Writing for Cash (aka ‘grant writing’)
Being currently stuck into academic grant reviewing season, and having just submitted two research grants for provincial funding myself (on top of two academic proposals), I have had plenty of time lately to think on what increases success and/or dooms one’s chances of getting some currency, and I’m here to share some relative wisdom with you.
If you work in policing, for a non-profit or in academia, this topic is for YOU. The ability to write clear, concise and persuasive appeals for cash is a critical skill for a lot of folks. Let me explain.
Recently, some provinces have moved to alternate funding programs aimed at supporting either special projects - with program evaluations to be embedded in the design - or straight up research projects aimed at creating and/or testing policing innovations. Either way, the message is increasingly being sent out: no evaluation, no cash. So, whatever group you fit into - academic, practitioner or pracademic - this IS for you. Here’s some general tips from my hard won experience.
Justify everything – if you say you’re going to survey 1100 people, your reviewer wants to know how you came up with that number. What’s the population size? Are you using a sampling frame? How will you conduct your survey? How will you deal with research ethics? Interviewing 15 police officers instead? Great. How are you recruiting them? What are your inclusion/exclusion criteria? What type of interviews are you conducting? What coding techniques will you be using? How will you be analyzing your data? The fastest way to tank your application: show that you don’t understand your research methods and are trying to BS your way through. Example of a dead giveaway: talk about hypothesis testing using qualitative methods.
The Who Cares Problem – Your job is to convince a reviewer that your project will address a significant problem they should be concerned about. So, you need to explain why they should be concerned about it and not assume that because you think climate change or aging boomers, are important public policy issues, everyone else will. They will not. Do I look like Greta Thunberg? Unh ... no. Tell me why I should care!
No jargon – I’m constantly surprised by academics who don’t know how to write for lay audiences and/or police practitioners who mimic the often dense, crappy prose of academics. Always write in clear, concise sentences and avoid using big words unless no other word will suffice. There’s few things that are more painful and amateurish than when a writer tries to “sound smart” by throwing in strings of big words. If your ideas are good, the last thing you should do is obscure them with jargon. This is also TRUE for academic grants where it is very likely your grant will be reviewed by people who are not subject matter experts in your field! Didn't know that, huh? Yup, of the typically 3 people reviewing your application, 1 will be in your discipline, but likely not an expert in your specific area.
Clear, detailed budgets are vital – reviewers look for padding in the justifications you write for your budget. CANADIAN ACADEMICS: SSHRC reviewers are specifically tasked with combing your budget to ensure there’s no extraneous expenses. You will get marked down if we find those things and, if your grant is approved, your budget could be reduced accordingly. Just because you asked for 75K, doesn’t mean you’re getting it.
Capture your audience – the art of grant writing is about telling a compelling story. Academics and other reviewers are people too, and they get bored, they lose patience waiting for you to get to the point, and sometimes they just straight up hate your writing. If your writing is boring for you to write, it Is boring for us to read. I like to start out with a good example of my topic to pique initial interest – usually ripped from a headline or some recent report or study or a famous quote. YMMV.
Don't be afraid to use charts or graphics to communicate information - sometimes this is simply the clearest way to convey complex ideas and/or to present your timeline.
Develop clear timelines that appear to be reasonable for you to meet – I’m constantly surprised by people who promise to do a 5 five year project within a year. It is better to promise what you can actually deliver than to over-promise. Project feasibility is something you are scored on and over-promising can tank your application.
Tailor your project to the purposes of the grant - I shouldn't have to say this, but people often think they can fool reviewers by shoehorning their project into a funding pool set up for another purpose. For example, if you're applying for a SSHRC partnership grant, you should have more than one partner, and those other partners should ideally not just be another academic at a different school! There are funding streams for academic research teams. Conversely, if you're applying for a development grant - intended to nurture new emergent research and/or research partnerships - don't propose an insanely complex piece of research that is well advanced. I've seen both of these done and those applications get axed for lack of fit. And, for the record, this problem is hardly unique to academics, police agencies try to 'shoehorn' existing project into special grant funding too. No bueno.
Clearly outline exactly how your project meets the aims of the grant - again, never take it for granted that someone will draw those connections for you whilst reading your application. A couple of years ago one of our teams successfully won a SSHRC Partnership development grant. In our application we listed the 5 goals of that grant and identified exactly how our work would support each of those goals.
Training and mentoring are not just words, they mean something – whether writing for an academic or non-academic grant, reviewers like to know that people – whether police practitioners or graduate students or new academic scholars - will be exposed to opportunities for developing knowledge and valuable skills. I recently saw an application that said something like “undergraduates will be trained and mentored.” Okay, but how? And how will the knowledge they acquire be useful to them rather than just to meeting the project supervisor’s needs. In a couple of recent non-academic grants, I wrote or co-wrote, it was clearly laid out who would receive knowledge from participating in a research project (police officers), what types of knowledge they would receive (subject matter and research methods) and how that training would benefit them and their organization (build internal research capacity).
Knowledge mobilization (KMB) – academics typically suck at this. KMB is about sharing the results of your work. Historically, this has meant that academics publish articles few people read in pay-walled journals. Oh, and they give a few talks … to other academics. Then they got moderately wise and started asking for $2000-4000 so they could publish open access and go to more academic conferences. Police practitioners are no different; just switch the venue to a police event. One or two clever people might have hit on the idea of “producing a report for the end user”, which has typically meant taking their academic journal article and submitting it to the relevant police leader rather than actually writing an actionable report. #jerkmove.
In this day and age, there are literally a tonne of different ways in which to share knowledge. You can:
Present on a webinar
Do a podcast
Produce articles for practitioner and/or community magazines, newsletter and/or journals
Host a community event
Post a piece on LinkedIN
Share research updates and findings through other social media platforms
Write an opinion piece for local media
Create a workshop or training seminar for partnering groups
In other words, get creative and think beyond the usual conferences and academicy papers to create opportunities to speak to diverse, but relevant audiences. And, yes, I realize I'm the same person who used to joke about promising to host puppet shows as KMB, but I was wrong not to take it more seriously. Also, I hate puppets.