Who are you writing for?

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Thanks to our sponsors, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Your grant application will probably only be read by half a dozen people who matter.

Sure, you might get your colleagues to read it in draft. It might be reviewed by your local research whisperer. But they aren’t the people who matter! They are not the people you are writing it for; they aren’t your real audience.

They aren’t the six that matter.

Who are the all-important six? Well, one or two people from the funding agency will read it. They might send it out to three to four assessors – not all of them might respond. Between them, those half-dozen people will decide if it gets funded. They will pass a recommendation to a board or a government minister who will approve the funding. Someone from the minister’s office might scan a list of titles and summaries before your application is finally approved. 

That’s it – that’s your audience. Those half-dozen people decide the fate of your application. They are your audience. Wouldn’t it be great if you knew who they were?

It turns out you can. That is, you can make a best guess. This is a pretty important guess to make, because writing your application for five or six real people is much better than writing for an amorphous, anonymous group of ‘assessors’.

How do you do find out who these people are? You need to find the area where your research project intersects with the funding agency.

Who will read it at the funding agency?

In some funding schemes, you know exactly who will be reading your application at the funding agency. Some agencies have a project officer or a program administrator who will read all the applications (or all the applications for a certain scheme) when they are submitted. These people usually have a profile on the website. Sometimes, you can ring them up and talk to them. Lots of philanthropic funding schemes work that way.

However, many funding agencies, particularly government agencies, work at arm’s length. They have a board of trustees or expert advisors who review all the applications. You need to find the person in that group who has the most interest in your work.

These people are generally listed on the funding agency’s website or in their annual report. Find that list. Go through it and find out about those people, especially what their research interests are. For research grants, these people are usually distinguished academics. The list will often provide their name and their institutional affiliation. That is usually enough to find their publications and their university staff profile. Now you can see what their research is about. By a process of elimination, you can find the person who will have the most interest in your work. It is important to work out who this person is because they will often choose the assessors for your application. They will also be the person who defends your application when it comes to the final decision about who gets funded and who doesn’t.

Who will assess your application?

OK, so now you know who will be choosing your assessors. But how do you work out who they will choose?

Well, you need to think about why funding agencies use assessors, then think about who the people from the funding agency might know.

Funding agencies use assessors because the range of applications they get is very, very wide and they can’t know it all. They send the applications to external experts because they need external expertise.

It turns out that research funding agencies know lots of people with a broad range of expertise. They’ve been funding them for years. They have a whole database of experts who have received grants in the past.  They know a lot about these experts, especially what research they do because they have funded that research. They know how to contact them, too, because they need to send them funding. In fact, their database is conveniently indexed with all the Field of Research codes and keywords that you’ve just put on your application, because those previous applicants put them on their applications, too.

So, your job is to find the projects that have been funded that are similar to your project. Most funding agencies publish lists of the projects that they fund. They often publish titles, brief descriptions and the names of the researchers. You need to find the funded projects that match your research. This is a much bigger job than reviewing the board members of a funding agency because there are going to be many more of them.

If you are lucky, your funding agency will publish their lists with research codes or keywords. They might publish them as spreadsheets or as a lovely searchable database. That makes your job much easier. But even if they don’t, you can scrape the data into a text document and search it that way. Or your Google-fu might be strong, and you can just search their website repeatedly.

However you do it, you should aim to end up with a list of funded projects that are similar to your research. This is a massively useful list. It gives you clear indications of what the funding agency has funded before. It gives you ideas for shaping your title, keywords, even research team. And, most importantly for this discussion, it gives you a list of researchers that the funding agency recognises as experts in your area: potential assessors. You can’t know exactly who will be assessing your application, but you can be pretty sure that they will be drawn from this pool.

It will take some time to assemble the list the first time. You have to find the board, find the list of past successes, do a lot of searching to find people’s research backgrounds. Perhaps that time might be better spent actually writing your application (or reading the guidelines). But once you have the list, it should be a relatively straightforward task to keep it up to date each year.

Send your application to these people

Now, when you are writing your application, you have a clear audience to write for. You know who has the most interest in your work at the funding agency and you know the pool of people that they will probably choose your assessors from.

Get to know these people. Look at their research interests. Read their publications. Be aware of the keywords and research codes they use. These will give you ideas about the keywords and the research codes that you should use to position your application.

Many funding agencies, particularly larger funding agencies, use databases to help their staff or board to choose assessors. The databases work this way:

  • You submit your application with a series of keywords and research codes.
  • Funded projects have been submitted in the past with keywords and research codes.
  • The database tries to match the two.

The database throws up names of funded researchers whose codes and keywords match your codes and keywords. So you really want to think carefully about what research codes and keywords you choose because that will determine the posse of potential assessors.

But that isn’t the only things you need to pay attention to. You also want to think very carefully about your title and the summary of your application. Most applications have a summary or an abstract on the front page. The title and the summary provide a tiny little window into your application. The person from the funding agency can use that window to interrogate the database. They can use this information to look for other assessors. Sometimes they need to do this because the codes and keywords don’t find any matches. Sometimes they find too many matches, and the title and summary can be used to narrow down the choices. Sometimes the automatic choices are not quite right or not quite expert enough. For whatever reason, your title and your abstract along with your research codes and your keywords will determine which assessors are chosen.

So, be careful what keywords and codes you choose, and how you craft your title and summary, so that you have the best chance of putting your application in front of the people you have written it for.

‘Know your audience’ is basic advice for all writers. For grant writers, it is particularly important. Those six people might be the smallest audience you ever write for, but they are also one of the most important.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

2 Responses to Who are you writing for?

  1. kitokatmh says:

    Reblogged this on The Element of Nature and commented:
    This is essential reading for any researchers or academics who are having trouble gettings grants accepted. It’s getting more and more difficult to get funding for research these days, and any way of improving your chances is definitely worth considering.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, kitokatmh

      Glad you thought it was useful. The key moment for me was when I realised that most applications are only read by half a dozen people. That really focuses the mind.

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