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Writing an effective grant application

Chief executive of the Macular Society, Cathy Yelf, discusses what makes an application for a research grant stand out in an oversubscribed funding process

Cathy Yelf

As a response-based funder, the Macular Society makes grants of up to £170,000 over a three-year period available for research projects through an annual grant programme that opens every spring.

The programme is very over-subscribed and we cannot fund as much as we would like to. Therefore, our grant programme follows a two-stage process that begins when we open for outlines for applications. The shortlisted applicants are then invited to make a full application and these full applications go through an international peer review process with our research committee. Our committee, which comprises of expert and lay members, then make recommendations on what to fund and the final decision is made by the board.

Outline eye out

One of the important things for researchers before sending in an outline is to do their homework and really look at the organisation’s research strategy, as well as what has been funded in the past.

Many response-based funders will have a set of guidelines that potential projects must meet, and we are no different.

Potential applicants who are unclear at any stage and would like to understand more before making an application are encouraged to call for an informal discussion. Many organisations will, like the Macular Society, have a dedicated member of staff who manages the process and is very happy to offer people guidance.

"We don't expect every application to put forward a potential cure, but we have to see what the outcome is likely to be and how, now or in the future, it will help people with a macular condition"

Standing out from the crowd

When judging applications, both outlines and full, our committee is looking for a very clear explanation of what the project is aiming to achieve and how it will benefit patients. It also needs to include a very clearly articulated research plan with objectives for each stage, and the team needs to have thought ahead to what they will do if things do not go to plan. 

We don’t expect every application to put forward a potential cure, but we have to see what the outcome is likely to be and how, now or in the future, it will help people with a macular condition.

Perhaps most importantly, applications for potential projects need to be very clearly costed so that we can see what the money is being spent on. 

It is also hugely beneficial to include a good lay summary; although our research committee is made up largely of experts in the field, there are lay members and everyone must be able to understand the project.

What to avoid

In terms of the Macular Society’s programme, our committee is scoring applications against a variety of criteria so it is important for applicants to stick to that. If an application stipulates a word count, stick to it; if we ask for five pages on something and we receive 12 it is very frustrating.   

The committee will reject applications if they are inappropriate to our research strategy or where we do not believe the sums. 

If an application is unsuccessful, it is worth asking for feedback. We are happy to provide feedback on unsuccessful applications and people are very welcome to resubmit them once they have addressed the concerns that the panel might have.

Three steps to success

1. Do your homework and understand what we fund
2. Write a clear lay summary
3. Have a clearly articulated research plan.