Carly Strasser, PhD, has worked in academia, philanthropy, and open source scholarly publishing. She currently serves as the Director of Academic Alliances and Data Strategy at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Here she offers high-level guidance about how to begin pursuing funding. Photo by #WOCinTechChat
All funders are different
Approaches that work well for one funder won’t necessarily inspire another. Maybe more importantly, foundations often heavily rely on their staff to vet potential ideas. That means that as program officers and other personnel change, the focus of the foundation’s money changes too. This means it’s very important to...
Do your homework on the funder
Spend lots of time on the funder's website and research them online. Investigate whether they've recently funded people and projects similar to you and yours. Make sure the funder you are investigating actually has funds to disburse.
Do your homework on your idea
Become very familiar with your competition, both direct and adjacent. Are others doing this already? If so, how are you doing it differently? Have you talked to those who came before you? If not, why not? Are there opportunities for collaboration? Funders hear about lots of ideas; they may be aware of similar projects that already exist. It won't reflect well on you if you're in the dark about them.
Make a connection
Try to find the appropriate program officer to contact to learn more about the foundation's vision and goals. If there’s a call for proposals, reach out to the person listed as the contact even if you think you know what they're looking for. Ask open-ended questions that help you understand what impact they aim to have with that particular tranche of funding. Make sure you don’t ask any questions that their website answers.
It is much easier to make a connection with a funder if you have a contact who can introduce you. If happen to meet a funder or program staff in person, don’t try to befriend them insincerely when what you really want is money. Funders recognize this move and find it annoying. Instead, be up front. “I have a great idea I’d like to share with you” is a good start. Funders are used to being approached; don’t be scared.
Prepare for a verbal ask
- Follow the basic components of any research story. Introduce the problem, describe your solution, and outline what you think it will take.
- Don’t tell a sad story about how you’re out of money. Instead, spin positive. “This project is super cool and important because...”
- Generally, asking for bridge funding suggests that you haven’t thought about sustainability up until now and are freaking out about what’s next. It’s not a very appealing ask, but you can give it a try if you need to!
- Don’t assume the funder already knows why your project is important. Also don’t assume they are totally clueless. Check in during the conversation to make sure you are hitting the right complexity level. Avoid acronyms.
- Make sure you know your competition. See above.
- Have your idea fully formed, including a budget ballpark and timeline.
- Breathe. Pause to make sure the funder can get a word in edgewise to ask questions and offer reflections. This is harder than you might think.
Write the one-pager
A funder may ask you to submit “a one-pager describing the project.” This is quite vague, so ask if they have any guidance. A one-pager can be more than one page but not more than three.
Brevity is key! This isn’t the proposal phase, so don’t treat it like one. On the other hand, don’t dismiss this activity as irrelevant. Give enough info so the funder can make a preliminary decision and assume there will be more time for discussion.
If the funder provides no guidance, I suggest including the following sections:
- Title. It doesn’t need to be long.
- Background. Why is this project important or relevant? Who else is working on this question and how? How does your project relate? (This should take up about 20% of the document.)
- Problem statement. What problems will your project help solve? Why is there a need? This can also be incorporated into the background, but bold it if you do so. (10%)
- Project description. What work needs to be done? How will you accomplish it? (40%)
- Deliverables and time table. How long will the work take? What will be the end result? Are there measurable milestones? This can be a paragraph, a table, or a list, or it can be incorporated as callouts in the main project description. (20%)
- Budget overview and justification. Break expenses down into categories. Include personnel, supplies, travel, etc. This can be a paragraph or table, depending on how much detail you want to provide. (10%)
Write your proposal carefully
- Find the foundation's instructions for proposals and follow them. Then check to be sure you followed them, then have your friends check to be sure you followed them.
- Find out if there is a chance to work with foundation staff to refine the proposal. Work with them if there is!
- Leave plenty of white space and break up the text. Think about magazine layouts that are easy to read — they have subheadings, figures, callouts.
- Write clearly and concisely. Seriously: You get no bonus points for complex sentences that are hard to understand. Define your acronyms and provide references when appropriate.
- Outline your deliverables. This seems basic, but you’d be surprised how many applicants don't do it. This could be as simple as a sentence (“At the end of the project we will have reached version 1.0 of the software.”) or as complex as a Gantt chart.
- Provide justification for your budget. Check your math.
- Ask about the funder’s timeline early in the process and don’t pester them before it’s appropriate.
- Keep your audience in mind when you check in — some funders are easier to reach via phone, while others like email. Your best bet is to ask someone who’s gotten funding from them in the past about communication strategies.
Don’t take it personally if it takes a while
If you don’t hear back right away, know that it’s (probably) not about you. Keep in mind that funders are constantly being asked for things, and invariably some communication falls through the cracks. It’s not you, it’s them.
Don’t take it personally if you don’t get the money
Board members change over, foundations shift focus, the program officer who was advocating for the project quits. Ask if there’s a possibility to reapply, and seek constructive feedback to improve your proposal.
Find useful resources
There are plenty of informative resources about fundraisng online. For exmaple, here's a good one called "Ten Simple Rules for Getting Grants," published in PLoS Computational Biology. Seek out general tips as well as advice that relates to your particular field.