Unit 5 Section 5.3: Collaboratively Writing Proposals

After deciding to respond to an RFP, here are some questions to consider when assembling the research team and writing the proposal.

Assembling the research team

Which faculty, community member, or other partner representatives should be involved in the writing process? Grantwriting can be a very technical process. It is important that those involved have the skills and experience in developing grants to effectively communicate how the partnership will address the proposed issues. However, those partners who may have little or no experience in writing grants should also be included from the process. When skills such as grantwriting are shared through this type of collaborative work, the process has the effect of not only building capacity within the group, but strengthening the group as well.

Do new partners/faculty need to be invited to be a part of the existing project team? Depending on the subject of the proposal, it may be necessary to invite additional partners with expertise in specific subject matters to strengthen the proposal. However, before bringing on an additional partner, the existing partnership should collectively decide whether the particular partner is an appropriate match. For more information on identifying and selecting partners, see Unit 3, Section 3.1.

What is the role of the team and individual members in this project? Team members should be clear about the roles and responsibilities of the group. Is this just the proposal writing team or will this also be the final steering committee/advisory group that will help guide the project? What knowledge and contribution can each team member bring to the table and are they willing? Who will serve as the project’s Principal Investigator?

Exercise 5.3.1: Assembling the Research Team

In a large group or in small groups, use the following questions to consider how the research team should be assembled:

  • What kind of influence will community members have on the direction and activities of the study?

  • How will community members be involved in all phases of the research?

  • Who will make decisions?

  • What will the structure for that decision making look like?

  • How will the study be staffed?

  • How will the study design be developed collaboratively by community partners and researchers?

  • How will the study team facilitate a collaborative community relationship and sustain equitable involvement throughout the study?

  • What training or capacity building opportunities will be incorporated into the budget for community partners? What training or capacity building opportunities will be incorporated for the researchers?

  • What will the benefits of participation be to the community partners, from the researchers’ point of view?

  • What is the plan for sustaining the partnership in the community after completion of the project?

Determining and clarifying the roles, responsibilities and expectations
in proposal writing

During the grant writing process it is imperative that all the partners involved understand what their roles and responsibilities will be in the project. For the community, if there are individuals at the table, we need to consider the capacity of the individual to carry out these roles. If there are organizations around the table, both the individual and organizational capacities need to be considered. The ability to carry out certain types of work is very different with an organizational affiliation. It is also important to know what the partners expect from the project. This can include anything from how partners will communicate with each other and disseminate information to specific health outcomes or certain changes within the partnering community. The realities of each expectation should be discussed as well. Clarifying this early on in the process can help build trust, especially when what is expected is received.

To assure that everyone stay on the same page in terms of activities, outcomes, and resource sharing, it may be valuable to develop a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). This document can be used to help with accountability and setting up timelines, deadlines and systems of reporting.  By incorporating language necessary to clarify what is expected, this also helps in building capacity for the community-based organizations involved. It assures that both the project outcomes and organizational responsibilities are met, which in turn makes sure that the project will positively impact the community.  An MOA ensures that each partner will be held accountable to fulfill their end of the bargain, and that the work is done both fairly and collaboratively. Thus, the MOA sets up both a support and accountability mechanism at the same time; no one goes off and does their own thing without regard for the other partners.

Determining and clarifying the roles, responsibilities and expectations
in proposal writing

When preparing the grant proposal’s budget, consider items to include that may be unique or especially important in CBPR proposals. These may include:

  • Communications – for example, cell phones, walkie-talkies, high speed internet access, newsletters

  • Staff – for example, community organizers, outreach workers, community health workers, student research assistants, work-study students

  • Safety items – for example, security guards, mace

  • Photo cameras or voice recorders

  • Food

  • Child care

  • Mileage and parking fees

  • Participant incentives

  • Community partner stipends or honoraria

  • Tuition, continuing education credits

  • Training

  • Conference travel and registration fees

  • Translation and interpretation services

  • Promotion and marketing materials

  • Dissemination – for example, community forums, public service announcements, paid advertisements

Exercise 5.3.2: Your Partnership’s “Household” Finances

Financial management of a CBPR partnership or project can be compared to managing household finances.  Consider the various roles in an actual or proposed CBPR project, and how partners adopt certain family-like behaviors and personas when money matters are on the table. Spend 15 minutes answering these questions in groups of 4-6 people, and 15 minutes discussing the answers and issues as a large group.

  • Who is "earning" the income? To whom does the "company" write the paychecks?

  • Who gets an "allowance?"

  • Who gives out the "allowance" and acts as the "parent?"

  • Who is responsible for making sure the "house is maintained?"

  • Who is responsible for assigning "chores?"  Who is responsible for doing the chores?"

  • How are major purchase decisions made?

  • How are major purchase decisions made?

Given the different costs, benefits and reward structures that exist across the organizations involved in a CBPR partnership, the partnership should strive to achieve an equitable distribution of these costs, benefits and resources among the partners.  There are a number of strategies that partnerships can use to accomplish this, for example:

  • Submit grant proposals in which non-institutional partners are the primary recipient of the funds and have major responsibility for the conduct of the project.

  • Ensure that all partners receive financial compensation as part of core grant funding that adequately reflects their time involvement in the project.

  • Adequately compensate community participants (who often volunteer their time and effort in partnership activities) through stipends, continuing education credits, in-kind benefits or other compensation (e.g., paying for parking or daycare) in order to make participation possible.

  • Assist community partners in applying for grants and other resources for their programs.

  • Challenge assumptions and the status quo regarding the allocation of funding for indirect costs.  The high indirect cost rates of many institutions are often cause for concern in CBPR partnerships.   Ask questions about the allocation of funding for indirect costs.  For example, where do these funds go?  Have there been instances in which a portion of these funds are made accessible to the principal investigator’s (PI’s) school/department or directly to the PI?   These policies and precedents vary from institution to institution and it may be possible to direct a portion of funding for indirect costs back to the project or partnership.

Reviewing the proposal

Adequate time should be given for all partners involved to review the proposal and provide feedback to the grant writing team on suggestions, concerns, and questions that may need to be addressed and incorporated.   All partners should consider the following items when reviewing a proposal:

Does the proposed project:

  • Complement or contribute to the overall mission, goals, values, etc. of the partnership?

  • Provide services and build capacities that have a positive impact in the community?

  • Address other key CBPR principles established by the partnership?

  • Involve scientifically sound research (basic or applied) that contributes to science and enhanced knowledge and understanding of a given community issue or problem?

  • Apply methods that are flexible with research that involves community (i.e., research design, data collection, etc.)?

Overall, partners should think about whether the proposed project addresses community problems while creating new knowledge: Community Wisdom + Academic Research = New Knowledge

Developing strong proposals

When developing proposals, the following tips and strategies may be helpful (Seifer SD):

What drives reviewers crazy?

  • When applicants don’t follow the instructions

  • When there are inconsistencies between what’s described in the proposal narrative and what’s included in the budget

  • When acronyms are used and not explained

  • When numbers in the budget don’t add up

  • When there are multiple spelling mistakes

  • When tiny type is used and there is hardly any white space

  • When the data sources cited are old

  • When the argument for the study’s significance and relevance in a particular community are based on national data

  • When a community is described only in terms of its needs and not also its strengths and assets

  • When no sound rationale is provided for the composition of the partnership

  • When letters of support don’t actually say anything (e.g., they all simply repeat the same language, they are not consistent with commitments described in the proposal narrative and/or budget)

  • When there is not a clear link between community-defined priorities and the proposed focus and approach

  • When the study design is so specific and detailed that there is no room for a participatory process

  • When no attention is paid to barriers to community participation (e.g., childcare, transportation, interpretation services)

  • When attention is paid to the research methods but not the methods of building/sustaining community partnerships and community participation

  • When a community board is to be established, but no detail is provided about board member recruitment, composition, role, staff support, etc.

  • When there is no evidence of community capacity building (e.g., creating jobs, developing leaders, sustaining programs)

  • When it is not easy to discern how funding is being divided among partners (e.g., show what % is going to the community vs. the university)

  • When it is not clear who was involved in developing the proposal and how it was developed

  • When most or all of the funding is retained by the applicant organization

Ways to strengthen your proposal:

  • Be creative! (e.g., use stories, quotes and photos to help make your case)

  • Ask trusted colleagues not involved in the proposal to review drafts and be brutally honest

  • Debrief on any and all comments received by reviewers

  • Volunteer to be a proposal reviewer – reviewing proposals will make you a better grant writer

Understand the review criteria and peer review process followed by the funding agency you are applying to. For example, for the National Institutes of Health: http://cms.csr.nih.gov/AboutCSR/OverviewofPeerReviewProcess.htm