This post is based on a workshop I ran for the Professional Historians Association (Victoria and Tasmania). I’d like to thank them for the opportunity to run the workshop. It was fun. Because this post was developed for a specific audience, it might need some translation to fit your own circumstances. The general ideas and method should still be useful for any discipline.
Who are you writing for?
One of the most basic pieces of advice for writers is ‘know your audience’.
Unfortunately, I often find that people write their grant applications for a completely amorphous audience like ‘the government’ or ‘the Department of [Whoever is Funding the Grant]’. That’s just not true. Your grant application will be read by a very small, very specific audience of maybe 5 – 7 people. It is much more effective to write for this very focused imagined audience than for a huge, amorphous undefined audience.
You generally don’t know the actual people who are assessing the application. However funders often provide an indication of who they will draw upon for advice. For example, the Victorian Local History Grants Program says that the applications will be read by at least five people who are:
representatives in the fields of history and/or heritage, cultural and social history, archives, museum collection management, curators, academics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs, multicultural programs or other related areas.2020-2021 Local History Grants Program Application Guidelines [727 Kb PDF].
This is a massively useful list. Already, you’ve moved from an amorphous audience to an audience of 5 or so people, drawn from this list.
What do these people value?
When people write their applications, I suspect that they imagine an audience like themselves or an audience that is sympathetic to their cause. Social historians imagine an audience of social historians. Archivists imagine an audience of archivists. That is a really good thing to do – it means that they write a strong application for a core audience who will understand what they are trying to do.
The problem with this approach is that the application isn’t just going to be read by that core audience. It is also going to be read by people outside their discipline. People who might not get it.
You can deal with this problem by revising the application for the people outside of your core area. If you are a social historian, imagine what would be convincing for a museums collection management expert. If you are writing a heritage grant, think about what someone who manages multicultural programs might find convincing.
They are coming from different points of view but luckily they all have one thing in common – they value evidence. Evidence-backed statements will make your grant application much, much stronger.
What are they looking for?
The funding agency tells you what they will and won’t fund, and how they will rank the applications. They provide you with the criteria that they will use to rank the applications (and often the weightings that will be applied to each criteria). They try pretty hard to be transparent about what they want.
Your job, in writing your application, is to show how you can meet those criteria. Because you don’t know who else is applying and what they are writing, you can’t know how good your application is, compared to everyone else’s. All you can do is write the best application that you can. The selection criteria tells you what the funding agency thinks ‘best’ means. Please listen to them.
To be convincing you will need to provide evidence for each of the criteria. That means that it is worth thinking about what sort of evidence will work for different criteria. Here are some examples of common grant selection criteria and brief notes about what evidence you might provide to demonstrate that you know what you are doing. You believe in what you are doing – you just need to be clear about why you believe that.
Criteria: Has clear aims, objectives and well defined strategies for the delivery of the project evidenced by a well-developed project plan with realistic milestones and timeframes.
- Think through what is going happen, month by month, throughout the project. Draw up a Gantt chart. Allow for margins of error as we know life isn’t smooth.
- Write it as clearly as you can.
- Give it to someone to read and ask them to describe the project to you. Listen for bits that they didn’t quite understand.
- Ideally, give it to someone who is one of the listed types of potential assessors but isn’t quite in your discipline.
- If you can’t do that, give it to anyone who will take the time to read it. Spouses, children, or parents are often willing guinea pigs.
- Revision for clarity will win the day here.
Criteria: Demonstrates the capability of the applicant to deliver and implement the proposed project within the specified timeframe.
- The committee is effectively undertaking a risk evaluation of your application. They need to understand how likely you are to successfully do what you say you will do, if they give you the money.
- What experience has your team had of doing this before? Try to be specific about the similarities with past projects. Rather than ‘we have a lot of experience building history websites’, try something like ‘we will use the same methods as we used when creating the Radish Debate website two years ago (now averaging 250 unique visits per week).’
- If you are applying for $15,000, and the largest budget you’ve every managed is $15 of pocket money, you need to show that you have some guidance in place to make sure you can manage it.
- If your project involves a lot of community consultation and engagement, and you’ve never done a community-based project before, how will you reduce the risk that it will go off the rails?
Criteria: Provides value for money
- This is particularly important for government funding.
- Contrast the amount of cash that you are asking for with the amount of in-kind support that you and others are providing.
- Try to put a number on the benefits that will flow from the project. E.g. ‘We estimate that this will increase visitation to the Radish Centre by 5%, which represents a $5,000 increase in income.’
- Contribute to the solution of a problem. Refer to a government report or other independent document that calls for action on a particular issue. E.g. ‘The recent enquiry into the health of school children recommended that more raw fruit and vegetables in their lunch-boxes. By shedding light on the Radish Debate, we can help vegetable growers to understand how raw vegetables were considered in the past, and how they might be reimagined in the future.’
- Sometimes, you aren’t solving a problem, you are trying to create new opportunities, new possibilities. E.g. ‘By providing interpretive signage, we will contribute accurate historical information to the new “Radish Road” initiative, a local tourism route designed to bring more tourists to the area.
The more you’ve thought through your project, the more detail you’ll be able to provide. The more detail you can provide, the more convincing your application will be, particularly to readers from outside your area.
Time to sharpen up – try this activity
To sharpen up your application, address each criteria in turn. Chose one criteria – preferably the one that you are strongest at. Set a timer going for 25 minutes.
- If you are writing your application, spend this time gathering the evidence for that assessment criteria. This will help you write a more focused application.
- If you have already drafted your application, or are working on a revise and resubmit, spend the time adding more evidence wherever you can.
Be forensic about the chosen criteria. If you are anything like me, the imposter monster will be out in full force, so just concentrate on the job at hand and give yourself a break. “Jonathan said I’m not allowed to be rude to myself right now.” Build on what you have, rather than tearing yourself down. This is a creative process, not a critical process.
Choose just one criteria and stick to it for 25 minutes. At the end of the 20 minutes, cross if off. Job done.
Work on each criteria in turn. Gather the evidence and write the first draft. Then, when you have a full draft of the application, go back and revise the evidence for each criteria, stuffing more evidence in where you can.
If the application has ten criteria (most will have fewer), then spending 25-30 minutes on each means 250-300 minutes. That is about 4-5 hours work. At the end of that time:
- You will have written a fair amount of your application, if you haven’t started yet. It will need a lot of tidying up, but the bones will be strong.
- If you are revising it, you will have a much stronger application.
If you make sure your application is always ready to hand in, it won’t matter if life gets in the way and you don’t get to do some of the criteria. Your application will still be stronger for the work that you have done.
Wow. Jonathan, I can’t thank you enough. I’m a newbie. A total impostor – so I thought. Well, OK, I knew the what and the why, even a little of the how. But the last all seemed a bit theoretical and hitting at the heart of my newness. What evidence could I offer on my ability to manage the project and against carefully stated and relevant metrics, not least timelines and budget. Hmm! But for some reason you jogged my memory about that little occasion of producing a PhD thesis! This involved quantitative and qualitative studies at four locations across Australia, employing many helpers (all in accordance with every last diktat of Australian labour law), helpers from three Australian Universities, and in two cases in close liaison with University authorities. I could go on. But you get the picture. I was wizzard at controlling the budget – it was my limited income, out of my pocket! Boy did I work to tight timelines too. Not least I live and research in Thailand, so all the Australian activity was directed from Thailand. And all of this in some mysterious way was forgotten. Lack of track record the thing that worries me. But, I have that track record. Trouble was I put it in a particular box in my mind. I’d thought running a tiny trans-national business. Moral of this story is let your mind wander far and wide, “unbox” information and above all simply remember what you have done already, perhaps especially in terms of that thesis you wrote and its logistics.
I love the idea of unboxing the information. It is true – we draw lines around our activities (or allow others to convince us that the lines are there). I’m glad that it helped.