Get that grant!

With a couple of high value Inspiring Australia national grants rounds currently open for STEM engagement practitioners, the October Lightning Lunch was all about winning grants. One of the guest presenters was Rebecca Colless whose experience as a communications consultant includes devloping many fruitful grant applications for researchers and innovators. Rebecca shares her grant writing tips.

I wrote my first grant application in 1996 and won funding for my travelling science show from the Australian Government’s Science and Technology Awareness Program. These days, I’m a freelance communications consultant, working mainly in tech transfer, in connection with gemaker.

As part of my work, this involves:

  • interviewing researchers and innovators and translating their scientific or technical capabilities into value propositions and strategic communications for stakeholders and customers
  • creating pitch decks, websites, social media content, blogs, brochures, education programs, newsletters, reports, case studies, media releases and lobbying letters
  • training academics and businesspeople in research-industry engagement and communications, including pitching and grant writing, and
  • writing grant applications that frequently win significant funding for researchers and innovators to commercialise their new ideas and technologies.

Rebecca’s top tips for grant applicants

1. Develop a SMART project plan

This is fundamental to a strong application and it’s often a required attachment. It should include your project’s background, objective, market, benefits, budget, team, risk management, milestones and evaluation. Make sure your project is SMART, i.e:

Achievable (and Agreed by all proposing parties)
Relevant (and Resourced by you to some degree) and
Time-limited (also Timely and Time-sensitive)

2. Do you really need a grant?

Completing an application will cost you many hours, and that means dollars. You’ll have to demonstrate a strong need for government funding, and this means a lack of other options. If you win a grant, there are burdensome reporting requirements. For all these reasons, I recommend you investigate whether you can fund your project any other way.

3. Tick the boxes

  • Are your organisation and project activities eligible for funding? 
  • Is your proposal strategically aligned with the funding program’s objectives?
  • Does it address a hot issue? For example is your topic high on the government’s agenda or in the headlines?
  • Is it of similar size and significance to previously funded projects?
  • Is it different – though perhaps complementary – to previously funded projects?
  • Does your team have all the relevant capabilities and credentials of similar weight to previous grant winners?

Unless you answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions, it’s not worth investing in a grant application.

4. Answer the damn questions!

It seems obvious, but many applicants fail to meet this basic requirement. Read each criterion carefully and address every part of it or you’ll instantly lose points (think of it like an exam paper). Make it easy for the assessors to appreciate your grant-worthiness by using sub-headings that match each part of the question and echoing the key words in your response.

5. Provide evidence

If you make any claim, such as ‘There is high demand for our innovation/project’, you must support it with current facts and figures from reputable sources. Internet research (public domain info) is a good start, but your own end-user survey or interviews will give you a competitive edge. Positive testimonials are gold. Avoid making anything up, because assessors will do their due diligence.

6. Tell a charming story

If you want a child’s attention, just say the magic words: ‘Once upon a time…’ Storytelling works like a charm on grown-ups too, even hardened grant assessors. You need to grab their attention and develop a clear, relatable and memorable narrative, irresistibly leading them to conclude that your project must be funded. 

Here’s how to create a story:

  • Start with a hook, e.g. a shocking statistic, surprising misconception, or inspiring quote from an authority.
  • Provide a little backstory about the personal motivation behind your proposal.
  • Build their understanding in simple steps towards complex concepts
  • Make smooth connections and logical transitions so your paragraphs flow.
  • Anticipate the assessors’ concerns and rebut them proactively.
  • Use the active voice, e.g. ‘We interviewed parents’ not ‘Parents were interviewed’.
  • Employ emotive words, but sparingly and strategically.

7. If you can’t be charming, at least be succinct

Most applications have tight word – or even character – limits, but succinctness should be your goal regardless. Keep to the point and tell the assessors what they want to know, not everything you know, i.e. answer the damn questions!

8. If you can’t be charming or even succinct, seek professional help early

For example, at we offer flexible support. From least to most expensive service, we can: 

  • read your draft application (or parts of it) and provide advice on improvements, and/or
  • write or edit a section/s of your application that you’re struggling with, or
  • develop your entire application, provided you’ve followed tips 1, 2 and 3, above.

Inspiring Australia Grants

There are two Inspiring Australia national grants rounds currently open:

Thanks to Rebecca Colless for these great tips! Rebecca has studied science, communication, writing and journalism and has produced education and marketing communications for science centres, a water supplier, CSIRO, UTS and her own successful businesses. She now works with gemaker.