Hello, I’d Like Some Funding: Writing Your Grant Introduction

You’ve heard the expression, “You do not get a second chance to make a first impression.” The same thing is absolutely true for proposal writing. Getting the project description introduction right is key to keeping your readers’ attention. The trick to writing a good introduction is finding the balance between getting your readers to the place you want without giving them more background than they need.

A common mistake researchers make is not finding that balance, and instead spending the first several paragraphs explaining things the reviewers already know. For example, if you are responding to the National Science Foundation’s Cultural Anthropology Program, don’t open with “Anthropological research spans a wide gamut, and contemporary cultural anthropology is an arena where diverse research traditions and methodologies are valid. Cultural anthropology examines completed concepts such as the socio-cultural drivers of deforestation and the variability of family norms.” You can be fairly certain that a reviewer of a cultural anthropology program knows all of that. Moreover, the reviewer has read it and is still no closer to understanding the goals of your program.

Don’t Bury the Lead

What your introduction should do is use what makes your idea unique to its advantage and put it first. Do not build to an exciting conclusion because your reader is unlikely to make the trip with you. To avoid this:

  • Think about what is most important about your project.
  • Think about what you believe is most interesting about your project.
  • Focus on the action.

For example, like Dr. Peter Ashton of Harvard wrote in his NSF proposal “Economic Development and Deforestation Among Bolivian Amerindian Households” (NSF Award Abstract #9415570):

“This project involves the pilot research of an anthropologist and an economist in Indian villages in tropical Bolivia. The project hypothesizes that the link between deforestation and village integration to markets is non-linear, peaking in villages partially integrated to markets, and that these villages deforest more because they face more tenure insecurity and higher private discount rates.”

The lead is not buried here. In fact, the  the “big picture” sentence is at the end of the introduction: “Advancing our understanding of the causes of deforestation on a household level will be valuable to natural resource policy makers as they attempt to design interventions to slow the rate of deforestation.”

It is important to clearly demonstrate to the reviewers that you understand both the significance of the topic area and the motivation of the program.

Use Your Problem Statement

An easy way to write a strong introduction is to develop a strong problem statement and use that. The purpose of the problem statement and an introduction to a grant proposal are very similar, in that you need to explain:

  • The specific problem you plan to solve.
  • The goal of the project.
  • How the goal will be achieved and tested.

I have discussed the five “W’s” (who, what, when, where, and why) before and about why they are important for keeping your grant clear. Use them in your problem statement. You don’t have to get too specific with the “who” and “where” to make an impact. In fact, you should consider something similar to Dr. Ashton’s example, “an anthropologist and an economist in Indian villages in Bolivia” knowing you have the rest of the proposal to get into the details.

Final Thoughts

It is tempting to start your project description with essentially an introductory lecture about the topic. Unless you have a good reason to believe your reviewers won’t understand the focus of your project, it is much better to focus on the specific challenge or problem your project addresses.

In fact, when you are finished, look at your introduction. If it could move to another proposal on a similar topic, you should revise it. Anything you can do to help your proposal stand out from the pile of other proposals your reviewer is reading, the more likely you are to find funding.