5 Things to Know About the Language and Culture of a Grant Donor

I am often asked: “Can I submit the same grant proposal to multiple funding agencies?” Obviously, the answer is a definite no, but it is also important to understand the implications behind such a question. It assumes that all donors are the same; that they would fund whatever we wish funded; that there is a universal culture among them; and that ultimately it is all about the money. All of these assumptions are erroneous as donors do not care what we need or want to do. Donors care about what they wish to fund, and it is the responsibility of the requestor to make the match.

Every donor is unique. For example, the institutes that comprise the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have dissimilar missions, and each has its own culture and requirements. The same can be said of the Department of Defense (DoD) and a myriad of other donors. Chasing the money rather than good ideas is a major flaw. Donors do not fund those focused on money, they fund those who are passionate about a good idea that aligns with their goals. Consequently, here are the five things you need to know about the language and culture of any donor before you write:

  • What are the priorities of the donor? Each donor has its own priorities. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) encourages interdisciplinary programs and transformative ideas, and their definition and characteristics appear on their website. The DoD has five major foci: peacekeeping and war-fighting efforts, homeland security, evacuation and humanitarian causes. Each of these subcategories has their own mission and language. Turning to foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seeks to understand the world’s inequities. “Whether the challenge is low-yield crops in Africa or low graduation rates in Los Angeles, we listen and learn so we can identify pressing problems that get too little attention. Then we consider whether we can make a meaningful difference with our influence and our investments, whether it is a grant or a contract.” As this demonstrates, each donor clearly addresses their funding culture via their priorities.
  • What is the mission of the donor? All donors have their own missions, which give us an understanding of how they visualize their funding priorities. For example, the NSF’s mission is: “To envision a nation that capitalizes on new concepts in science and engineering and provides global leadership in advancing research and education.” The NIH’s mission is: “To seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.” The Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP) run by the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command of DoD has a similar emphasis to NIH, but its mission is to relate health research to the armed forces. Even though both NIH and DoD fund innovative ideas to combat disease, their missions and foci are different.
  • What have donors funded in the past and why? One of the best insights into a funding agency is who and what they funded in the past and how much money they awarded. Federal donors list abstracts of winning proposals, along with the name of the funded institution and the Principal Investigator/Project Director. Accordingly, we can instantly know who they consider credible and their focus. Foundations will often describe what they have funded in the past on their website. Their 990pf tax forms will also show how their funds were allocated. The decisive question for you to ask is how your idea and their funding patterns match.
  • What are the evaluation criteria for awarding grants? How grants are evaluated is one of the best indicators of the donor’s culture. This will include the evaluation criteria, who the evaluators are and how they are chosen. For some donors, such as NIH and NSF, reviewer selection is not a blind process as reviewers who are chosen have a deep understanding of the agency culture. In the case of foundations, it is more difficult to discern who the reviewers are, but one good way is to understand the vision of the leadership and the makeup of the board, which will be reflected in the reviewers chosen.
  • What is the language of the donor? In many cases donors speak different “languages”, which are in the same family of languages. For example, the various US Department of Education Title Programs (e.g. Title III or Title VI), address different topics. Some address underrepresented groups, others international and others centers of excellence. Similarly, NSF directorates and NIH institutes have different missions, speak to different audiences, and address their vision of the world on their own terms. It is these “languages” that need to be understood, spoken, and incorporated into grants in order to give you the competitive edge.

In conclusion, submitting similar proposals to different donors is a fatal flaw. In order to succeed, we have to understand first and seek to be understood secondly.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

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