Applying for a research grant is a daunting task. Between the main research proposal and all of the additional documents required, it can be overwhelming. While some people enlist the help of professional grant writers, many others turn to Google (which may be how you found our blog).
In this article, the focus is on an important part of that grant application process: Requesting and writing letters of support.
If you’re seeking a letter of support or have been asked to write one, don’t leave it until the last minute. While it may seem like a simple, supporting document (pun intended), well-written proof from the right people can get a grant applicant those final few steps across the approval line.
What is a letter of support for a grant?
A letter of support is an important argument in favour of a research proposal. It lends credibility to a grant application in several ways:
- Provides a third-party testimonial that backs up the applicant’s claims and promises.
- Shows that other organizations or individuals believe in the research proposal.
- Gives examples of the writer’s commitment (i.e. money or resources) to the project.
- Demonstrates a genuine and enthusiastic collaboration between the involved parties.
This letter can be written by a variety of people. But, writers tend to fall into two categories: (1) partners providing monetary or in-kind support and (2) influential people or organizations that believe the research project is worthwhile. For example: An applicant may seek support from a partner organization, an outside business, another major funder of the research project, or key stakeholders (including community leaders and individuals who will be impacted).
How to request a letter of support for a grant
If you’ve been asked by someone to write a letter of support, then you can skip to the next section. However, if you’re here because you’re applying for a grant that requires you to submit a letter of support (or several), this section is worth noting.
How you request a letter of support makes a difference. So, whether you’re the principal investigator (PI) in an application or someone assisting them, here’s the steps you should take:
- Make a list - In the academic world, as in any industry, it’s often about who you know. Even if you wish research could speak entirely for itself, you’ll have to reach out to at least one individual (more likely several) to get proof of support.
- Set up meetings - Explain your project in detail and ask if each person would be willing to write you a letter of support. Don’t just assume they will.
- Provide important information to include - If someone agrees to help, make it easier for them by highlighting the info they’ll need. This could include: a project summary, details of the funding agency, how the research supports the interests of the funder, and how the grant can help the writer or their organization.
- Discuss any disagreements - In the support request process, you may realize that your understanding of the collaboration is different from your collaborator’s understanding. Be sure to sort out any disagreements now so that you go into the grant proposal fully aligned.
- Give a reasonable timeline - Ensure that the person who is writing the letter is aware of when you’ll need it back to include it with your grant application. Be considerate of the writer’s schedule and give them at least 2-3 weeks to prepare the letter.
All grant applications have different requirements. So, before you begin requesting or writing a letter of support, review the funding agency’s guidelines first and foremost.
What is the difference between a letter of support and a letter of recommendation?
In the midst of a grant application, it can be easy to get your wires a little twisted on what’s what, especially when distinguishing between letters of recommendation vs. support. Some funders expect both, but most will be looking for the latter. To help you out:
A letter of recommendation…
- Is primarily requested in scenarios related to career development (like applications to fellowships or other programs).
- Requires the writer to be familiar with an applicant's qualifications, but does not require them to be involved in the project.
- Is submitted separately from an application.
A letter of support…
- Demonstrates the writer’s commitment and role in the project.
- Requires the writer to be a significant contributor or stakeholder in the research.
- Is submitted as part of a grant application.
How to write a letter of support
A letter of support should include a few key sections. Here’s an in-order outline to use if you’re the writer (plus a few bonus tips to help with the writing process):
- Header - At the top of the letter, include your name, institution, and date of writing. This may already be included as part of an organizational letterhead (which you should use if you have one). Include the recipient’s name and contact information in the line below. The letter may be addressed to the reviewer at the funding agency or to the person applying for the grant.
- Salutation - How does the recipient of the letter prefer to be addressed? Include this at the start (e.g. “Dear Dr. Strange,” or “Dear Mrs. Robinson,”). Avoid using “To whom it may concern.”
- Opening statement - Introduce yourself (i.e. Who are you and why should the reader care?). State the intent of your letter clearly and succinctly. Highlight what you know about the project and the value you see in it.
- Key points of support - This is the main body of the letter. Justify why funding is needed for the research project and how it will benefit you and others. Emphasize your belief in the research and its results. Discuss expected outcomes and be clear on the kind of support that you will be providing to the project. Try to anticipate and address questions that the funding agency may have for you.
- Closing statement - Summarize your key points. Convince the reader of your enthusiasm for the project. If you’re addressing the letter to the applicant (instead of the funding agency), you may want to add a note here wishing them well in the application process.
- Sign off - End with a polite close (e.g. “Sincerely,”) and be sure to actually sign the letter. Include your full name and title below the signature space. Provide further personal contact details if you can’t be reached at the number/email on your organization's standard letterhead.
Even if it’s a good start, including all the sections above isn’t a surefire way to write a convincing letter of support. So, here’s a few other tips to help…
- Start with key talking points - Draft your first version of the letter in bullet points. With an outline of important information that you want to include. Then, sweep through and write the “real first draft” without having to worry about missing something.
- Watch that page count - Keep to a single page if possible (two maximum). It can be tempting to include everything you think is even slightly relevant. But, that will only drown out the most important parts. For reviewers reading through mountains of application material, shorter is definitely sweeter.
- Enlist some grammar help - Consider getting Grammarly (or a similar free software) to help carry some of the load of all that wordweaving and editing.
- Check (and double-check) grant requirements - Many funding agencies provide a list of rules for applications (like this helpful outline from the Canadian Institute of Health Research). So, whatever you’re applying for, be sure to review the preferences that have been highlighted by the funding provider.
Sample letters of support for an educational grant
There’s no single formula for a perfect letter of support. However, samples can give you a good place to start. Just don’t fall into the template trap! Advice from a collection of grant reviewers highlighted the importance of “unique letters that show the writer’s actual support.” So, draw inspiration from a few examples, then, use that to write something original.
For a straightforward template to help you visualize: APCCP created this simple document that presents a letter layout in a more visual way.
For more helpful tips on writing letters of support: Enago provides a list of suggestions, plus a letter of support template further on in the article.
For a bit of a laugh: Junee Community Network has an entertaining how-to outline that includes a sample letter on the topic of “Funding for Dragon Cages at Camelot Castle”.
Summary: What makes or breaks a letter of support?
Researchers face endless challenges in securing much-needed financial resources. A well-written letter of support goes a long way toward convincing funding agencies that a research proposal is worth taking a chance on.
At the end of the day, a great letter of support is to-the-point, personalized, and full of genuine enthusiasm for the writer’s participation and the potential research findings.
Now, what are you waiting for? Go on and get writing!