money.

Cost everything wisely

Ideally, you want to plan and cost your project sensibly to boost your chances of winning the grant. Your best bet is to propose to do the work for the advertised sum or a little less if possible.

Table 1 A basic example of a budget table used for costing up a project. Personnel, consumables, equipment and travel are direct costs whereas overheads are considered indirect costs here.

  Man-months GBP/Man-month Personnel (GBP) Consumables (GBP) Equipment (GBP) Travel (GBP) Overheads (GBP) Total (GBP)
Participant 1 20 5,000 100,000 0 0 5,000 52,500 157,500
Participant 2 15 4,500 67,500 0 0 5,000 36,250 108,750
Participant 3 12 5,250 63,000 5,000 10,000 5,000 41,500 124,500
Participant 4 10 4,000 40,000 0 0 5,000 22,500 67,500
              Total (GBP) 458,250

Consortium participants

This part of the grant proposal is where you insert the names of all participants along with their relevant experience and qualifications. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you have assembled a solid team capable of executing the plan and achieving success. Remember, you need to instil confidence into the evaluators and funding body demonstrating that you are able to complete your project and ultimately solve a major problem and that you’re the best people for the job.

Appendices

Just like any appendix, in this section, you can include supplementary content to support your grant proposal such as tables, graphs, charts, legal documents, letters of support and so on.

Review of the grant proposal

Once you have your first draft done, send it to a trusted qualified few to review and scrutinise your grant proposal. If you struggle with expressing yourself on paper, it may be worth consulting an English language editor or an experienced grant proposal writer to help boost your chances of success. It cannot be overstated how important it is to leave sufficient time to receive critical feedback on your grant proposal and then additional time to implement the changes. So, you may need to reserve a few weeks for this process. This critical process could make the difference between success and failure so do make sure this is done well.

Submit your grant proposal

You likely have an idea of the submission deadline in mind, but it’s always a good move to visit the online submission portal at least once prior to submission in order to get familiar with the website and the whole submission process. It can be nerve-racking to visit the submission portal for the first time 30 minutes before the deadline as that’s when panic sets in. Really plan and manage your time effectively. The last thing you want is to run out of time while uploading the last few bits. My advice is to try and find out when the key submission deadlines in the following year are and give yourself too much time to prepare and maybe a bit extra. It always ends up being just the right amount somehow.

The decision on your grant proposal

Getting a decision can take months, so use that time to get other stuff done. But I understand. In the back of your mind, you’ll be wondering about the outcome. It’s natural. Usually, you will receive an email from the funding body with the decision: success or rejection.

Success!

Congratulations! All that hard work paid off. Typically, you will be notified via email by the funding body of the good news. I have previously received an evaluation summary report from the EC that detailed how my grant proposal was scored by the evaluators. The identity of the evaluators remained anonymous and they scored my grant proposal on three criteria: excellence, impact and quality and efficiency of the implementation. Each criterion is scored out of 5 and a total score out of 15 is given by the evaluators where the applicants must score over the threshold of 10 to be considered.

Take this opportunity to thank the funding body for the award as you will now embark on a new and exciting journey. The funding body may require you to enter into a grant agreement that requires a signature from all parties. I won’t go into too many specifics as this is out of the scope of this blog, but you can always consult the funding body on what to do next.

Once you’ve received payment of the grant you can, of course, begin work. However, always be willing to be flexible. The funding body may be liable to make changes to deadlines, methodologies and even budget so be open to adjusting your activities accordingly. Cooperating in this manner will help to establish a good rapport with the funding body which could help with future grant applications.

Rejection

This is never easy. Writing a grant proposal is a full-time job and can be disheartening when you aren’t successful. In such an eventuality you may be notified again with some form of an evaluation summary report. If not, ask for feedback. This is invaluable, so use this as a guide to improve future grant proposals. It may be that the evaluators love your grant proposal, but funding ran out in which case you could consider resubmitting during the next funding cycle. Try to stay positive and keep any interactions with the funding body following the unfortunate outcome cordial as you may apply again in the not too distant future. Get back on the horse and see if you can rebuild your grant proposal for resubmission following meticulous improvements.

What do you think?

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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