How to Create an Outstanding Grant Application


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Are you considering applying for a grant to support a project that isn't in your or your employer's budget? Engineers often seek funds to pursue a new program, technique or device–and results of successful projects surround us every day.

The biggest factor in a funder's decision is the value and importance of the work being proposed. But another crucial element is far more subtle: the way the proposal presents all the details to the funding source. Grant-writing is a very specific type of communication. Here are some guidelines to help you prepare a strong grant submission.

  • Use simple, clear language. Most decision-makers are reading a lot of grant applications. Yours will stand out if it's easy to understand. You will probably include some technical terms, but all the wording around them should be in plain language. Try to minimize your use of engineering "jargon."
  • Keep a strong, sharp focus on your project's goals. Practice describing it out loud until you can explain it briefly, but vividly, to a non-engineer. Once you reach that level of clarity, your proposal already has an advantage.
  • Remember who your readers will be. Grantmakers are not familiar with your idea until you explain it to them in your proposal. Make it easy to follow not only the work you'll be doing, but why they should award you the funds. Describe the potential benefits of your project so that funders see its value, whether that's within the science area, or for consumers, or both.
  • Be unique. Talk about how your project is different from others, and how your distinctive experience and qualifications make you and your team the most appropriate engineers to fulfill the goals of the project you propose.

Give Yourself Lead Time

Writing is the final step of a long process for developing a winning grant proposal. Before you start writing, do your homework. Thorough, thoughtful preparation will increase your chances for securing the funding.

Give yourself plenty of lead time, urges Beth Schachter, PhD, who trains scientists in proposal-writing. Many people assume they can write a proposal in a few weeks. If you want to write a successful one, though, "Start thinking about your proposal nine to twelve months before the deadline," says Schachter, president of Beth Schachter Consulting in New York City.

Make sure that your proposal matches the goals of the specific grantmaker. "If your project doesn't further the mission of that funding agency, the organization has no reason to give you money," says Schachter. To learn about what this funder has supported, study the mission statement on their website.

Get Early Feedback

"Study the criteria the funding agency uses to assess a proposal," Schachter advises. "Then, shape your proposal so readers can see that you've addressed their criteria. NSF reviewers look for two general criteria: scientific merit and broader impact." Try to talk to one or more previous grant-winners about how they addressed the review criteria of the organization that funded their work.

Once you've gathered all the basic information about the funding source, make a detailed outline of the facts you want to include, before you start writing. That will help you organize the material so you can choose the most effective information to include, or omit. Many funders have a specific format that grant applicants need to follow, so be sure to check for any guidelines on their website.

"Don't let the reviewers be the first people to read your proposal," Schachter stresses. Allow time for feedback from colleagues and mentors, and additional time for you to follow their suggestions to strengthen your proposal. Ideally, ask someone who's had success with this funding source to review your proposal. Approach at least one professional who's in a somewhat different field, because all the decision-makers may not be mechanical engineers.

If you plan your strategy as carefully as you plan your project, your proposal has the greatest possible chance for success. Good luck!

Carol Milano is an independent writer.

Make sure that your proposal matches the goals of the specific grantmaker.

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August 2012

by Carol Milano, ASME.org