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How to strengthen partnerships through the grant-writing process

erica machulak Mar 23, 2023
Three people coming together at a table with various measuring tools

Insights from Erica Machulak on how to write better grants by investing in relationships along the way

Grant proposals can do strange things to relationships. In the wrong circumstances, they pressurize what might otherwise be an organic and healthy collaboration, forcing applicants and their partners to commit their time, money, and people in ways that aren’t realistic. Herein lies the paradox that many applicants face when writing grants to support research partnerships: to get the funding, you need to demonstrate that your relationship is “authentic.” Without funding, though, you lack the time and resources to build the history and trust that authenticity requires.

In many cases, this gap can be addressed, in part, by shifting your perspective on the grant development process. If you are in the early stages of a collaboration that looks promising, and in which it’s clear that everyone involved generally wants the same thing, the constraints of a proposal can be a way to focus the conversation and get everyone on the same page (yes, pun intended). Just as poets writing sonnets and haikus generate creativity by operating within formal limits, collaborators can leverage application instructions to harness boundless opportunities. Below, a few tips.

Come up with a shared goal

Research grants are about questions, not answers. If you knew the solution already, you would not need the resources to go about finding it. Seasoned funders are well aware that new partnerships can fail, and they also understand that responsive approaches can’t be planned to the letter in advance. Any fundable grant proposal needs to show that the applicant can solve a complex problem and that the specific research question you have identified is one worth answering. When it comes to funding for research collaborations, you must also prove that your research question can only be answered by the exact combination of people involved in your application. If you are working in collaboration, this means that you need to start by setting a shared goal.

The trick is to come up with a goal that is specific, but not prescriptive. Funding in the Social Sciences and Humanities Council (SSHRC) of Canada, for instance, emphasizes that grants in its research partnership funding stream should address a “need, challenge or opportunity” that is driven by one or more non-academic partners. The most productive work of the application happens when all parties involved build consensus around the specific thing they want to address. This process requires intentional conversations about the context that has created your “need, challenge or opportunity.” Once the group has built consensus, you can explore how a researcher’s approach might help achieve your shared goal.

For opportunities like the SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant, the best way to develop the proposal is also the best way to develop the partnership itself: make the connection, show up, and have an open dialogue about where your needs and interests intersect with your potential partner’s. This is not easy — if you are highly skilled at thinking about a certain kind of problem in a very particular way, it can be challenging to adapt your approach to a new context. The easiest way to push through is to identify a unique and specific goal that you and your partner can tackle together.

Clarify your limits

When talking with new or existing partners, always acknowledge both the value that you can bring and your knowledge gaps. When all members of a collaboration are clear about their expertise and their limits, it becomes much easier to have a conversation about who should take the lead at which point. That baseline understanding enables discussions about when to touch base, where more resources may be needed, and how long a particular task is likely to take.

Every organization operates differently, and people within these organizations may not realize just how differently until they choose to work together. For instance, the academic system can be mystifying to non-academics, who may have no idea what a faculty member is doing when not in the classroom. On the flipside, a not-for-profit may need to report on progress or findings earlier than would ever be expected in an academic context.

Grant sections focused on methods, process, governance, and budget can provide a touchstone for clarifying conversations. Break down your time and resources with your collaborators, on paper.

Remember: there are other funds in the sea

Collaborations can become especially strained when you believe that the success of your project hinges on a specific grant opportunity. If you are doing good work, there are probably other ways to fund it. If it becomes clear that forcing this grant proposal will strain the partnership itself, consider waiting for the next cycle or looking elsewhere for support. While the global funding network can be hard to navigate, you may be surprised by the niche opportunities that are out there.

Invest your energy in the relationship — not the grant proposal — and you build a solid foundation for this project, the next one, and many more to come.


Erica Machulak, PhD is a writer, facilitator, and the founder of Hikma. Browse her portfolio here

Originally published on Medium in October 2020. 

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