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Our team sees a lot of grant applications: over the past two years we have become to go-to provider of grant support services for several large organisations and tens of research groups globally, so more often than not, someone in the team is working with a client on a grant. Importantly, we often also get to see what happens to these proposals in the long run: which applications get funded, which don’t, and what the funders say about them either way. Part of our job is also to talk directly to people who work at major UK and international funding bodies, and to ask them about how to successfully and consistently get projects funded.

We’ve covered the basics of what we found out in our series of blog articles here but what we haven’t spoken about yet is how to set your well-written proposal above the rest: the key is tailoring.

Start with the scope – but don’t stop there

All funders will have a published scope, which is important to read and process as a first step. At this stage, you need to honestly ask “is this project a good fit for what the funder wants to fund?” If it’s a “no”, it might well be best go find another funder: spending huge amounts of time and effort trying to make a case for a project that simply doesn’t match the stated scope is not a good investment.

If it’s a “yes” then great; similarly, if it’s a “maybe” it’s probably worth taking a closer look, as long as you are prepared to be flexible with your project design to bring the concept closer to the funder’s needs.

Next: “Deep Profiling”. When we work on an application, we take time to scour everything that we can possibly find about the funder and the grant call: we read EVERY page of their website, follow all the links, look very closely at the projects they have funded before, look at their press releases, understand their mission as a funder. Then, we see if we can find a publicly available copy of their grant assessment matrix. We see whether we or our client knows someone who is on their grant review board or has been previously, and reach out to them to ask their opinion on how this funder assesses grants and how we can make it easier for the review board to appreciate the qualities of the work. What we’re looking for is things that are demonstrably important to the funder, but aren’t clearly stated as part of the grant call requirements. For example, some terms might crop up repeatedly across the website pages, such as “high-impact science”, or “immediate implications for clinical practice”; alongside, we might see that the news items on several recently funded projects all emphasise cross-disciplinary collaboration, even if this is noted only briefly in the scope itself. All of these are valuable indicators as to how to bring together a proposal and its writing style to optimally align to the funder and the grant call.

Make a checklist

Based on everything we’ve found out about the funder and the call, we find it really useful to make a checklist of the explicit (stated) and implicit (deduced) scope, and a separate list of funder keywords and their synonyms to refer to we work on the proposal.

Most likely, several aspects of the proposed project will already satisfy items on the checklist, but high-scoring applications must demonstrate alignment with every aspect of the the funder’s requirements for that grant call: the aim is to remove any reason for them to not fund your project. This is where the art of tailoring comes in.

The knack is working out what to do about those check-list items that aren’t clearly ticked by the proposed project. Success now relies on frank assessment of the proposed plan and thinking creatively and flexibly about the concept: if the funder needs/wants cross-disciplinary collaboration, how can you adjust your plan of work to include an aspect of that? Or if there is an aspect already, how can you bring that forward more clearly in your proposal to ensure that the box gets ticked? Tailoring isn’t about giving a false appearance of the project fitting the funder and call, it’s about making genuine tweaks to the plan of work to ensure that the funder is being offered what they are looking for, in the context of you still doing the science that you are passionate about: like any successful partnership, there may be a need for adjustment and compromise to achieve the aims of both parties.

Consistent success requires a systematic approach to tailoring your application to this deep-profiling checklist. Before you submit, you should be able to confidently assess your own application next to the requirements, and ideally see that it meets every single one of them. It’s a numbers game: the extent to which you are giving the funder what they want to fund will determine your likelihood of success (this is the “science” part); this is underpinned by the extent to which you are able to mould your project to the full scope of the funder’s needs, and effectively communicate the closeness of that match (this is the “art”).

Is this really necessary?

A study by Von Hippel et al. published in PLoS estimated that senior researchers spend on average 116 hours on every grant application; meanwhile the success rates for federally funded applications is around 20%. Our own recent case study with a new client showed that applying this approach led their success rate to rise from around 20% to over 80%, for the same funders that rejected their applications the year before.

Want to give it a try and see what our professional grant application editing service can do for your research funding? You can contact us here for a quote and one of our experienced team will get back to you right away.