How-to LibParlor Contributor Reflection

So, You Want to Get a Grant . . . Some Guidance from a Librarian-Turned-Program-Officer

A photograph with two pairs of shoes and the text on the sidewalk that says "Passion led us here"

Patricia Hswe (@pmhswe) works at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as the Program Officer for Scholarly Communications, which funds libraries, archives, and museums in support of initiatives in electronic publishing, preservation, and access and library services. Further information about the priorities of the Scholarly Communications program is provided here.

Grants in some shape or form were always a part of my professional experiences as a librarian. As an academic librarian at large research universities, I sometimes found myself proofing, or adding to, drafts of grant proposal applications; reviewing submitted applications as a peer reviewer for NEH; or gratefully employed because of a grant project. Even as a library student, I had exposure to grant proposal development when, in a course on data curation in my final year of the MSLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I chose to do a project about the curation of humanities data that served as groundwork for a grant proposal to IMLS.

Now, almost fifteen years later, I find myself in the role of a program officer at a philanthropic foundation, which I joined in 2016. Since then, working closely with my colleagues in the Scholarly Communications (SC) program area, I have learned an immense amount about developing grant proposals, some of which resonates with the May 2018 Librarian Parlor post, “How Not To Plan for an Academic Research Grant Project.” Below are a few prompts to take into account, and reflect on, in pursuing that big – or small – grant project idea. They are not meant to deter but, rather, to encourage and build you up for the endeavor. (Many thanks to SC colleagues for the feedback on this piece!)

Have You Read the Guidelines and Instructions? Rinse. Repeat.

Reading the guidance for proposal development cannot be stressed enough! And, having done so (perhaps more than once), if you have questions, please contact the relevant program officers to ask them. We / They are here to help!

A related pro-tip: Refrain from asserting in the proposal that your project is novel, unique, has never been done before, would accomplish what no other organization has achieved, etc. Funders read a LOT of proposals. A LOT. Hyperbolic claims of novelty, like flattery, are distracting and a waste of time. Use the narrative to advance the rationale of the project idea. Uniqueness ≠ rationale.

Have You Gauged the Readiness of the Organization?

“But while the job of writing of a grant narrative may fall to one or two people, the development and implementation of the proposed project calls for a troop of them”

The enthusiasm to go for a grant can be infectious, especially if you’ve been encouraged by a funder to submit a prospectus or proposal. What dean of libraries wouldn’t get behind such a signal of confidence, especially if grantmaking is in the library’s strategic plan? But while the job of writing of a grant narrative may fall to one or two people, the development and implementation of the proposed project calls for a troop of them, sometimes dispersed across a campus or even a cluster of institutions. Who would do this work, in what ways, and for how long? Even if you’re thinking, “Oh, we’ll never get it, but we’ll learn by trying,” which, to be honest, is a defense mechanism, you should still investigate the readiness of your colleagues, the library, and any other relevant campus entities to take on this possible commitment – even if the grant proposal guidelines do not require such information.

Think of “readiness determination” as a kind of insurance estimate for how the project could go. It’s not that all the items in the list below need to be resolved, but it never hurts to speculate what the response would be to each of these questions – and to monitor how the responses may change over the term of the project, should it be funded:

  • What support would be needed, both in the library and outside of it but still on campus, for the grant to be successful? Who at the institution must be involved to ensure its success?
  • Have you talked with the person or office in your library responsible for grant proposal oversight to get a sense of their processes and timelines?
  • What defines success for the grant, for the organization overseeing it, and for the community it is intended to benefit?
  • What new responsibilities would the work of the grant create and for which roles? What services / resources / responsibilities would have to be re-prioritized as a result? How might the library sustain this work / these roles beyond the life of the grant, if needed?
  • Is the organization ready for some responsibilities to be “de-prioritized,” and how would it manage this shift?
  • What might be the appetite for future institutional investment in the project?

What’s Your Story, and How Would You Tell It?


“The narrative, in part, should answer the question of “So what?” Funders have to decide whether or not to invest in your answer.”

In case you’re wondering, there is no perfect way to write a grant proposal. Feel free to take that pressure off yourself now. Are there “wrong” ways to write one?  As this Chronicle Vitae piece suggests, it’s not uncommon to commit unforced errors when trying to make a case for one’s project to a funder. As with many efforts that require written expression, however, it helps to know how to tell your story. The narrative, in part, should answer the question of “So what?” Funders have to decide whether or not to invest in your answer. To this end, we try to glean from the proposal various considerations, like the following:

  • What problem / problems would the project try to solve? Who would benefit, and why?
    • Related: What are the use cases the grant would address?
  • Why should anyone, least of all a funder, care about what you are proposing?
  • What context could you provide that would help us understand the significance and relevance of the project idea, particularly for the community that the work would engage?
  • How would the project address the stated community need? Why is this approach best, or better than others?

Have You Done Your Homework?

Funders like to see evidence that a grantee has investigated the efforts that have already been made in the problem space to be addressed by the proposed project. We are keen to know not only whether similar work has taken place but also whether any gaps remain. Would your project try to fill one or more of those gaps and, if so, what would be the implications of that work? Although the program leaders in Scholarly Communications at the Foundation are knowledgeable and experienced, we are not necessarily experts in the areas and technologies involved in the project. We would not want to make assumptions about your appreciation of the challenges you describe and project them onto your proposal. “Homework” also means understanding the landscape of the problem(s) you’re exploring and the communities or stakeholders who would value, and be positively affected by, the outcomes of the project. Hence, it is to your advantage to weigh questions such as:

  • Is the proposed work in response to an earlier effort(s) and, if so, which one(s) and in what sense? In what ways does the proposed work resume and build upon what has been done previously?
  • If there is a previous related effort, then what is the demonstrated need for the currently proposed one? How have you assessed and documented that need?
  • Are there possibilities of collaboration with institutions / projects that have done this earlier work? If not, then why? If so, however, then what are the possibilities and how would the proposed work benefit from such collaborations?

What If You Were the Program Officer or Peer Reviewer Reading the Proposal?

I was recently on a panel with other funders, offering guidance about grant writing, and a colleague from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Elizabeth Boylan, mentioned a useful piece of advice: As you write the proposal, think about the perspective of the reviewer – would they understand what you have written, or would they have questions seeking clarification and further explanation? Better yet, as Boylan also suggested: Ask colleagues who have nothing to do with the grant (but may be familiar with the technology or subject area) to read the proposal and provide you with feedback. If they have trouble understanding what is being proposed, then chances are that a peer review panel or program officer may have difficulty, too. As with anything worth writing about, soliciting feedback early and often is vital.

A Few Closing Thoughts

A grant writer’s work is rarely done when they think it’s done. (Ditto for the grant reviewer.) It’s normal to be frustrated by the process – few people are immune – which is why the foregoing prompts may be helpful to run through early in the process, perhaps with your collaborator(s) on the project work that you are considering proposing for support. Grant writing is typically not an activity that benefits from the element of surprise. Hence, all of the counsel above is given in the spirit of informing and preparing you for the experience, especially the critiques of your proposal. Admittedly, even if one follows everything I’ve written here, such adherence would still be no guarantee of a grant award. But you would know the strengths and weaknesses of your project that much better for renewed proposing, and such knowledge would put you further from the starting gate than before.

Finally, I end this post with a list of resources on grant writing that may be helpful. YMMV, but that caveat shouldn’t deter you from checking them out and equipping yourself further for the long game that grant writing and grant projects can be.


Featured image by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

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