I presented a seminar on grantmaking in Kenya last month, where one attendee asked me “What are the main reasons that JRS declines funding a proposal?” That’s a good question and very fair question that got me thinking. Without further ado here are the five reasons that sink more than half of all proposals.
- The proposal does not fall within our scope. The most valuable advice that we give is to closely read the scope and ‘check off the boxes’ that we provide for features of successful proposals. Our focus is the biodiversity data and information system. We fund the stuff of biodiversity informatics -mobile apps, databases, data cleaning, data curation, websites, visualization platforms, data standards, and other tools that promote access to and use of biodiversity data. Our scope also includes involving the end-users of information in the project. We receive a lot of proposals that are for basic research, economic livelihood development, and environmental restoration for which the information technologies are an afterthought. In a typical year, almost one-third of proposals are out of scope upon arrival. We have many feedback channels, so that doesn’t happen, see: Seven Roads to Easier Grant Proposals.
- The project aspirations are too broad to succeed. More is not better. We see quite a few proposals that in a single project might propose building a database, forming partnerships, collecting data, developing a mobile app, training staff, influencing policy, resolving taxonomic issues, conducting public awareness raising, and produce publications. Not only is that extremely complex but project teams never encompass all of the needed expertise for success. We’d rather see projects accomplish a few goals very well than promise us the world.
- The proposal does not demonstrate expertise or awareness of knowledge gaps in biodiversity informatics. Our proposals ask for descriptions of technical solutions including the hardware, software, data standards, data access, or other key features of information technologies. We either wish to see some evidence of expertise or past success or an explicit plan to access that expertise through collaborations or contracted services. If information technologies are not critical to your success, your project is not likely to be in our scope. We advise sharing links to projects and tools similar to those you propose so that we can visualize your outputs and outcomes.
- The proposal reflects weak plans or weak planning skills. We believe in capacity development and that we must take risks of investing where capacity is limited. However, we need to see good skill levels that the applicant can connect goals to project activities and outputs and connect activities and outputs to time and money. We’re a financial institution and need to see well-articulated and explained budgets. JRS employs a very adaptive style of grant management. We want our project directors to be exceptional planners to adapt throughout the project. We need good communicators. We advise you to plan first, then write the proposal.
- The proposal text does not give us the information we need. The most valuable advice I gave in that grant-writing seminar was “Read the Instructions!” Many applicants don’t answer the question we ask, despite our many guideposts and tips that explain what makes a good answer. We often get a lot of text about the problem and its importance where we are asking about activities and results. We make grants for the big reasons, and too much detail or nuance can obscure the vital information. We advise you to first answer our question in 1-2 sentences and put those sentence at the start of any more detailed explanation.
Odds of JRS funding are pretty good when proposals (1) are in scope, (2) are focused and feasible, (3) have information systems at their core, (4) are based in a good plan, and (5) concisely answer the questions. Sometimes in life and in grant-winning, success is as much about avoiding pitfalls as doing the right thing. Grant applications that avoid these five pitfalls land pretty quickly in the top 25% of proposals for which funding odd are 33-50%. At that level, those with strong partnerships, an involvement of end-users, tangible outputs, and a strong contribution to biodiversity informatics capacity development win the race.