What is ‘grantsmanship’? How strategic thinking improves your chances of success in the grant application process

Sheila Cherry, PhDgrant funding, research success, scientific writingLeave a Comment

In sectors where grant funding provides key support to the research enterprise, grant writing is a valued skill. In fact, training and support for grant writing represents the top service demand for our team at CareerVolt.

In the context of these services, we often emphasize the equal value of “grantsmanship” (which we sometimes refer to as grant crafting or grant smithing*) skills. Yet, this concept seems a little more nebulous to the investigators we train. So, here, I’d like to help you understand what we mean when we refer to this concept and why developing your strategic thinking around applications can go a long way to supporting your grant-writing and grant-seeking efforts.

What is grantsmanship?

Grantsmanship encompasses all of the aspects of the grant-seeking process. What often is unclear to investigators is how grantsmanship differs from grant writing. Well, this is one of those “all squares are rectangles” concepts: all grant writing is grantsmanship, but grantsmanship is not necessarily about the grant writing (or not only about the grant writing).

You might be thinking, “what is there besides the writing?” This is a good question; without the writing, there typically isn’t much of an application to speak of. While some grant opportunities do try to lessen the burden on applicants and program/review individuals alike by reducing the amount of narrative writing involved, the most common and substantial funding opportunities tend to involve a lot of writing.

So, of course, creating a compelling narrative is essential to success in grant applications. Yet, there are many other considerations beyond the narrative that require thoughtful consideration, strategy, and action. These considerations make up the craft of applying for grants; in other words, grantsmanship.

How do we implement grantsmanship skills into our application process?

We could consider almost anything involved in the grant application process to be part of grantsmanship: from the initial spark or idea for a project, to packaging an application that aligns with a funder/funding mission. In my mind, the key is not only in doing these things, but in bringing them together in a cohesive whole that places the application in a strong position. What and how do you approach this?

1. Identify the right funding agency and funding opportunity at the right time

Grant applications typically involve a lot of effort from multiple contributors, from the individuals conducting the actual research (e.g., students generating preliminary data) to the administrative staff who submit the applications, not to mention the principal investigator(s) writing the narrative. You’ll have the best chance of success when you position your application to align with the funder, the award program/mechanism, and at a timing that shows you have the tools, resources, knowledge, and experience to implement your plans. Thus, taking the time to identify and consider this positioning makes it more likely that those monumental efforts will pay off. Look up success rates for specific application types or funders (e.g., NIH Data Book), look at their funded projects (e.g., NIH Reporter, NSF Award Search), and talk to successful applicants to learn about what positioned them to win the grant.

2. Understand how projects and funds fit into your long-term vision

For those who are running research programs, getting a grant is not a “one and done” scenario —you’ll continue to develop and submit applications throughout your research career. Having a long-term vision for what you want to accomplish and what kind of team you will need enables strategic development around when to initiate new projects, when to turn project ideas into grant applications, and when additional funding is needed to keep a line of investigation (and personnel employment) going into the future.

Mapping your vision onto a timeline also helps to plan out application efforts: when and how to repurpose an existing application into multiple funding opportunities, how long before you approach a funding “cliff” that will delay or shut down your project(s), and how many chances you might get at resubmitting an unsuccessful application (along with what you might need to acquire/implement so that a subsequent attempt can be successful).

Plus, sometimes you’ll want to try for an opportunity that has low success rates (e.g., an NIH Director’s Award) but is worth the risk because it is a significant amount and/or prestigious award. Other times, you’ll want to save your efforts for the opportunities that have the best chance of success so that you can implement your plans without delay. A strategic vision allows you to assess these trade-offs more readily to inform when, what, and how to apply.

3. Build relationships with funding agency representatives

Contact agency representatives like Program Directors or Program Officers to get to know them and their perspectives on funding projects and investigators. Often these individuals have scientific/health backgrounds, and are interested to know where research is headed. Tell them who you are and what goals you have for your research and career, toward cultivating a long- term relationship with them. You can also seek their guidance and ask questions. Representatives from major funders often attend scientific conferences; take any opportunity to introduce yourself and ask to meet with them at a future date.

If you have a particular application/project in mind, you can meet with reps to discuss your specific idea and intended application. In this case, we recommend approaching them with a one-page project description (e.g., Specific Aims page) and your biosketch or short CV that they can read in advance. Plan out questions that you have related to eligibility, fit with opportunity/agency/mission, etc., rather than going in and expecting them to lead the conversation. If their program area is not in good alignment with your work, ask them to introduce you to someone in their organization who may have more interest.

Importantly, if you make “cold contact” to an agency rep, don’t give up if you don’t get a response to your initial outreach. Try again after a couple of weeks have passed, in case your message got buried in their inbox.

4. Tailor your project idea to the funder’s mission/purpose/needs

Once you’ve identified the opportunity and talked with the agency rep(s), you’ll have a better idea of what the funder is seeking. You’ll want to use this information as you get to the grant-writing steps. Deploy the funder’s own words in your application where relevant to show alignment with their mission, purpose, and/or needs. Show them the benefit of funding you!

5. Pay attention to everything that accompanies the narrative

Because the research proposal narrative tends to be the heavy lift—and the rest of the application would be irrelevant without the narrative—it is easy to overlook the importance of the other documents that support the application. Even worse, these documents might be left for the last-minute rush, with much less care and attention afforded to them compared to the research narrative.

Yet, the supporting documentation, from technical and lay abstracts to budgets, equipment, and management plans help reviewers to understand the likelihood that the proposed work will achieve its intended objectives. Sloppy, rushed, or incomplete/missing documents do not foster the perception of credibility. More than this, the supporting documents often provide additional opportunities to persuade reviewers about the potential impact of the work and the robustness of the plans. Where possible (i.e., assess specific funders’ guidelines about what types of information can go in a given document), use these spaces to underscore that you can and/or should do the proposed work.

6. Know your audience

Any good, effective communication starts from a place of understanding how to engage with the audience and meet its needs. In the context of a grantsmanship, this means that your writing is informed by an understanding of what it takes to be successful. Most applications undergo a multi-step process that the funding agency uses to select awardees; familiarize yourself with this process.

Many funders describe the application and award process when they solicit applications. If you cannot find that information online, consider asking the funding agency rep about this process when you meet with them. What happens with the application once it leaves your hands? Who is going to be assessing its merits? Who makes the final funding decisions? Is there a way for you to influence who is part of the review?

For the NIH, for example, you can put your project title and abstract or aims page into the Assisted Referral Tool to get suggestions for the review panel most likely to consider your application, and look up the names of individuals who have served on the panel(s). For some funders or funding opportunities, the cover letter provides an opportunity to suggest potential reviewers or, if warranted, e.g., by reviewer conflict or bias, request that an individual be excluded from the list of potential reviewers. Check funder guidelines and recognize that, even if you do make requests related to review, the agency may not honor those requests.

More important, prepare an application that meets the needs of reviewers by writing simply (not overloaded with technical jargon and long, fancy sentences) and answering questions before they can ask them.

7. Craft a cohesive application that emphasizes the strengths of the idea, the plan, the people, and the resources available

This point is related to tip number 5, yet it encompasses a larger point. One issue we see with applications is that, while the investigators may have taken some time and care to assemble the supporting documents, they have neglected to tailor the documents to the specific project proposal.

Documents like biosketches, facilities/environment, budget justifications, etc., should not be cloned for multiple different proposals. While it is certainly fine to start with a copy and paste version, to be most effective, you’ll want to make sure that each component of the application is specific to the proposed work. Weave key concepts and points throughout multiple components. Ensure that any statements or items specific a past proposal are not erroneously retained for a new purpose (don’t rely on your memory because it will betray you every time, and especially during times of stress; re-read carefully and revise accordingly). Doing these things will make each document feel as though it was crafted from scratch for the current application.

Remember that grantsmanship is a craft, and like all crafts, it takes time, patience, and practice to improve. Learn, implement, and refine as you go, and you’ll get there eventually.

*Note: “Grantsmanship” can be viewed as a gendered or exclusionary term. To be inclusive, we’ll often use other terminology when we discuss this skill, like grant crafting, grant smithing, or the particularly clunky “grantspersonship”. Here, we’ve chosen the predominant term to aid understanding.

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