Grants 101 Writing Skills

What's your problem?

Nov 30, 2023

My son and I once visited an extremely busy urgent care. The triage area had a giant screen that showed our problems and how they prioritized us: 1) heart issues; 2) infant persistent earache; 3) hurt foot. Every time a new person came in, the priority list would update. I was pretty sure the gentleman to my right held the top spot. He looked gray and couldn’t stand. I was terrified to see we held the second spot in line even as the list grew to twenty people.

The priority list at the urgent care is a bit like what happens at funders. Every grant that comes in is about an issue that matters to someone. But funders have limited time and money. They triage by focusing on problems critical to their mission.

Help funders prioritize you by naming your problem clearly. Boil your problem down into one line.

You may be thinking, “One line! I’m studying a complex issue. I can’t boil this down into one line!” You can. It just takes work. This advice is true regardless of your discipline. To illustrate, here are some sample problem statements on ideas from cancer to fiction.

  • Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Chad Hammond. “Cancer incidence is growing within First Nations, Inuit, and Métis (FNIM) communities, yet research and supportive care is slow to respond to their unique needs and experiences.”
  • Arcadia. Lauren Gawne. “There are very few written materials in Kagate, and no recordings of traditional songs, stories and cultural practices.”
  • Institute of Museum and Library Services. Stephen Adams. “The demands of archiving the web in comprehensive breadth or thematic depth exceed the technical and financial capacity of any single institution.”
  • National Endowment for the Humanities. Danielle Fosler-Lussier. “Scholars have written about the purposes of these cultural programs, but a thorough assessment of their consequences has not been achieved.”
  • Fiction. Chain Gang All Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Two top women gladiators fight for their freedom within a depraved private prison system not so far-removed from America’s own in this explosive, hotly-anticipated debut novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Friday Black.”

Grants can get funded without a problem statement. But focusing on a problem helps reviewers and funders decide if they should prioritize your problem. You can further develop your case by establishing the stakes of your problem.

Best of luck identifying the problems you care about. If you know someone who might enjoy today’s newsletter, would you mind forwarding it to them? Thanks for reading and believing that scholars deserve support for incredible ideas.


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P.S. The urgent care was right to prioritize us. We ended up needing an ambulance. It turned out fine in the end, but only because they saw us quickly. I am grateful to those wonderful healthcare professionals.

P.P.S. If you’re looking for good books this holiday season, I highly recommend Chain Gang All Stars from the example above. It holds up a stark mirror to American life. I also liked The Bee Sting, Abyss, and Scythe this year.