Academic Grantwriting

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

This module provides an introductory overview of academic grant-writing. With grant funding a core staple of many universities and colleges, this is a necessary skill for both instructors and administrators. In different domain fields, there will be unique approaches and strategies which may be different than the information presented here. Instructors clearly need to work with their respective university structures, administrators, colleagues, and others, to actualize their own grant applications, grant-funded work, reportage to the grant-funding agencies, the dissemination of results, and the pursuit of other funds.


Learners will...

  • Understand the importance of a campus and local-level “environmental scan” prior to pursuing possible grant funds
  • Conduct initial research and find some grant funding organizations that they may align organizational goals with in order to create some grant applications
  • Describe the complete cycle of a grant application, and identify what is important in each phase
  • Identify the central parts of most grant applications and the necessary features of each
  • Explain the importance of professional ethics in grant writing

Module Pretest

1. Identify at least 5 potential grant sources that meet programmatic and institutional needs. Explain why these particular grant sources may fit with your professional endeavors.

2. Brainstorm 5 possible projects that might be beneficial for your academic work and situation. Analyze whether your office / institution has the human and physical resources to actualize the work.

3. Choose one of your imaginary projects that would be doable for your institution, and create a mock but realistic budget for it. Make sure to include all the necessary personnel, materiel, and other resources for this particular endeavor.

4. Plan a particular timeline for the work What would be a reasonable period of time for actualizing this work?

5. Choose one of your imaginary projects. Write either a “statement of need / rationale” or an executive summary.

6. Draft a mock recommendation letter from an entity that could support your potential grant endeavor. Consider what insights that entity may provide to bolster your standing with the potential grant funding agency.

7. Make a simple and practical plan for how your particular grant may be evaluated for success.

Main Contents

Those working in higher education are under very tight budget constraints. State legislatures have been offering lower funds as they’ve strived to deal with budget cuts and tax shortfalls. For-profit entities have entered the higher education realm—and their lack of tenure and relatively high tuition means that they can offer some tight competition. The costs of offering e-learning have been rising—due to wages, higher technologies, development and delivery costs, and infrastructure costs.

A grant is a monetary award given by a funder for specific purposes. An in-house grant is used within an organization for the rational distribution of funds for particular purposes. An outside grant brings in moneys from an off-campus funding agency in pursuit of mutual goals and ambitions. The types of funding may fall into the following general categories.

A flashcard of grantwriting terms may be accessed here.

1. An Environmental Scan

Grant writing exists in the context of an academic institution—an academic program, a college, a campus hierarchy, a local funding environment, a national and international funding context, and a discipline / domain-level funding context. These may be visualized as concentric circles opening out to define a larger political and funding environment.

A savvy instructor needs to be aware of what is going on through an “environmental scan,” which takes in both the local conditions and the larger context. Grants are not “free money,” contrary to some myths. All grants come with requirements and liabilities. University administrators are interested in making sure that grants align with the mission and goals of the university; they also want to be sure that particular grant funding sources are not overly tapped—because there is a strategy in pursuing grant funds (without causing grant funder fatigue).

Another aspect of the scan is to identify different types of grant funding agencies. Federal agencies offer particular types of grants and are often the ones who offer the largest grants (into the six and seven figures) for multi-year collaborative types of research. There are independent (private or public) foundations, endowed by individuals or families, and these tend to have broad goals (defined in charters). Corporate foundations are company-sponsored ones, and they make grants available based on funds received annually by the company. [Some companies will fund private research and development (R&D), which involves results which cannot be published—not even for academic advancement.] Community foundations offer funds to support a particular region or community to support community interests. Public foundations and public charities raise funds from the public and distribute these funds based on stated research goals.

To conduct an early environmental scan, fill in the following fields:

  • Name of Grant
  • Funding Agency
  • Contact persons (and positions)
  • List of officers or board of directors

(Appropriate funding category

  • Charter / goals / values / directions
  • Restrictions and criteria for funding (grant amounts, applications and requirements)
  • Preferred method of initial contact
  • Relevant deadlines
  • Average amount of award
  • Average length of awarded grants (amount of time to get the work done)
  • Recommendations for pursuit of the grant (disciplinary focuses, collaborations among organizations, grant application documentation, and others)

It is generally suggested that grant applicants touch bases with the grant funders and work collaboratively (within the limits of fair interactions) to evolve the grant to meet the needs of both the institution and the funding agency.

2. Exiting from a Grant Endeavor. A team may decide to exit from a grant effort if any of the following issues are valid:

If the university and grant funding organization’s philosophies and values do not match;

If the timing of the funding organization does not fit the organization’s budget cycle;

If the university does not meet the pre-requisites for the funding organization;

If the university or college personnel is insufficient;

If the political buy-in and enthusiasm do not exist for this endeavor;

If the university is not providing sufficient investment to help the team achieve success, and

If the application quality is low and cannot be brought up to standards.

Other tripwires may exist for when to stop a grant application. Those should be determined early, so that professional staff time is not wasted.

3. The General Grant Funding Cycle

The work that goes into a grant endeavor really involves a lot of planning and lining up the talent in organizations to pursue the funds and to follow through with the work. The writing itself does not start until the core elements of a grant project have been negotiated and determined.


The actual grant proposal process in terms of the internal organization may look as follows.


4. The Main Parts of Grant Applications and Necessary Features

The requirements for the grant proposals will differ based on the funding agencies. However, the main elements are likely as follows (possibly under different terminology).

A Cover Letter / “Letter of Transmittal”

A cover letter accompanies virtually all formal grants. A cover letter is independent of the actual grant itself but is a critical accompanying piece that contextualizes the grant, introduces the main direction of the grant, and sets a polite and professional tone for what follows.

Executive Summary / Abstract

The executive summary or abstract serves as the introduction to the grant application. Here, an applicant or applicant team needs to state their case for funding their grant succinctly and strongly. This should summarize the rest of the grant—the statement of need, the project description, the budget, and organizational information.

Statement of Need

The statement of need shows the value of the work of the grant by establishing the rationale for it. This may justify the grant work based on scientific, social, investigative / research, and other factors.

Project Description

Here, the grant applicants explain the work that will be done if the grant is funded. Oftentimes, this is where the principal investigators (PIs) define their conceptual and research underpinnings for the work. They need to be sufficiently cutting-edge by offering ideas that are on the edge of “proof-of-concept” but that haven’t quite been done yet. They have to show how their work builds on the work in the field and how it will add to the literature with new information. If the research can lead to new processes or procedures, new thinking, new data in the field, they need to indicate that. If there is potential for research and development (R&D) or patent applications, that should be noted as well.

Goals and Objectives. The project description then has to describe the goals and objectives of the work. The ideas must be logically presented. The actual work to be achieved must be described in clear ways. (Most funding organizations will bring in experts from the field to judge grants, so it helps to cite clearly to show a deep knowledge of the field—albeit without overwhelming grant funders.) Any supporting research needs to be cited professionally (based on the type of citation method used by the organization foremost or by the disciplinary field secondarily). Hard science grants often require initial research and research data to show the promise of a particular approach before considering the grant applications further.

Projected Timeline. This section should also include a general projected timeline for the work with clear and measureable benchmarks of progress at each major phase and clear work at the end.

Professional Collaborations. Many of the larger funding organizations prefer to see some types of cross-institutional collaborations. These building of bridges are important to share expertise and to benefit a larger group than the funded institution. The fair handling of funds and sharing of work will be important to show to grant funders. Of course, it’s important to partner with organizations that are professional, reputable, and have strong follow-through.

How a work is conceptualized is critical to the funding. People often will not do more than is listed, and many may do much less…so funders will be looking at the grant applications with a critical eye.

Evaluation Methods. The grant applicants need to conceptualize and plan how they will have their work assessed. They will possibly bring in third-party offices to analyze their work and to suggest ways to improve, particularly for projects that continue over multiple years.

Dissemination Methods. Another part of the project description involves how the team will handle the research findings or data from the work. They will have to define their ways to effectively apply and disseminate the information—through publications, through professional conferences, and through other venues.


A budget has to clearly represent the actual costs that will go into the wages, the equipment, the travel, and any other aspects that will be funded. Most grant funding agencies will not support typical ongoing costs for an organization; these ongoing costs involve operating funds (such as general staff salaries, moneys for conferences, technical assistance, or facilities costs). Grants tend to fund special research or projects, and they will provide seed moneys for some pilot programs or research. Some may fund ongoing or new program work. Many are reluctant to fund capital or equipment costs.

They will be assessing the budget to make sure it is reasonable and real-world. They will look for a clear cost-benefit analysis and see if that suggests efficiency. They will also look for a clear and measurable “ROI” (return on investment). This will mean that it'll be important to calculate the benefits of the work (Rothwell & Cookson, 1997, pp. 244 - 246).

A budget should convey the professional experience of the grant applicants. It should also show sound fiscal policies and practices. The credibility of the grant applicants will be important here to assure the grant funders that they’ll follow-through as promised and that the money will result in positive outcomes.

Any in-kind support by the department or university should be noted here. If other grant funders have already committed to a part of the project, that should be noted. Also, there should be a clear plan for protecting the work after the life of the grant—to show that the institution of higher education will protect the monetary value of the funder’s investment.

The budget should follow typical methods of budgeting. For most grants, that would involve zero-base budgeting or starting from 0 and building the budget from ground up. A continuing budget may be a traditional incremental one which builds on the prior fiscal year’s budget with small changes. Fund accounting separates budgets based on different initiatives. Process or activity budgeting may involve different budget lines for different activities.

Organizational Information

The organizational history must be offered with one basic message: the university or college’s capacity to deliver on the promised work. To this end, funders need to know the governance structures of the school, its goals, its main activities, and the relevant infrastructures that will enable it to do the promised work. These infrastructures include the human resources (the team talent)…as defined by prior grant funds, prior published research, prior publications, prior presentations at professional conferences, and so on.

5. The Actual Grant Writing

When it’s time to do the actual grant writing, it helps to have certain documents on hand. Once these are collated, they can be used again and again for different projects as long as they’re updated.

  • Organizational budget (vs. the special proposed project budget)
  • Financial statement
  • Tax exemption letters for the non-profit status
  • Employer identification number or reporting number (9 digits and from the Internal Revenue Services--IRS)
  • Resumes of the project staff
  • A list of the members of the board of trustees
  • Annual report
  • Organizational chart
  • Organization brochures
  • Publicity about the organization: news articles, videotapes
  • Letters of support (particularly from those organizations that will be directly impacted by the program, any constituencies that would be impacted—such as students, administrators, faculty, staff, community members and others)

6. Professional Grant-writing Ethics

  • Use only true and relevant information.
  • Assure that no individual or group of employees benefits unfairly.
  • Use professional accounting practices.
  • Give credit to all members of a team that has done the work.
  • Follow professional standards for the research.
  • Report the research exactly as it has come out.

Some helpful resources follow below in terms of research ethics.

University Research Compliance Office (URCO)

K-State Human Subjects Research (Institutional Review Board)

7. Electronic Grant Submittal

Many funding agencies today receive, track, review and oversee grant applications electronically online. Some will only accept electronic files via email. Such agencies maximize the use of the Internet and World Wide Web as a way to disseminate RFPs (requests for proposals). Maintaining Web savvy will likely be a critical element in terms of competing for grant funding. Go to the following site for more information on this procedure.

8. After the Grant Award

After winning a grant, much work follows!

1) Write a thank you to the funding agency and the various people who worked to achieve this. 2) Carry out all the project activities according to plan and in a timely way. This may include monthly, quarterly and year-end progress reports. 3) Keep accurate records of all achievements related to the grant project. 4) If any significant changes come up, notify the granting agency. Modifications to the budget need to be made in a timely manner. All expenditures should be clearly documented. In-kind matches or funding matches should be clearly recorded. 5) Hire effective staff for the work. Have back-up staff in mind if there are members of the team who will not be able to continue with their part of the work. 6) File regular progress reports per the requirements of the grant. 7) Make sure any funding discrepancies are corrected.

If the grant is not awarded, go forward with learning about how to improve, and keep honing those skills for collaboration and grant-writing.



How To

Before getting started, work with the people in your unit to understand the local nuances of the grant writing process.

Make sure that you have the proper approvals needed to go forward.

The grant-writing process differs widely between fields and between units.

Possible Pitfalls

Applying for grant does involve an investment of time, energy, political goodwill, and other resources. It is important to go through the proper processes to ensure that it is worth the effort to pursue particular funds before deciding on proceeding.

Module Post-Test

1. Why is it important to conduct an environmental scan before proceeding with a grant application?

2. What are the principles to writing a strong grant? Why are these principles important? What are the unique principles in your particular discipline of study, and why?

3. Who would be promising partners with your office or college in grant pursuit? Why? What features make them promising partners?

4. What is the general cycle for a grant application, and why?

5. The most common “performance indicators” of successful grant pursuits are elegant and ambitious grant applications that accurately represent the intentions and capabilities of the grant team. The grant itself has to be self-explanatory, succinct and factually comprehensive. Any related forms have to be attached. The grant application has to meet the deadlines of the grant funding agency. Foremost, the most important indicator of success relates to awarded grants that are successfully executed upon and completed to the satisfaction of the grant funders, the local stakeholders, the academic administrators, and the team members. Based on these various criteria, how well did you and your team do?

6. What are the professional ethics for grant-writing, and why?


Rothwell, W.J. & Cookson, P.S. (1997). "Budgeting and financing programs." (Ch. 17). Beyond instruction: Comprehensive program planning for business and education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 238 - 250.

Extra Resources

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The National Institutes of Health

USDA Grants

National Science Foundation