I get great questions from webinars and emails that give me a chance to illustrate important points about grant writing. I just got an email question that brought up an important issue:
Recently, I read a proposal written by a tenured faculty member who recently got her R01 funded. She has a record of getting grants, so, I expected to have my socks blown off by her proposal…. The proposal wasn’t exciting: it didn’t even explain why it was important (although there were TONS of technical details) … So my question is this: how much do other factors (like who writes your letters, what school you came from, whose lab you came from) play into the funding decision?
Grants are very much like “marketing”. You’re trying to “sell” your project to your reviewer and funder. Given that context, we can analyze this from a marketing perspective.
There are two basic types of marketing: Brand Marketing and Direct Marketing.
Brand Marketing is what you see from big companies, like car companies, soda companies, shoe companies, etc. Brand Marketing is there to establish a reputation, an image of quality, and a long term relationship. A company might do this so that when you think “shoes” you think automatically think of a certain company starting with N and ending with E (for example). That helps them have “perceived value” in what they do (which has to be backed up by real value, i.e. good products, or they’ll loose their brand image over time, despite the marketing).
Direct Marketing is what smaller business must rely upon to get a message out. They don’t have the budget (or time) to rely on big, expensive, long-term brand building campaigns. A successful small business will go direct-to-consumer with a message, and make the most compelling case possible for the consumer to “buy” what they have to offer. Over the long haul, they’ll build a “brand” up as well, but it takes a lot of time.
It’s the same (I’m not kidding!) in the grant world. After someone has been around for a while, and done a good job of establishing their “brand” in a particular area, then they can do a sloppy job of the direct marketing and sometimes get away with it. As long as their name is recognizable to reviewers, and as long as those reviewers like what they’ve seen, it is a HUGE accelerant.
However, for someone who isn’t an established “brand name”, the accelerant is missing (though there can be a bit of that from the institution you’re at and the mentors you’ve worked with).
In that case, you have only one thing to rely upon: your “direct marketing.” And that’s what your proposal is… a direct marketing piece. You’re trying to sell a specific audience on a specific idea or project, at a specific point in time…
Since you don’t have a “brand” to back you up, you have to do a far better job of your direct marketing, i.e. writing a killer proposal and having a great project!
I think the senior colleague is relying upon her “brand” to get funded. The danger is that could dry up at any time. I’ve had plenty of senior people who come to me for help after 20+ years of regular grant funding, and now suddenly can’t get grants. The brand just isn’t enough (by itself) anymore. The proposal has to be fantastic too.
The ultimate combination is to do a fantastic job of the direct marketing, AND building your brand over time.