Before/After: The role of the grant ‘architect’

I distinctly remember the end of major grant rounds this year. Right on cue, I developed a chest infection, and was up to my eyeballs in application reviews at work. And then suddenly, like a storm, the deadline for the last major scheme came – and went.


That night, thoroughly spent, I fell into bed and did what I tend to do when my grey matter is well and truly cooked. I flicked through a pile of home improvement magazines.


This habit isn’t something I’m proud of. And before you start drawing all sorts of conclusions, I’m NOT a follower of commercial home makeover tv shows (I have standards!). Nope, for me, it’s all in those magazines. I’m not sure what it is about them, the inspiring colour schemes, the restful and artistic photography, or the ambitious ideas that finally come to life after months – years! – of planning, money, and labour.


But as I flicked through the magazine pages that night, I started to think how those ‘before and after’ images of renovated home projects were much like the two ends of the spectrum of drafting a grant application.


At one end of the spectrum is the ‘drafty’ draft, where ideas don’t connect and stretch through the entire proposal, we add ‘nice to know’ information that isn’t critical to the storyline, our sentences are sloppy or missing a verb, our project team is poorly integrated into the project design and the budget is…let’s just say it’s wanting.


We all start at this end of the spectrum. It’s the equivalent of the rundown house with the pokey kitchen and lack of light and peeling paint.


Working with researchers on their grant proposals, I can tell you the ‘before shot’ is a common situation. An application comes to me very close to the submission deadline, it’s flabby in scope, its author clearly hasn’t read the funding rules or the scheme’s objectives, the budget doesn’t link to the project design, and the project team is poorly justified.


Upon receiving feedback on all these elements, some researchers then pull all-nighters to get the application ‘up to scratch’ – the equivalent of the new house paint still being wet on the supposed day of ‘completion’. The result is an application with a tenuous grip on quality; if we peered too closely, or scratched the surface that little bit more, the details wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.


But many others, especially (but not limited to) those at early career stage who are going through the process for the very first (or second, or third) time, don’t give themselves the chance to transform their draft into an ‘after stage’ application: the equivalent of an abode that sings with light, space…the kind of place you’d love to come home to.


‘After stage’ is the preserve of those who have sufficient experience with grant writing to know how much time they need to deliver an ace proposal.
That’s two things our after-stage proposal writers have learned – how much time they need to knock off ALL the steps in time (see the Research Whisperer’s ‘Work Backwards’ post for more on this), and what constitutes a competitive proposal.



Less experienced grant writers can feel demoralised and understandably disappointed when they simply ‘run out of time’ to convert a ‘before’ application into an ‘after’ application. They know in their heart they could have done a better job ‘if only’ they’d had more time or submitted it to colleagues and their research office much earlier in the application-preparation timeline. It can be a bitter lesson to learn, but one you need learn only once.



When you’re relatively new to grant-writing, you’ve every reason to think you’ve got a great application that captures your ideas and plans really neatly, but it’s not until an experienced grant reviewer comes along and gives you feedback to the contrary – and highlights omissions that you’d never even considered – that you realise your ‘after shot’ is still very much a ‘before shot’. It’s the equivalent of asking an architect what they think of the very humble abode that you’ve fallen in love with, and they’re telling you that it desperately needs some TLC and will starting crumbling if you don’t get it repaired and upgraded soon.


When I asked a recent participant in my online grant writing course what the biggest take-home message in the course had been for her, she replied: ‘Planning, planning and more planning’. She’s right on the money. Planning time, and within that, planning for critical review/feedback of your proposal to make it as strong as can be.


So, if you want to have the grant-application equivalent of an ‘after’ shot in that home improvement magazine:

  1. Take advice early from your Research Office about internal deadlines for the scheme you’re applying to, ask them how they would structure the timeline for writing the application, and work with a mentor or supervisor or colleague a few years ahead of you to help you set generous margins for each milestone of the application
  2. Further to #1, read the Research Whisperer’s post ‘Work Backwards’, then read it again.
  3. Find someone with grant reviewing and writing experience – the equivalent of a house ‘architect’ – who will tell you honestly that you’re holding a ‘before shot’ but could make it an ‘after shot’ in ways x, y and z.
  4. Address ways x, y and z (and if there’s time, ask your grant ‘architect’ to re-review the sections you’ve overhauled). Remember what you learn from this person when crafting your next grant proposal (so you’re increasing your grant-writing stock of knowledge over time)
  5. Join us for the Winter launch of Granted (starting June 5). You’ll write a stand-out proposal – ahead of the deadline – with expert mentoring and feedback and a tribe to support you.

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