The Tyranny and Beauty of a Grant Application Form

Pritpal S Tamber

June 29, 2018

I wrote a grant application for Beyond Systems yesterday. It’s the first time I’ve written a grant application without being invited to, my first speculative punt. I was left with two thoughts.

The first isn’t great – applying for grants is an art form. I suspect that’s not news to any readers but I was taken by how our plans struggled to fit into the funder’s online form. It made me realise that writing an application for a grant is only partly about what you want to do; the rest comes down to how well you can make it fit a form.

Of course, the form may simply be a reflection of the funder’s priorities. In that case, a structured form makes all the sense in the world. And, in fact, if what I’m asking for doesn’t fit into that kind of form, then perhaps I’m asking the wrong organisation. However, in this case, it was just about the form per se. I felt very un-skilled, almost too stupid to apply.

The second is how the process of asking someone for money really makes you thrash out some of the uncertainties that you’ve been overlooking, whether intentionally or otherwise. That’s not always a good thing – if you’re dealing with a complex social issue like health, you cannot be certain about everything – but in this case it was.

One of the things that I realised was that we’re talking about wanting to nurture the field of practice but hadn’t attributed any effort towards marketing. It’s all very well us trying to nurture the field but if no one has heard of us, does it matter? I think there are enough echo chambers in this space already; I’d hate to give rise to yet another.

On a related note, earlier in the week I spoke with someone running what I was told was a similar project to Beyond Systems. It wasn’t – at least not yet – but what really struck me about the call was that every time I mentioned any aspect of our work, the person was able to say they’d done a report on it, commissioned some work on it, knew of it already. It was relentless. It didn’t matter what I said. ‘Been there, done that’ seemed to be the message. And yet, I’d never seen their work once, despite being in this space for almost six years.

I’d rather do less, and the work be known. And I’m intrigued by how a grant application form can make or break what you’re trying to do.

Pritpal S Tamber

Independent Writer, Researcher & Consultant | pritpal@pstamber.com

I'm an independent writer, researcher and consultant focussing on community health and medical information. I'm a former physician, medical editor and medical publisher, and also the former Physician Editor of TEDMED. I began my career at The BMJ. For more information, see the About page.

2 thoughts on “The Tyranny and Beauty of a Grant Application Form”

  1. nick.gardham@corganisers.org.uk

    The phrase ‘been there done that’ is something that we hear a lot when talking about community organising. When I first started to hear it, it was at times disheartening. I was optimistic (perhaps naively) but I had the belief that things could and should be better. But how could they be, if other people had tried an failed.
    But then I reminded myself, if they tried and failed… its not that its not worth doing – its about learning and then doing things differently.
    So when hearing it got tough – I reminded myself of Bernard of Chartres (well I actually I knew its popularity through Oasis but the latter makes me sound cleverer! who said, we are ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’…

  2. Dr. Tamber,

    I always enjoy reading your blogs and posts as you I feel that you articulate the feelings that many of us have regarding the most common, yet perplexing, challenges and barriers of this work.
    I have felt for some time now that the work many of us do is not so different. It is what we focus on within the work and the strategy we take in performing it that makes all the difference. My thought is that commissioning work, researching studies, speaking engagements and webinars, while important, do not amount to much without outcomes and engagement from the communities we serve. Don’t be distracted by the noise of those that prefer to pat themselves on the back and keep fighting the good fight!

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