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Leadership Lesson: A New Investigator's Journal: Writing a Foundation Grant

by Laura Castillo-Page, Ph.D.

The diary in this Leadership Lesson is fictional, but will be familiar to anyone who has been engaged in a career of community based scholarship. Dr. Laura Estel Vega was appointed as assistant professor in pediatrics two years ago. She is concerned about the incidence and consequences of obesity in children in the community she serves. Two months prior to the writing of this journal, she submitted a proposal to a philanthropic foundation that supports community health research. The foundation responded to her letter of intent (LOI) by asking for a full proposal. The proposal is due in eight weeks. Since this is her first experience in submitting a grant proposal of this kind, she keeps a detailed journal, from which she and others might learn more about grant writing for community based research. You’re about to read excerpts of her journal.

April 6, 2007 Letter of intent accepted; eight weeks to submission!

I’m so excited! Today I received a letter from the Richer than Rich Foundation expressing interest in my research project and inviting me to submit a full proposal. When I wrote the letter of intent (LOI) , I really thought it was a long shot. But now, just two months later, they are considering funding this project. I always believed in this project, and now I have a chance to make it happen. Okay, I need to calm down, take a deep breath, and think through all the steps I have to complete in order to get this proposal submitted in just eight weeks. Yikes!

April 9, 2007 Tips from my research mentor

Today I met with my mentor, Dr. Smart. She has a lot of experience with grant writing and has been a principal investigator on a number of NIH and foundation funded projects. Her mentorship will be crucial throughout this process. She provided me with a list on helpful online resources  and walked me through the proposal-writing process and offered some important tips:

  • Budget sufficient time for the entire process
    Although the deadline for the proposal is set by the Foundation, having a timeline will help us to stay on track and meet internal deadlines. I’ll draft a timeline and share it with the group for their feedback.
  • Assemble a team of colleagues (the Collaborative) with complementary knowledge and skills
    I think we have this covered. I’m the pediatrician. We have invited Orlando, the nutritionist, to join the project. There’s James, who is a clinical psychologist, and Karen, the epidemiologist. And, importantly, we have three representatives from community organizations that have been working on child health issues for some time now: Xiaoming from Safe and Affordable Housing, Gloria from 1st Church, and Rajeev from We Need a Grocery Store.
  • Know your funding agency
    I’ve been reading about this Foundation and thoroughly reviewed their website to get a sense of the types of projects they fund and what they are all about. Ours seems to fit well.
  • Study other successful proposals
    Dr. Smart shared two successful proposals with me. Maybe I’ll bring some excerpts as samples to show the group.
  • Read and understand the proposal procedures
    I have read through this complex document six times! Each time I read it, though, I see something new to consider. I’ll bring it along to share with the group as well.
  • Understand the review process
    I’m not too clear on this one. I’m going to suggest to the Collaborative that we schedule a conference call with the Foundation’s officers. That will allow us to ask questions and learn more about how it works.
  • Write clearly, proofread
    I have to make sure we budget for this. We’ll need a professional proofreader to make sure the proposal is as clear as it can be.
  • Ask for input and revise
    I can think of three people outside the Collaborative who should read a draft of the proposal: my mentor (Dr. Smart); my new colleague, Norma, who has done research in a similar area; and Lynn, a grant writer who has done work in the community.

April 11, 2007 Building a timeline

The Collaborative will be meeting next week. Last night I sketched out a timeline  and a task list to share with them. Two things stood out:

  • This is a long process
  • Keeping the process going and on track will need to be a shared responsibility

April 13, 2007 Drafting a budget

Hmmm…Does it make sense to draft your budget  on Friday the 13th? Drafting a brief budget for this project has been difficult. I knew from discussions with my mentor that the grant proposal should account for four major categories of costs:

  • Personnel
  • Other direct costs
  • Purchased services
  • Indirect costs

I hope when we discuss this as a group we can begin to assess what resources we would be bringing to the project, both from the community and from the university. But deciding how to apportion the money equitably and accomplish the goals of the project is going to be difficult—especially because the grant is needed to cover both phases of the project, the capacity building project and the research study. Working through the detailed budget will be a project for the whole collaboration.

April 16, 2007 Establishing collaborative contributions

Tomorrow is an important day—the first official meeting of the Collaborative to discuss the proposal. I want to make sure before we meet that the members representing the community know that their involvement throughout the design and implementation of the research study is going to be key to the success of this project. Below are some of the ways they will be involved:

  • Include articles on community engagement and what the benefits are for both the community and the research in our literature review
  • Obtain community feedback to make sure their issues are captured accurately in the problem statement and research questions
  • Make the study both qualitative and quantitative and ensure different ways for community members to participate in the study
  • Engage community representatives in designing the sampling strategies. Their knowledge will help us ensure we are collecting data from all the right community members.
  • Ensure validity and reliability; share some preliminary findings with community representatives.
  • In addition to publishing this work in an academic journal, we’ll also need to draft a report specifically for the community.

These are just a few examples. I’ll also get feedback from them on how they see their involvement and what else we need to consider.

April 17, 2007 Establishing shared expectations

This was an important day. All members of the Collaborative raised issues that indicate we will need to be diligent throughout this process in order to maintain the trust among the groups. Using a brainstorming exercise, we decided our capacity-building project should be built on a set of shared expectations:

  • Roles of partners are clearly explained
  • Expectations for the project are understood and shared
  • Processes for addressing issues of trust are ongoing
  • Mechanisms for generating and sharing information are functioning
  • Significance and value of the project to the community is clear
  • Potential barriers to progress are addressed
  • Steps for maintaining partnership are described
  • Budget plan is clear and equitable
  • Outcomes and products of research are defined
  • Data sharing is explained
  • Dissemination plan to provide feedback to the community on study findings and recommendations is complete

May 7, 2007 The hard work of collaboration

We’ve been grappling with some tough issues at the ongoing Collaborative meetings. This is a grueling process and, as you might expect, patience sometimes runs thin. It’s amazing how different our proposal is shaping up to be than what we had originally expected. But honestly, I think it is stronger because of all the input and discussions we have had. We are really challenged by the question of how the community will receive credit for the work it is doing.

May 18, 2007 Revising again

Our three outside readers reviewed our first draft and returned their comments. They asked a lot of questions, which is good, but it means we weren’t as clear as we thought we were. Our proposed study has become very real in our minds, but we have to remember that the reviewers for our study won’t know our community and our work as well as we do. Writing clearly can be a challenge. It’s some times difficult to judge the level of detail we need to provide, so having outside reviewers has certainly been helpful in that regard.

It’s back to the drawing board to write and rewrite.

May 25, 2007 Filling out application forms

James and I went through a dry run of filling in the online application. I’m glad we did this before the deadline. We are able to sort all our material and create electronic files exactly as the grant application requests it be organized.

June 1, 2007 Celebrating the submission!

Our grant proposal is complete and submitted. Just completing the process feels like an accomplishment. Norma brought cake to the Collaborative meeting so that we could celebrate our success. Dr. Smart suggested I make a list of useful resources  to share with my protégés one day. In addition, it is time to consider academic journals that might be good for disseminating this work. I’ll add them to the list. But first-- I’m taking the weekend off!.

References

Seifer S. Tips and Strategies for Developing Strong Community-based Participatory Research Proposals. Seattle, WA: Community-Campus Partnerships for Health. 2005.

Viswanathan M, et al. Community-based Participatory Research: Assessing the Evidence. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2004. http://www.ahrq.gov/downloads/pub/evidence/pdf/cbpr/cbpr.pdf PDF External Link Accessed 3/23/2007

Faculty Vitae

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