Grant Success: Start Small, Think Big

I often encounter people in my grant workshops who want to immediately start swimming with the sharks, even though they do not yet know how to swim. In amazement, I ask them how they came to the conclusion that they can so easily compete with seasoned grant writers. The answers vary. Some of the most common ones are: “I have a great idea that will surely get funded”; “my department chair told me to apply”; and “I just want to throw my hat into the ring.”

I am of the belief that you need to “start small” in order to build up your expertise prior to competing with those who have been in the game for a long time. At the same time, it is important to “think big” and visualize all the steps toward future success. This way you can prove to the donor that you have been successful, develop a track record of experience and/or publications, and demonstrate that you have methodically followed a particular path prior to reaching for the big prize. So where should you begin?


Foundations often fund pilot, planning, and seed grants, which ultimately can lead you to understand how best to develop larger and more comprehensive proposals. This is always a good place to start:

Planning Grants help if you or your organization are planning a major new program, and you may need to spend a good deal of time and money just figuring out how it will work as a finished product. Before you can even write a proposal to fund your new effort, you may want to research the needs of your constituents, consult with experts in the field, or conduct other planning activities. A planning grant supports this kind of initial project development work.

Seed Money or Start-Up Grants help support your new organization or program during its first few years of existence. The idea is to give the new effort a strong push forward, so that you can devote energy right away to setting up programs, without constantly worrying about raising money. Such grants often last more than one year, and frequently will decrease in amount each year. For instance, a start-up grant might provide $25,000 in the first year, $15,000 in the second year, and $7,000 in the last year.

Pilot Grants are offered by foundations as well as federal agencies, and are intended to specifically assist young investigators in developing proof-of-concept studies, which will provide preliminary data for subsequent and more substantive applications. Applications from any area of medical, biological or veterinary research are available. These can be for individual investigators or interdisciplinary partnerships. The latter are often highly encouraged.

Federal Funding

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has various grants that are geared towards new investigators. These are normally referred to as the K awards or Career Development Awards. A good example of one is the K99/R00, which supports an initial mentored research experience (K99), followed by independent research (R00) for highly qualified, postdoctoral researchers who would like to secure an independent research position. Many other similar opportunities can be found on the NIH website under the Career Development Awards section.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides small research grants to advance various disciplines. One such grant program supports pilot projects, modest research travel needs, and occasional conferences to advance a variety of research areas in sociology. Other similar grant opportunities can be found on the NSF website.

Other federal agencies such as the Department of Defense (DoD) offer small pilot grants for young investigators and those who will enhance STEM education at their institutions. These opportunities can be found on the websites of various DoD directorates, such as the Department of the Army (DA) or the Department of the Navy (DoN).

There are numerous donors, both federal and private who understand the importance of “thinking big” but “starting small”, therefore allowing new ideas to flourish from their initial beginnings and emerge into innovative concepts that, in some cases, will lead to paradigm shifts in the field.

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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