Turning an idea into a grant

Updated on 7 July 2023

Every project that is successful in receiving grant funding starts as an idea and it is important to think about funders, developing your plan, and how to write your proposal

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Research ideas will often emerge from one of your current projects, when an area of study or research question sparks your interest. Ideas may be formed because you have seen a need, for example a gap in services or facilities in your location or in your field of expertise. Others may arise in response to specific problem that you are trying to resolve. Sometimes a project may be suggested to you by a possible sponsor or mentor.

Before you start writing

Before you start to develop your plan in any detail, it is very important to identify potential funders/funding schemes. All funders have their own aims and specific requirements for the funding they provide. If your aims and those of the funder are not a good match, then you should look for another funder/scheme, as your application is unlikely to be successful.

Once you have identified a funding opportunity, the most important thing is to read the guidelines very carefully. Everything in your application must align with these requirements.

If the guidelines make any suggestions, e.g. regarding the number of applicants or the amount requested, take note of these and offer the funder what they are looking for. This will increase your chances of being successful. Look up the aims of the funder, for example the Research Councils publish Delivery Plans highlighting their areas of focus and key activities.

It is also often possible to find information about projects that the funder has already supported, for example on the funder’s website or on the Gateway for Research for UKRI-funded projects. Decide from the award guidelines whether the support offered is sufficient for your needs.

Aspects you need to consider could include the following:

  • Is the total value going to be sufficient?
  • Will you be able to fund the staff required?
  • Are all your costs going to be allowable, e.g. equipment, travel, running workshops, specific materials, use of facilities, consultancy fees, cost of training etc?
  • Does the award allow sufficient time to undertake the necessary work?

Developing your proposal

The steps from turning an idea into a proposal can be split into the following stages:

  • Crystallise your idea into a research question
  • Decide on the points that must be addressed to answer this question
  • For each point, make a plan for how will you will address it
  • For each of these plans, consider how you would actually carry out the work – is it feasible?

A grant proposal is a very clear, direct document that has the aim of persuading a particular organisation or funding agency to provide you with support because (1) you have an important and fully considered plan to advance a valuable cause, and (2) you are responsible and capable of realising that plan.It is always important to consider how this project would fit in with your career plans:

  • What do I hope to achieve?
  • Where do I want this project to take me?
  • What do I need to conduct the project?
  • Do I have the necessary infrastructure and people at hand?
  • Am I planning to undertake this work at the right institution?

Think about the focus of your plan:

  • Why is this topic important?
  • What is significance of your project in addressing an important question?
  • What are the research questions that you are trying to answer?
  • What relevance do they have?•How will you answer them?
  • What are your research methods? Are they appropriate? Do you have the necessary skills?

Ask yourself the following question to help identify your needs:

  • Are you undertaking preliminary or pilot research, or is this a fully formed project?
  • What sort of research is it: dissertation research? Postdoctoral research? Archival research? Experimental research? Fieldwork?
  • Will you involve co-applicants?
  • Will your application be joint with a collaborator at another institution?
  • Do you need to raise your own salary? Will you need additional staff?
  • Will you need to buy expensive equipment or pay for specialist facilities or services?
  • How long will you need to complete the work?

Answering all these questions will help you to form your plan, make sure that it is the right plan at the right time for you, identify the resources you will need and help you identify the right funding body for your project.

Before you go any further

  • If the project is closely related to the project you are currently undertaking, talk to you current lab head/PI/supervisor about your plans. It is essential that you have their support
  • If you will be dependent upon collaborators, talk to them about your plans to make sure that they will support you
  • Make sure that your Division/School/University will allow you to apply for external funding and will support your application

Refining and polishing your idea

Once you have a clear idea of what you want to do and have identified a funder and scheme, start by writing a concise, specific and targeted statement of your proposal idea. Summarise your research questions, provide evidence of the idea’s importance, and specify the important problem it will address and how it will contribute to solving it. This statement will help you to crystallise your ideas and will be very useful in explaining your proposal to colleagues and potential collaborators.

Putting your idea into a project format

Sponsors fund activities, not ideas. No matter how good your ideas are, you must translate them into a specific set of activities in order to secure funding. Whether you want to establish a training program, demonstrate a novel approach to service delivery or conduct basic research, the task of moving from an idea to a practical work plan is the same.

You must define the problem or need you wish to address, formulate the goals and objectives of your response to that problem, and then decide what specific actions you will undertake to fulfil those goals and objectives. You should also give thought to potential pitfalls, how the project will be evaluated to determine its success, and whether it will be sustainable after the funded project period has ended.

An excellent way to start is to develop a concise outline containing each of the elements discussed below. An outline allows you to organize your thoughts into a coherent action plan and will help you formulate your arguments to persuade a potential sponsor of your proposed project’s value. Work on each section until you have established a strong, logical connection between the activities you propose to undertake and the resolution of the problem you have defined.

Try to look at the project from a potential funder’s perspective. Why would they want to support this activity? Who might benefit from it? What might the project accomplish? Can this project be replicated or disseminated broadly? Share the outline with colleagues, both expert and not, who can provide valuable feedback and guidance.

The next stage is to start to write a detailed application, but make sure that you have the support of your School to make this application.

Important aspects (which are also covered in other documents in this library) will include the following:

  • make sure you understand the application process in every detail
  • take note of the application deadlines and set yourself a timetable
  • register on any online application systems that will be required, e.g. Je-S
  • get in touch with Research Finance Services to register your application on a PRF (Project Registration Form) and to start to develop your budget