Writing a grant proposal and moving it through the appropriate system, from agency receipt to review and award (or rejection), can seem confusing and daunting. However, like digesting that juicy hamburger you ate for lunch, writing a proposal and moving it through the system is a complex process made up of a series of simple steps.
Step 1: the teeth
Grant digestion begins here. In order to write a successful grant proposal, you really have to “sink your teeth” into it. Teeth tear and crush food into small enough pieces so that they can fit down our throats. As a grant writer, it’s your job to break your ideas (goals and objectives) down into small enough pieces that most anyone who reads your proposal will be able to understand and replicate it.
When masticating your grant proposal, it’s important to remember that goals are generally broad, qualitative statements about an ideal or hoped-for-state. For example, it may be the goal of your research or project to address childhood obesity in your community.
Objectives, on the other hand, are specific, achievable, tangible, and measureable steps you plan to take toward accomplishing the stated goals. They define your methods. For the goal of addressing childhood obesity, sample objectives may be to:
- Increase physical activity levels during school hours to 30-minutes per day
- Replace high-calorie, low-nutrient cafeteria offerings with nutrient-dense offerings that contain, per serving, at least 5g of protein, fewer than 20g of carbohydrates, and fewer than 3g of saturated fat
- Reduce obesity rates among local elementary and middle school children by 6% Objectives should flow organically from goals, and both should be based on the need or problem statement.
It is of utmost importance that you define the problem to be addressed and support why it’s a problem that deserves attention – your attention in the form of research and the agency’s attention in terms of funding. For example, your background research might show that:
- Unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity have been shown to contribute to type 2 diabetes;
- Recent statistics show that occurrences of type 2 diabetes are on the rise in the target population and are double what they were ten years ago; and
- Body Mass Indices for local elementary and middle school children show that 33% of the local youth are overweight or obese.
Step 2: the salivary glands and tongue
The salivary glands are located on the underneath, backside of our tongue. They create saliva, which contains chemicals that begin breaking down the food into even smaller bits than our teeth can manage. Along with the tongue, saliva works to ensure we have a ball of food that can be easily swallowed. In addition, the tongue contains glands we call taste buds that help us identify palatable or unpalatable tastes such as sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
As writer, it is your job to ensure you have a proposal that is relevant, understandable, and palatable. If the mission of a funding agency does not align with your goals and objectives, if reviewers cannot understand your proposal, or if reviewers find it unpalatable, the agency may end up spitting it out rather than swallowing it. This is what is referred to in the grants world as “returned without review.” A proposal may be returned without review – or reviewed and not funded – because it did not meet the review criteria or follow the proper agency guidelines. It is important that you read, understand, and follow all program guidelines when preparing a proposal.
It is also important that your proposal is palatable in that it fits with the mission of the funding agency. For example, you might not want to solicit Hostess or the makers of Little Debbie for funding on childhood obesity. Instead, seek funding sources whose mission aligns with your project’s goals and objectives. A quick Google search revealed the following sources of potential funding for preventing childhood obesity:
- American Heart Association
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- Children’s Obesity Fund
- Several local, community foundations and programs that have a vested interest in the prevention of childhood obesity
Step 3: the esophagus
The esophagus is the transportation tube from the mouth to the stomach. In the grant world, the esophagus can be likened to the U.S. Postal Service or FEDEX/UPS back in the good ol’ days or, more currently, to an electronic submission system (like e-mail or Grants.gov). At Miami University, we are adopting an electronic submission system called eSPA (electronic sponsored programs administration). This system will accommodate electronic routing and submission of proposals. All Federal proposals will be prepared and submitted to the funding agency via eSPA, which checks for errors along the way to ensure that proposals are not regurgitated due to missing or unpalatable pieces. (Stay tuned to the OARS blog for more on the rollout of eSPA, and look for training on our OARS event calendar).
Prior to submitting a proposal, it’s important to ensure it is ready to be delivered (i.e., all the parts are included and have been sufficiently explained, documented, and are well within sponsor and university guidelines). Before swallowing, you must have university review and permission to submit your proposal. This review and approval come from OARS. When in doubt, contact your OARS representative for guidance prior to submitting.
Step 4: the liver, gall bladder, and pancreas
After being delivered to the funding agency, the grant proposal is assigned to a review panel and put through the review process. It’s here where the proposal really gets digested. Many Federal review panels are made up of peer research professionals and specialists in select fields. Proposals are assigned to panels at the discretion of the funding agency. You, as the proposal preparer, can make suggestions as to which panel or panels might be appropriate (or not appropriate) for your particular proposal.
Let’s take a moment to dissect a Federal review panel. We’ll use the NIH (National Institutes of Health) as an example.
For most proposals submitted to the NIH, the first level of review is carried out by a Scientific Review Group (SRG). This group is made up of scientists who have expertise in relevant disciplines. The SRG is lead by a Scientific Review Officer (SRO). This person is typically a staff scientist with the NIH whose job is to:
- Analyze the content of each application, ensuring that it is complete
- Document and manage any reported conflicts of interest
- Recruit qualified reviewers
The SRG then reviews the proposal based on review criteria and scientific merit. Many proposals are given a score and recommendations for funding are made according to the scientific and technical merit of the proposal, the appropriateness of the budget, and other considerations such as use of human or animal participants.
The second level of review is carried out by the Institutes’ or Centers’ National Advisory Council. These councils are made up of people from the scientific community as well as public representatives chosen for their interest and expertise. Councils review the applications, the overall impact scores, the percentile rankings, and the summary statements provided by the review panel. Recommendations for funding are based on:
- Scores, rankings, and summary statements
- Goals and needs of the Institute or Center
- Center or Institute budget
It is the Institute or Center Director who makes the final funding decision based on the Council’s advice.
Step 5: the small intestine
It is in the small intestine that our food is put to use by our bodies. We can liken this point of the process to proposals that have been funded or recommended for funding. At this point, all the hard work put into a proposal has paid off, and the research or project can be implemented.
After a funding decision has been made, the Program Officer of the funding Institute or Center works with their Grants Management Office on budgetary and administrative issues. Typically the Grants Management Office will release the award to an institution, outlining all of the terms, conditions, requirements, and provisions of the award.
Once an award is released, the institution will set up a spending account or grant account. Funds can be accessed using your unique grant number. At Miami, a Grants and Contracts staff member will assist you with post-award spending and financial reporting.
Funds must be spent in accordance with the approved budget and during the timeframe (award period) outlined in the award document for the purpose of conducting the research you proposed when you started this process months and months ago. (Thank goodness that cheeseburger doesn’t take as long to digest!) It is here that you finally feel the full effects of the nutrients you’ve put into your body. And, like with good health and nutrition, the better the input, the better the outcome: high-quality proposals and award administration contribute to grant success just as high-quality foods contribute to nutritional success.
Step 6: the large intestine
What the body cannot use is sent to the large intestine and forced out of the body. In the grant process, this is proposal rejection. There are any number of reasons why a proposal might not be funded, including but not limited to:
- The goals of the proposal did not match the goals of the sponsor
- The proposal did not meet the technical grant requirements (i.e., guidelines were not followed)
- The proposal was full of jargon or otherwise difficult to understand
- The objectives were vague or difficult to measure
- The budget was not in line with the proposal objectives
- Personnel and/or resources to accomplish objectives were inadequate
- Competition was such that it prevented funding of the proposal, even though it was meritorious
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Not every meal results in hunger satisfaction; not every proposal results in funding satisfaction. But just as a snack may fill the void in your stomach, a proposal resubmission may fill the void in your research budget. In fact, data show that chances of proposal success increase for second submissions, as long as the re-submitted proposal is responsive to the previous submission’s reviewer feedback.
Like many complex processes, many factors are involved in grant writing, submission, and administration. This article simplifies some of those factors and skips over others. For the best results, be sure to work with your OARS consultant. They are experienced guides who can help you navigate each and every step, including:
- Finding an appropriate funding source for your research or project
- Locating institutional data required for many proposals
- Creating proposal budgets that comply with sponsor and university guidelines
- Reviewing and submitting proposals
- Communicating with funding agencies
Finally, be sure start early. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day in part because it helps you stay on a virtuous nutritional path throughout the day. (No need for a mid-morning, pick-me-up candy bar if you’ve had a good breakfast!) The same is true for grant proposals: starting the process early helps ensure you have enough time to produce a high-quality proposal that efficiently secures the necessary approvals and gets submitted on time.
Written by Tricia Callahan, Director of Proposal Development, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.
Illustration of digestive system by Gordon Flynn, via Wikimedia Commons. “Grants Cafe” image by Thomas Hawk, via Flickr. Both used under Creative Commons license.