Salesmanship: Appealing to Your Funder

A common mistake made by novice proposal writers is writing the research proposal for an external award application from their own perspective alone, or from the perspective of their thesis or dissertation advisor: I need money to do X, my advisor likes to hear me talk about Y, I think it’s interesting to consider Z. These concerns are real and necessary to establish in the course of a research project, and are perfectly appropriate perspectives to bring to writing the dissertation proposal for your advising committee. However, applications for external awards are most likely to be successful when they are constructed specifically around the unique goals, reviewer background, and review process of an individual funder and award program.

Good salesmanship of your ideas depends first upon knowing what your funder intends to accomplish with their funds, both in general and through the awards it offers. What is the general mission of the organization? What are the specific goals of the award program? How do the small goals of the award program fit with the other initiatives of the funder to help them accomplish their overall mission? Once you fully understand what the award is meant to do, you will be well situated to pitch your proposal as the best way to do it! For example, if a fellowship program’s intention is preparing young scholars to pursue a well-rounded academic career, make sure you spend time in the application discussing all of the different types of activities you will engage in during your degree program, including teaching and service- even if research is all you really want to write about. If a grants program is specifically devoted to advancing cancer research by supporting in vitro laboratory studies, you probably won’t want to spend much time talking about your experience as a TA- even if teaching is your favorite pastime.

A good salesperson also knows his or her audience, and appeals to the concerns and perspectives of the buyers (or reviewers). First, investigate the funder’s website, and try to find out as much as you can about the reviewers as possible. For example, some award programs have an established committee whose identities and fields of expertise are listed on the website, while others will give a general idea that reviewers are scholars in one field, multiple fields, or are generalists without specialized knowledge. If your award program does not give details about the reviewers, you might contact the program officer or program administrator to respectfully ask for more information about the general backgrounds of typical reviewers. Once you have as much information as possible about your audience, write your proposal with them in mind: If your reviewers are specialists in your general field, you might give more details regarding your methods, be quite specific about the ways in which your work will draw from the established scholarship in your discipline, and explain in detail the ways the work will move the field forward. If reviewers are likely to be drawn from a discipline that is not your own, be sure to build the rationale for your proposal (in terms of current concerns, literature citations, and outcomes) from the reviewers’ disciplinary perspective and not your own. If your review audience will include scholars from multiple disciplines, it is wise to build the rationale in an interdisciplinary, and sometimes more general, perspective.

Finally, a good salesperson understands the process by which their item will be purchased- or in this case, their application will be funded. Again, spend time on the website and talk with the program to understand as much as you can about the review process for the application. By what specific criteria will the application be judged? What elements are necessary as part of a complete application package? How many levels of review will be conducted, and will these different levels of review conducted by scholars with similar or different perspectives? For example, some applications are prescreened for specific ideas, suggesting that keywords should be put in bold, italics, or underlined. In other cases, proposals are reviewed by a disciplinary panel first, and an interdisciplinary panel if they score high enough to become finalists- in this case, we recommend writing the introduction and conclusion for the interdisciplinary audience, and the rest of the proposal for the disciplinary panel.

For more guidance on how to sell your proposal to a specific funder, or for ways to describe your work differently for multiple award programs, schedule an individual appointment with a GradFund Fellowship Advisor anytime!

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