Why bother writing grant proposals? 

Writing grants is a tiresome, thankless task.  I’ve never known overall success rates on grant schemes to be more than 50%, and even that is only one scheme I came across in nearly 20 years of seeking research funding.  Somewhere between 10-25% seems to be typical, from my experience. Perhaps that’s because if overall success rates were higher, the funding agency might feel they are not getting enough choice. Whereas if it drops significantly below 10% (and potential applicants know that it has) then the number of applicants probably starts to dwindle.  In terms of the success rates of individuals, the literature typically seems to suggest that a success rate of 40% to be the boundary between high and low performers. That is, to be considered as a “high performer” in terms of winning grants, you would be winning more than 2 out of every 5 of grants that you submit.

It is safe to say, then, that most of the time, whoever you are, your grant writing will mostly be in vain, and doubly frustrating if your chance of success is random and steered by a group who aren’t really experts in grant selection.  It shouldn’t be considered a complete waste of time, though, as material can be recycled and the process of writing a grant application often helps formulate better ideas.   So, what I propose here is that you spend just a little bit of time thinking through why you actually want to write a grant! I don’t want to talk you out of it, but it’s important that you are motivated.  There is much to be done, in preparation as well as execution, so you need to decide whether you want to invest the time doing it as well as you possibly can (with a view to doing it less often, as your success rate increases), or that you are happy with your current success rates, and that is fine for your purposes, whatever they may be.

So, ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve by getting a successful grant application?”

Some people write grants because they believe they need it for promotion. If you are one of those people, ask yourself this question: how much do I need to bring in, on average, ever year, in grant income in order to make a good case for promotion.  Take that number and divide by your success rate. (If you don’t know your average success rate, take 20% as a reasonable ballpark figure, so you divide your number by 0.2).  This is how much money you need to be applying for every year, in total, to meet your target.   And even if you are successful, you still need to apply for this amount every year (otherwise you need to multiply by the number of years your projects last).  For example, if you think you need to bring in £100,000 per year, on average, and your success rate is 20%, then you need to apply for grants totally £500,000 every year.

Perhaps you simply have a great idea and just want to see it happen?   Then focus on choosing the right funding source, and work hard, using the tips in the book.  If that doesn’t work, and you really want to see your idea happen, then get a better team behind you. The track record of the team is the one thing that is sure to improve your chances (although not guaranteed to get you funding). The risk to you is that someone else takes the lead and gets all the credit when it finally happens, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you consider it more important to see the idea being funded than you getting the glory. If you prefer the glory, then go back to the beginning and work doubly hard.

So, do you know why you are putting in all that effort into proposal writing?

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