As the climate for receiving grants from government agencies and foundations becomes more competitive, there are several steps researchers can take to have the best chance possible of receiving a grant. Some steps, though basic, can make a big impact in a grant proposal's outcome. In Sunday’s “Funding Priorities” meeting, researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), various foundations, and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) gave attendees a series of tips and insights that could help them throughout the proposal process:

  • First, build relationships: In “Foundations’ Research and Policy Agendas,” panelists Kimberly VanPelt of St. Luke’s Health Initiatives and Debra Perez of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation each made the point that building relationships with funders is key – though you should do so in a proposal capacity only after you’ve become an expert in your area.“Be the best you can be in your area of research first; building a relationship with funder starts with being a resource,” said Perez. VanPelt echoed her sentiment, highlighting that when her organization is funding in the area of policy evaluation research, it does not tend to solicit proposals through requests for proposals (RFPs). Like regional, statewide, and local foundations, that cannot always find people with the credentials or expertise to do the analyses it needs, her organization often goes to the people it knows do good work. As researchers gain credibility for their research, foundations should be let in on that success as well. Finally, as researchers seek to build relationships, they should make an effort to go directly to the source. There are individuals in each foundation and agency that researchers should become familiar with if they’re attempting to receive funding, explained Perez. Find out who the officers are for your area of work – then talk to them and figure out the best way to go about proposing your research. If nothing else, they can direct you to general resources that can help.
  • Do your (other) research: Grant proposals are not created equal. Some organizations do responsive grant making, where proposals are received by the organization, and the organization then decides whether or not to accept it. Others operate through RFPs, soliciting submissions when a need arises; some operate under a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” maxim; and some use a combination of methods. Further, only a minority of health funders fund nationally; the rest fund at a state level or in a smaller geographic radius.In addition to understanding the foundation's grant process, researchers seeking funding must also recognize that funders are looking for the grants with the potential to advance their missions. Throughout the day, panelists emphasized the significance of building connections between the research and the work of the awarding institution. In the “Foundations’ Research and Policy Agendas” session, panelists informed attendees that despite perceptions, foundations are open to new and unique proposals as long as they’re aimed at benefiting the work and aims of the organization. Knowing how the foundation or agency operates is essential. Do your (other) research so you can help make your research relevant. Tying your work to the goals of the organization could mean the difference in whether or not your grant is rewarded.
  • Engage in dialogue with funders: During “The Health Services Research Agenda and Funding Opportunities of the National Institutes of Health” and the “Foundations’ Research and Policy Agendas” sessions, panelists emphasized not only the importance of building relationships, but also of working with funders to make the most of your work. John Haaga of the National Institute on Aging stressed the importance of talking to program officers at funding institutions. Russ Glasgow of NIH also made the point about the importance of dialogue, and underlined that it could lead to conveying your research's relevance. Talking to project officers is key because there are vast differences in what each agency and institution wants to fund. “The best way to discuss research is not necessarily the call or the short email; it’s the one pager, and it can be an extremely ‘drafty’ draft," said Haaga. "The one pager can set off two triggers for program officers: first, would this ever get funded at my institution, and 2) do I know someone else this might work for?” Lisa Shugarman agreed; “It’s great to have a paragraph that describes what you’re interested in, but better to have the conversation at a later point, during the project development.”
  • Learn the basics of effective communication: Judith Meyers explained that communicating your research and results effectively is essential for the long-term success of your project, for that is how you demonstrate your work’s impact. She encouraged those coming out of the research track to get training on how to communicate with different audiences through different mediums—visual, oral, and written—as well as in policy. “I worked for a year on the Hill as a policy fellow, and it was the best experience I ever had,” exclaimed Meyers.
Although times are difficult financially, there are simple steps they can take to make a more meaningful case to funders. As Gerald Riley from CMMI said, at the end of the day, it’s about improving the value of research, not the volume of research. Just as you know the value of your research, you need to make sure funders know its value as well. To demonstrate its value, build relationships, do your (other) research, engage in dialogue with funders, and learn the basics of effective communication.
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