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Conservation Biology in Sub-Saharan Africa

John W. Wilson
Richard B. Primack

Appendix C

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Obtaining Conservation Funding

Funding limitations often hamper conservation activities. Because conservation funding is limited, there is much competition for the few options available. Below are 15 tips to make the writing of funding proposals less tedious, time-consuming, and depressing. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, and by no means a guarantee for funding—no tip can ever do that. But these generalities should give early-career conservationists a better chance for success.

1. Start early. Obtaining funding is a highly competitive endeavour, one you are more likely to fail in with a rushed job. It generally takes several months to put together a proposal that can convince assessors that your proposed work is well planned and feasible, and that your team is up to the task. To get there, you need to allow for enough time to put together a well-functioning team, develop and refine all your ideas, design a well-polished proposal, adapt it to specific grant requirements, conduct pilot studies, obtain external advice, address comments and concerns, and navigate institutional bureaucracy.

2. Be a team player. Assembling a good team is perhaps your most important decision towards funding success. Remember, your team will be your main support network during this process. They will brainstorm with you, look for funding opportunities, and help develop, edit, and critique your proposal. Make sure you assemble a team willing to contribute to these tasks—it is no fun doing the work alone, only for others to claim the funds and fame. Second, a carefully selected team confers reputation. As unfair as it may seem, funders invest in projects that maximise returns with minimal risk. They do this by funding established experts with a track record of successful grant management. This poses a significant barrier to early-career conservationists—how can you obtain funding without a track record, and vice versa? The best way to overcome this barrier is to assemble a team that includes reputable collaborators where each member provides a different set of skills to assure success. (Note that established researchers are also increasingly relying on collaborations due to the interdisciplinary nature of conservation.) Make sure you state somewhere in your proposal (generally in a personnel section) why your team is the best to do this work, and how each team member’s skills complement the others. Instead of viewing this as an impediment, see this requirement as an opportunity to learn from and network with experts—your project will most likely also be better off as a result.

3. Focus on the funder’s priorities. Funders will have set priorities from which they will not deviate. Thus, while you and your colleagues may believe that your idea is truly ground-breaking, trying to convince funders to adapt their priorities to fit your grand idea simply will not happen. Instead, either find a funder whose priorities align with yours, or adapt your proposal to fit within the funder’s stated priorities. In some cases, funders require that you state how your priorities align with theirs—make sure you do it, using the exact wording the funders used in their call for proposals.

4. Your assessor is not an expert. Funders usually appoint a small panel of assessors with a general understanding of the funder’s priorities to quickly and efficiently adjudicate and rank funding proposals against each other. Having assessments done by non-experts has implications for how a proposal is written. First, do not assume that the assessor has specific knowledge of your field, or that s/he will just “get” the value of your project. Your proposal needs to clearly explain your plan in simple terms so that a lay person on the street will also care. Second, while technical terms (i.e. jargon) may be fine in specialist journals, they should be avoided at all costs in funding proposals. That also includes abbreviations, which can frustrate an assessor who needs to remind him/herself of the abbreviation’s meaning.

5. Follow the guidelines. Before starting to write the proposal, read through the guidelines. While doing this, draw up a checklist documenting every requirement (e.g. budgets, timelines, margin sizes, fonts) that needs to be addressed and adhered to. Follow this checklist while writing the proposal. Then, when you are done, go over the guidelines again to make sure you did not miss a “hidden” requirement. While it may be tempting to make a small tweak, say to fit within the page limit, even minor deviations to the guidelines will stand out to assessors who look at hundreds of proposals in quick succession.

6. Keep it simple. As mentioned earlier, funders like to invest in projects that maximum returns for minimum risk. One way to meet this requirement is to have a carefully selected team of collaborators in place. Equally important is to propose projects that are realistic, with simple and obtainable goals. Remember, most grants run on one-year cycles, and there is only so much one can accomplish in that timeframe. While you may think your overly ambitious project will impress assessors, more likely it will be viewed as a money drain and too risky to fund.

7. Be exciting. A grant is a reward for promising exciting work. Getting that award letter is undeniably an exciting moment in anyone’s career. But before that excitement, you are going to have to think hard about ways to first make the assessors excited. This is difficult, because there are many constraints to proposals. Foremost is the challenge of finding a balance between simplicity and excitement. It is also difficult to excite an anonymous assessor with a limited understand of your work. But this situation is hardly unique: businesses all over the world constantly work on strategies to impress anonymous customers who are also considering competitor products. Remember, you, as the salesman, have only one opportunity to sell your project—through that piece of paper your proposal is printed on. While a proposal should remain formal, a marketing strategy that includes a memorable title that provokes curiosity, and an attractive layout that shows thoughtfulness and organisation, can do wonders for making your proposal stand out.

8. Get to the point. Another way to provoke excitement is to make sure you keep the assessor’s attention from the start. Because you have only seconds to make an impression, this effort starts with a memorable title. Also, do not start the proposal like a journal article with a long background overview. Instead, use those first few sentences to immediately draw the assessor’s attention to the significance of your work. As a good rule of thumb, use that first paragraph to point out what major societal problem you are addressing, why addressing it now is essential, and how you are proposing to solve it. Putting the most thought-provoking information upfront shows your assessor that you are confident and organised.

9. Develop testable hypotheses. You have a much better chance of success if your aims/objectives are immediately visible. So write them in bold text, in their own line. They also need to be written in a way to show they are objectively testable. Consider the aim of solving pesticide pollution. How would you define “solved”? Nobody using pesticides anymore? Nobody getting sick from pesticides? You see, lofty and ill-defined aims provide opportunities for confusion, a risk of appearing unrealistic, and probably a funding denial. To give the assessor assurance that your conclusions will be valid, there is an expectation (especially among assessors who are scientists) for applicants to state their main aims as testable hypotheses, followed by likely testable outcomes. It may require some thinking to frame an objective in an exciting way.

10. Be exact and specific. Science and research are about discovering objective facts and testable outcomes. It is important for you to show assessors that you grasp these concepts. Use your methods section to address each of your hypotheses, one at a time. As you do this, detail exactly how you will collect data free from bias, and what models/statistics you will use to ensure your results are reliable. To show clarity and understanding, either spell out potentially subjective and context-specific terms such as “larger”, “amazing”, and “plenty”, or better yet, avoid them altogether. Also avoid vague throw-away statements like “we will model the population”; those will only hurt your cause. Instead, use that space to describe in detail how you will model the population.

11. State your impact. Some of the greatest discoveries of our time originated from pure scientific studies (i.e. those without obvious and immediate practical benefits). Even so, funders and scientists are increasingly debating the merits of funding pure over applied scientific studies (i.e. studies that directly and immediately benefit the public). While there is undoubtedly a need for better balance in funding allocations, there currently seems to be a strong bias towards funding applied research. Hence, unless grant guidelines explicitly state not to mention it, you should use some space to explain how your work will benefit society at large. It is important to note that the assessors may not share your background or values. Thus, do not assume the value of your work is self-evident—you really need to spell it out.

12. State your outreach strategy. While funding agencies generally support the cause they fund, they also want to attach their name to that cause and be recognised for their contributions. Funding agencies attached to governments in turn want tax-funded projects to be publicly accessible rather than restricted to the collective memories of specialists. A good outreach campaign also prevents the public from feeling detached from science and conservation. It is thus becoming increasingly important (and sometimes mandated) to state what steps you will take to communicate your project’s results to the broader public.

13. You are not alone. As discussed in point 1, you should have a team of collaborators willing to help you. Do not be shy asking them for help; after all, they will also benefit from the funding and fame. It is also worth talking to co-workers who were previously successful getting the funds you target, as there are often unwritten nuances in how proposals should be framed. BUT you should also remember that your proposal is not the only one being assessed. There are likely hundreds of others. They will be ranked, and the most exciting proposals will be funded. You should think very carefully, every step of the way, how to make your proposal stand out from the crowd.

14. Call on external help. Once you and your team finished writing the proposal, ask friends and family who are not part of your team to read and comment on it. First prize is if you can get input from lay people who are not familiar with your work. Ask them if the proposed work excites them, and which parts they do not understand. If your proposal bores or confuses them, then you have more work to do to avoid boring and confusing the assessors. Every extra person willing to read your proposal provides an extra opportunity to test your message and improve your work.

15. Do not give up. Obtaining funding is not easy. It is increasingly the case that funding cuts forces more conservationists to compete for the same, if not smaller, pot of money. Funding success also depends on factors out of your control (e.g. quality and number of other proposals), leaving the chance of success to an element of luck. That does not mean applying for funding is a waste of time. Foremost, you will not succeed if you do not try. Funders may also provide comments on proposals, which enables you to improve it for the next round. Lastly, obtaining funding really is a numbers game. Do not put all your eggs in one basket by submitting your proposal to only one funder. Rather, identify several potential funders, tweak your proposal to fit their guidelines and priorities, and submit to every one of them. If you have a worthy idea, and you use every failure as an opportunity to refine your message, you will eventually achieve success.


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