You may be thinking, I don’t have time to work on grant applications because I’m too busy running my business. A better way to consider this is – if I devote time to preparing for grant applications, it will help me grow my business.
Applying for grants is an excellent way for SMEs to supplement their working capital requirements and limit inherent risk in moving from the research bench to implementation. Similarly, for researchers, grant programmes give you a great way to link with industry partners so risks are mitigated by external funding.
Developing a competitive grant application is not unlike a strategy review. Regardless of the purpose or structure of a particular grant program, what will be required in all cases is something akin to a SWOT analysis and a commercialisation plan.
If your application is to stand out, it needs to be able to clearly articulate the opportunities you are targeting, highlight your competitive advantages, and demonstrate you are aware of – and have a plan to deal with – the risks. It would be best to show you have the strengths to deliver the project you seek funding for and how you plan to address any capability weaknesses (which may be why you are seeking funding).
Similar to when developing your overall business strategy, you need to understand the bigger picture when drafting a grant application. Governments want bang for their buck, and departments want ‘announceables’ for their ministers. Grant assessors are looking for more than how your company will individually benefit or profit by receiving a grant – they want to see how it meets the programme objectives.
This is why grant application templates typically ask how closely aligned your project is with government policies and goals for a particular industry or sector, how many jobs it will create, what sort of multiplier effect your project will have, what economic and social benefits will it bring to, say, regional communities; how does the project support eco-system development; and what is the breadth and depth of industry/research collaboration involved?
These should not be viewed as annoying questions that get in the way of you explaining how great your technology or idea is. They are questions that typically have heavy weightings in the assessment criteria. They are also questions that you should be able to provide solid responses to if you are regularly reviewing your corporate strategy and refreshing your business plan.
To adequately address these questions, you need the evidence/data that backs up claims you may be making about market opportunities. You should have already been building relationships with potential industry partners, suppliers and universities/research institutions and been consulting with communities and other stakeholders as part of your everyday business activities.
If you have a sound strategy and plan that is regularly assessed and refreshed, when it comes time to complete a grant application, your organisation would be well placed to address the assessment criteria.
That said, there is an important distinction that needs to be made between your company’s broader business activities and the project for which you are specifically seeking funding.
Your application needs to focus on this project’s discrete set of activities and its specific budget and timeline for delivery. You will also have the opportunity to explain where this project fits into your broader plans.
This means you need to resist the temptation to cut and paste from previous grant applications or your current strategy documents. No two grant programs are likely to have exactly the same goals and focus. If you plan to put forward the same project for different grant programs, you will need to present its merits in a way that reflects the specific requirements of each programme.
Grant applications need to be a team effort. Don’t leave the job just with your technical experts, as your application will probably focus too much on the details of your technology and processes.
And don’t leave it just to the marketing department, which may be inclined to use generalised and/or bold claims that they might not have the evidence or research to back up.
Executive management needs to be involved throughout the process as they bring the broader vision and industry insights that need to be woven into the application’s narrative. This, of course, can’t happen if the first time the CEO sees a draft of the application is the day before the submission deadline.
Overall, grant applications are more often successful where the programmes of interest are identified early, and pre-planning is done to be ready for when the applications are opened.