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Meaning Well is Not Enough: The Role of Research in Grant Writing and Proposals

Chances are good that you, as an applicant, have really wonderful intentions in whatever you’re doing—just like everyone else. You want to help kids succeed, make the world a better place, save the endangered sparrow dragonfly,* impart job training skills, build cool stuff, etc. You know this is a excellent use of time and money. The trick is convincing others that your idea is an excellent use of their time and money.**

Usually you convince them by saying that the target area needs whatever you’re proposing and that what you’re proposing will be effective. To really convince the others with money, you can’t merely say that you know what you’re talking about and therefore they should give you the money. You need to present some kind of research that demonstrates your approach is effective. Merely asserting that your approach will be effective isn’t enough.

Lots of our clients don’t have any research to demonstrate that what they’re doing or want to do might be useful, which means we spend a lot of time conducting research. This probably brings back memories of high school term papers and the like. However tedious or difficult research might be, it’s still necessary if you’re going to have a strong application that sets you a part from others.

Here’s why: funders want to think you know what you’re doing. One way is to show that you know what’s going on in the field and that your project is likely to succeed. Some RFPs even tell you what research to cite and which protocols to use. For example, this year’s SAMHSA Offender Reentry Program (ORP) tells you to use a whole grab bag worth of acronyms (“you are encouraged, when appropriate for your setting and population to implement the Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA) coupled with Assertive Continuing Care (ACC) and/or Motivational Enhancement Therapy/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-5 (MET/CBT-5) with juvenile offenders”).

Most RFPs don’t make things this easy, and you have to do your own research. Still, for most human and social service proposals, you also don’t need to write a dissertation: it’s enough to sprinkle some peer-reviewed research in like paprika over a casserole. As Homer Simpson says, “Facts are meaningless! You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” The same applies to research. You need to have enough citations to make what you’re doing appear plausible, at least in most cases; for specific research grants or technology projects, you’ll often need someone who is really a domain expert. But for social and human service projects, you usually don’t.

That being said, people make two big mistakes in research for most kinds of grants: too much and too little. The “too much” mistake is less common, but it can happen when a RFP gets released on a short deadline and an applicant agency spends two weeks conducting research, finds a huge amount of material, and then can’t assemble it in an efficient manner to draft a concise and coherent needs assessment.

The “too little” mistake is one we see more frequently: the organization doesn’t have any research or citations whatsoever to demonstrate that their approach is likely to be valid (fortunately, this is an issue we can remedy). For RFPs that require a lot of research, this can be enough to get your proposal thrown out. Teen pregnancy prevention RFPs, for example, usually require a lot of research because of their politically charged nature. They require research even when that research indicates the approach is not likely to succeed, in which case you still need to pretend like the approach will succeed and the research is valid—in other words, you need to focus on the proposal world.

Don’t make either mistake. Use enough research to make your proposal palatable, even if “enough” varies a lot by application. Alas: there’s no real way to gauge how much is enough except through experience, which one uses to judge RFPs on a case-by-case basis. When in doubt, however, cite too much rather than too little.

* Note: this is a made up critter.

** Convincing others doesn’t just apply to funders—it can also apply to potential partners and collaborators. One problem with collaborations that we didn’t mention in our post on the subject is that collaborating agencies might not care about your problem. Sure, the local school district wants, in the abstract, for your mentoring program to succeed. But they already have lots of responsibilities, lots of administrators, and lots of problems, and they get paid average daily attendance (ADA) money whether you get the grant or not. They might care, but not as much as they care about their primary mission.

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The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Offender Reentry Program and Prisoner Re-entry Initiative

In an August 24 blog post, we wrote:

Today, an organization that once worked solely on homeless issues might expand its area of expertise to related areas, like affordable housing, prisoner reentry, or foster care emancipation. The latter problem has gained some traction in recent years as various levels of government have come to realize that few 17-year-olds are ready to be self-supporting the moment they turn 18, resulting in in crime, drug use, and prostitution[…]

Now SAMHSA has released the FY 2009 Offender Reentry Program, with $8.2M available and grants to $400,000 per year; in 2008, the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative Grants was released. This is the kind of grant wave that smart agencies in tangential areas will attend to. I can only say: “Cowabunga—surf’s up!”