In this blog I discuss the importance of connecting with different audiences when writing funding bids, based on my previous experience as a funding manager at the UK Research Councils. To get practical support, feedback and experience to help you develop your bid-writing skills please join our forthcoming ‘Putting the buzz in your research bids’ workshop, Friday 28th January, 11.30 – 13.30 (GMT). BOOK HERE

Developing convincing arguments to successfully secure research funding is a real skill, and bid writing differs substantially from other types of academic writing that you typically get more experience with during the earlier phases of your research career e.g. writing papers, chapters, thesis etc.
As icky as it might sound, when you’re writing a bid for funding you’re essentially trying to ‘sell’ your research idea to whoever is reading your proposal, be it your host institution, potential collaborators, reviewers, funders, funding board/committee members…all of the above?
This concept of writing to ‘sell’ the research idea is often a challenging one. If it’s a fantastic research idea that has great potential for the field, shouldn’t it be obvious? Shouldn’t you just be able to write about what you’re going to do and it just sell itself?! Well, sadly (and you knew this was coming), the answer is no. The resources are too scarce, and the funding environment is so fiercely competitive that simply relying on the great idea alone to win you funding is not enough. Of course, you need a great idea, a clear plan of how to deliver the research, and the right team to make it happen. Without these key ingredients your proposal will be a non-starter. However, to write successful funding bids you need to go further than the essential ingredients, you will need to:

  • Grab your readers’ attention and make them want to read/review the finer details of your proposal when they have 50 million other things on their to do list
  • Get your readers to feel excited and inspired by your idea
  • Help them to understand what’s new about what you’re wanting to achieve with your research
  • Leave them in no doubt about why this research is important, why it needs to be you that does it and why it needs to be done now – yes there are three whys in that sentence and for good reason! If you want to know why the emphasis is on the why – take a look at Simon Sinek’s fantastic TED Talk

This is all complicated by the fact that when you’re writing a funding proposal you are writing for a variety of equally important audiences, all of whom need to get slightly different information from your proposal. Tough ask? Definitely yes, – no-one said winning funding was easy. Impossible? No, bid writing is a skill that you can learn and refine, and the more feedback and support you get along the way, the better.

Who do you need to convince of your research ideas?

A good first step is to get a handle on who your key readers are and what they might be looking for, so that when you write your proposal, you can write with your audiences in mind. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the people you will need to convince with your funding bid:

Yourself – This is fundamental as everything flows from here. To put together your best research bid, you need to wholeheartedly believe in your research idea, you need to be excited by it, you need to want to spend your time and energy on delivering this project if it is funded. If you are convinced and enthusiastic about your plans and ideas, this will come across in the way you write your funding proposal, might make the bid writing process flow more easily, and will help your readers to get excited by it too. If you’ve got doubts or concerns about the project idea, try to give yourself some more space and time to refine your idea further to bring it place where you can feel more enthusiastic about it. This can be very hard to do alone, so aim to talk through your early-stage ideas with someone else (or multiple others) to gather some different perspectives.

Depending on your confidence levels with research, the idea refinement and self-convincing stage can be challenging and take time. However, it is exceptionally important to enable you to write convincing proposals. If you know getting convinced is going to be an issue for you:

  • Start early (much earlier than you think you need to) to give you plenty of thinking space, so that you’re not having to rush the development phase with an impending deadline.
  • Build in opportunities to bounce ideas around with others and get feedback as you go along to help you refine and develop your thinking.

Although this might not be active pen-to-paper bid writing, if you can factor ‘self-convincing’ space and time into your bid-development process it will help you to build your confidence in your ideas, test out your plans and arguments, and lay the foundations that enable you to craft an exciting and persuasive proposal.

Host Institution – This audience is particularly important when applying for fellowships and/or if your institution needs to provide any match funding or resources for your project. You will usually need to engage with the head of the relevant department/faculty prior to developing your bid to ensure they are able to provide the required support. Sometimes (depending on the funding scheme) they will need to provide a statement of support to be submitted with your bid. You will need to convince the host institution that you and your project are worth backing. They will want to know what contribution is required (financial and non-financial resources such as lab space, staff, equipment), how your research will complement and add to their existing plans and strategy, and your intended project outputs.

Funding agency – The funding agency will manage the process by which your proposal is assessed and (hopefully) funded. They will:

  • decide if your proposal fits the eligibility criteria and remit for your chosen funding scheme,
  • determine whether you have followed the correct submission process and supplied the correct information and documentation,
  • select appropriate expert reviewers,
  • manage the peer review process and criteria by which your proposal will be assessed,
  • Take funding decisions based on the peer-review process and funding committee/panel ranking of your proposal in competition with other bids.

To be able to manage the peer review process and select the correct reviewers for your proposal, the funding agency staff need to be able to understand the core aims of your project, the novelty of the planned project, and the methods you’re intending to use. Remember, that the staff members that manage the peer review process may not be experts in your research area, so your proposal should be able to be understood by an educated, but non-expert generalist audience. Funders will need to be convinced that the resources you are requesting to deliver your project are reasonable and well justified. Additionally, they will be looking for information about how your project fits with the remit and strategic aims of the funding scheme and will want to know that your project offers value for money.

Expert Peer Reviewers – Your expert reviewers will be looking at the finer details of your project proposal and methodology. They will be asked to provide detailed comments about the range of assessment criteria for the funding scheme you’ve applied for. The criteria will be published by the funder, so you should have a good idea about what your reviewers will be commenting on. Make sure you get as much information about this as possible before you write your proposal so that you can ensure you’re addressing the criteria in full. (Note: many funders make blank reviewer forms available on their websites so that you can see exactly the questions your reviewers will be asked).

Your reviewers will likely need to comment aspects including:

  • the overall quality of your proposed research,
  • the novelty and importance of the idea,
  • the contribution it will make to the field (and beyond),
  • the viability of the methodology and project management plans,
  • the appropriateness of the requested resources,
  • the skills and expertise of the research team and project partners,
  • the broader potential impacts beyond academia,
  • other aspects depending on the scheme and criteria.

In writing your proposal, pique your reviewers’ interest in the opening paragraphs by iterating why the research is important and by pulling out the novel new ideas/techniques/approaches that you’ll be using and the research questions you’ll be tackling. Help them to visualise the possibilities of your research or challenges that your approach might solve. If your reviewers feel excited by your ideas, this will come across in the language they choose in their written reviews.
If possible, before you develop your own bid, aim to participate in peer reviewing for others’ research proposals. This will give you first-hand experience of what a reviewer looks for, what grabs their attention and will help you to look at your own proposals from a reviewer’s perspective.

Funding board/panel/committee – In many funding processes, following the receipt of the expert reviewers’ reports, proposals are batched together to be considered and ranked by a funding panel. Panels vary in size and membership, and you will be able to find out more from your funder about the nature of the panel that will rank your proposal.

Panels take an overview of all the proposals to be considered in the funding round. Over the course of a panel meeting (usually lasting one or more days), the task of the members is usually to create a rank ordered list of the proposals from most to least fundable. To do this they will use evidence from your proposal documents, the expert reviews received and your response to the reviewers’ comments (if this is included in the process). They may be asked to provide scores against the assessment criteria to help them in their rankings.

Depending on the funding scheme and panel process, the members may need to consider a very high number of proposals in a single meeting (in the panels I used to convene in my research council days 60+ proposals was normal for a one-day meeting). Although they will receive the proposals in advance of the meeting, if they are receiving 60+ proposals they are not likely to be able to read to the same level of detail as your expert reviewers. Additionally, on the day of the meeting, your proposal might not have many minutes in which to make an impact in the deliberations due to the volume of bids to be considered.

Panel members, therefore, need to be able to grasp the key concepts and importance of your proposal quickly and easily. Clear, well-structured, and attention-grabbing summaries and headings can be helpful to get the key messages across without panel members needing to delve into the fine details of your proposal. The formatting of your proposal is also especially important, to help panel members to find the crucial sections of your bid easily when moving through your proposal during the meeting. The panel members are unlikely to all be experts in your area. In fact, depending on the membership there may only be one or two people in the meeting that are familiar with your specialism. Therefore, it’s important that your proposal speaks to a generalist audience and does not assume that the audience will automatically grasp the significance of a finding or approach.

Here I’ve considered some of the key audiences your funding bid will need to convince. However, depending on your project, funder and scheme there may well be others audiences you will need to consider. Before preparing any funding proposal it’s essential to gather as much information about the funding scheme and process as you can so that you’re clear about who will be assessing your bid and what they’ll be looking at and to ensure that you’re fulfilling the necessary requirements. Once you’ve nailed down the essentials you can get to work on crafting a bid that does justice to your ideas, clearly demonstrates why your research is important and leaves each and every reader in no doubt that yours is the project to fund!

If you want to explore this topic in more depth, find out how to capture your audience’s attention and get support and feedback for you bid-writing, please join us for our interactive and practical online workshop ‘putting the ‘buzz’ in your research bids’, 28th January 2022, 11.30 – 13.30 (GMT)click here for further information and bookings.

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