Successful grant applications require expertise, dedication and time
As an example, a grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) might include funding to renovate one or more floors of an existing lab to accommodate equipment for achieving the grant’s mission. Of course, assembling a successful NIH grant application requires expertise, dedication, and perhaps most important, time. Researchers, scientists, and other stakeholders must find the time to provide detailed information to the grant writers and then review the drafts with a deadline looming. Given the full daily agendas of medical school faculty, time frames tend to compress. It isn’t uncommon to finish assembling the application package within days or hours of the deadline.
To surmount these challenges, the grant-writing effort relies on a solid understanding of the key ingredient in gaining an award: efficient and productive collaboration among the project team, the user group, and team leader. The quality of the proposal is also crucial. As with any presentation, clarity and legibility are baseline expectations, and the best applications are built around a story (or narrative), because stories grip the reader and compel him or her to read further.
Issues affecting grant awards
Two factors—user needs and the scale of project—play a large part in the success of a grant application. After these factors are established, it is important to reevaluate the project to determine whether it is functional and realistic. User needs include adequate space, appropriate technology, and infrastructure—such as HVAC, electrical power, and structural strength—that will support the scientific work called for by the grant solicitation. There should be a close fit between the space allocation and the proposed programming. If there is more space than programming, reviewers will question the adequacy of the planning. Likewise, a stingy space allotment suggests that planning has not done its job. An architectural firm can design the space and develop conceptual 3-D renderings that make space planning clear to reviewing agencies. The investment required to retain such expert support is small compared with the funds that would accompany the grant. While the research work itself is the most important part of an application, the evaluators at the granting agencies will likely move on to other applications if the space supporting the work is inadequate or questionable.
Funding agencies such as the NIH look carefully at space planning, asking if the space has been fully programmed. It is a helpful exercise to assume the point of view of the granting agency. It needs to protect its investment as well as be assured that research results will be achieved in a reasonable time frame. Part of the grant application’s function is to assure agency directors that their money will be efficiently and productively spent. The demonstration of this assurance is provided by exhibits.
As a case in point, the NIH makes judgments according to design criteria that call for specific schematic drawings. These drawings may show that the lab space provides required safety clearances between doors and equipment. Winning applications also include elevation drawings of—to name one typical example— benches. The applications show the location of data ports and other details that go beyond the position of a bench in the floor layout.
Grant reviewers may also appreciate general per-square-foot estimates of the costs involved in outfitting lab space. The competition for funding is so fierce that even the smallest questions left unanswered in an application can spell failure.
Scale, the other key factor affecting awards, depends on the amount of the grant being pursued. Should a school go after two $4 million grants or one $8 million grant? At what point does the quality of the proposal suffer because the grant-writing resources are spread too thin?
Finally, before submitting a grant application, review the space design of the lab. Can it handle the work? Does it comply with NIH or other agency guidelines? Is the proposal itself realistic? If you were the granting agency, would you be satisfied with the quality and amount of information provided in this application?
Fostering productive collaboration
Every successful grant application combines the following ingredients: a clear narrative path, proven methods, strong planning, and involvement of key players. The grant-writing team gathers information to support the substance and space design of the application by interviewing and collaborating with a wide range of people. Grant applications move forward on schedules so tight that decisions cannot be left to committees. A small number of team members make the key decisions. The project manager decides on the substance. The director of operations or facilities may make decisions about lab space and equipment, but whoever makes those decisions must have final authority.
As the narrative and design evolve, both should be circulated among the user group, the school of medicine, the design professionals, and the decision makers for comments. Collaboration methods include in-person meetings, telephone, videoconferences, and email. The project manager and the director of operations often manage the flow of information about substance and design.
When the project team has addressed the key issues, talked with key players and decision makers, drafted the narrative, and fleshed out the design, it is time to assemble the application package. Winning packages combine clarity in presentation with detailed technical evidence. Explain the intent and purpose of the grant application in precise and straightforward language, and support the narrative with detailed schematics. The schematics should address the proposed space as well as the equipment, layout, specifications, and facility provisions.
If the grant application is presented properly, the careful planning and collaboration by key players will bear fruit. The presentation of the material can help to further the original narrative developed in the grant application and catch the interest of decision makers. With such fierce competition for funding, every piece of the puzzle is important, and a well-defined team, with a hierarchy and the ability to make crucial decisions, can put together a winning package.
Grant Application Presentation
Because each agency has its own formatting preferences, it’s important to follow the guidelines provided by the agency to which you are applying. For example, the NIH requires an 8.5" x 11" narrative paired with graphics to explain technical information and develop details. Enlarged exhibits may sometimes be necessary to communicate details clearly. These may include color or monochrome images on separate pages with notes. For a single floor renovation of 10,000 to 20,000 square feet, a typical appendix would include 12 to 20 exhibit drawings.
Most reviewers are engineers and architects who expect technical accuracy and industry standards, including the scale of the drawings in an exhibit. For example, exhibits should show appropriate clearances around cabinets, air flow around doors, and other technical details. In addition, include details that reveal the character of the institution, along with site plans that show the location of the facilities referenced in the application and their relationships to other buildings.