Writing a standout grant narrative
Your grant application hinges largely on the strength of your research approach narrative - it can account for upwards of 80% of your total score. You might have an incredible climate project that meets all of the agency’s requirements, but if your narrative is poorly written, you won’t stand a chance of winning the funding. Your narrative needs to contain the relevant background information and any preliminary results you can demonstrate, as well as your actual plan for the grant - how you're going to achieve your objectives, why they're important, and the impact they'll have.
Ron Godiska is a scientist and Grant Development Lead at Climate Finance Solutions, with decades of experience applying for grants. We sat down with him to discuss meticulously reading the requirements, setting your objectives, illustrating your impact, and everything else you need to know about writing a successful grant narrative.
This is the fourth in a series of pieces we're publishing together with Climate Finance Solutions to provide tactical guidance to climate entrepreneurs around winning and managing grants.
Read everything, then read it again
Government agencies are generally very explicit about how they want you to write your narrative and what should be included - sometimes down to the font they want you to use - so read very carefully. This also goes for eligibility - they’ll have details on what kinds of applicants and what areas of research are eligible, so it’s critical you triple check this before you start writing. The competition for grants is incredibly strong, so it’s not worth trying to fit a square peg into a round hole
Start with the scope
In developing the scope, you’re aligning your company’s long-term plans with what the granting agency is asking for, and developing your strategy for the grant. This internal document will serve as the bones of the narrative that you’ll submit to the agency, so it’s crucial that you work on the scope first to formulate your plans for the grant. The scope will lead you to write the Specific Aims or Objectives for the grant.
Set attainable but significant objectives
The Objectives, or Specific Aims, are a set of 3-5 discrete tasks that you will achieve during the grant. At the end of the grant period, you’ll need to demonstrate that you met the objectives you set out in your application - in some cases, you’ll only be eligible for follow-up grant funding if you’ve accomplished these goals. To be able to easily prove you’ve met or exceeded your objectives, they should be numerical metrics, not vague terms like ‘evaluate’ or ‘explore’. They should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely - an example might be generating a 30% increase in efficiency. But don’t set the bar too low - if, for example, you only aim for a 3% increase in efficiency, this won’t be seen as impactful or impressive.
Outside perspective can be valuable in creating objectives that are significant but still within reach, so speak to leaders in the field. Ideally, they’ll come onboard as consultants on your grant, but if not, they might still be willing to give you guidance on what you should be aiming for.
Be clear about your impact
An area where many entrepreneurs falter is writing about the impact of their work. Think about its significance in terms of dollars saved for the consumer, dollars saved for the federal agency, lives saved, acres treated, and so on. These potential impacts are the linchpin of your narrative, and you need to put them into text in a clear and explicit way, with context.
Show your pathway from receiving the grant funding to delivering these outcomes. Start with the details of what you’re developing, but don’t focus solely on your own technology - fit it into the larger picture of how it’s going to address the needs of the granting agency, and how it will affect the world in general.
Stakeholders’ success is your success
Government grants serve many purposes, and while helping startups thrive is part of their mission, that’s only insofar as your success contributes to their main goal of generating public good. The USDA is not necessarily interested in your small business succeeding, but it is indeed interested in your small business being successful in helping farmers across the country (or in a specific region) and to combat climate change. In your narrative, don’t focus on the benefits to your business, but on the benefits you’ll bring to the agency’s target beneficiary.
Know the competitive landscape
It’s part of your job as an applicant to explore the solutions your competitors are offering - the awarding agency knows they exist, so you can’t just put your head in the sand. Expect the reviewers to be very knowledgeable about both the current landscape and upcoming solutions, and write with the aim of convincing them your approach is superior to what’s out there now, as well as what’s likely to exist in five years.
Cite your sources
Citations might not be necessary in a VC pitch, but your grant reviewers will likely be experts from academic backgrounds, and they will expect everything to be properly referenced and complete with a scientific review of the literature. If you’ve never been in an academic environment, or need a refresher, do some homework around how to correctly cite your sources, and research free tools that can help do it for you.
Reviewers will often look up those references to check your work and research the context for your project. As well as peppering your narrative with references to works that support your stance, you should find some that you disagree with and explain why - an expert reviewer is likely to be aware of these contradictory viewpoints, and you’ll want to preemptively offset any concerns they might have.
Be open, but protect your IP
When it comes to writing about how you’re going to achieve your objectives, some agencies will want you to outline each task and subtask, while others will let you be more fluid. In any case, it’s crucial that you thoroughly define exactly what you plan to do - don’t jump to the final outcome, but outline every step that’ll get you towards that outcome.
This section should be so comprehensive that the reviewer could theoretically describe your plan to someone else. If sharing this level of detail concerns you from an IP perspective, remember that what you write will be treated confidentially.
If there’s something so unique and valuable to your process that it can't be disclosed under any circumstances, you can explain this in your application and only divulge as much as you’re comfortable with. However, reviewers tend to frown on this, and you don't want to shoot yourself in the foot by holding back information that’s critical to them taking you seriously. Be mindful of the risk and take the necessary precautions to protect yourself, but don’t be too secretive. Instead of withholding information, consider filing a provisional patent before you start applying for grants.
Consider hiring a writer
If people don't regularly tell you you're a good writer, you should hire someone to write it for you. But be sure to work closely alongside them, providing them with outlines and all the information they need. If you do decide to write it yourself, remember to use clear and concise language and keep the text jargon free - it’s fine to write in the first person.
Ron is a scientific writer and molecular biologist with over two decades of grant writing expertise. He specializes in designing effective grant aims and approaches, underpinned by expert writing. Ron has developed and written dozens of winning grants to advance climate smart technologies, human therapeutics, applications of machine learning, methods of molecular biology, and clinical trials of drug candidates. His early career was focused on DNA rearrangement and inflammation, followed by development of DNA cloning and sequencing technologies. His grant writing career began as a bench scientist in a start-up biotech, where he helped win over 70 SBIR grants. He subsequently has spent several years as a full-time grant writer, helping companies obtain over $15 million in grants. Ron has been the Principal Investigator on several Phase I and Phase II SBIR grants and has worked with research teams worldwide to help them achieve innovative goals. Ron holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Indiana University - Bloomington and a B.S. in Biology from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.