The Researcher's Tool Kit

Resources for working smarter

The #1 Question Grant Seekers Neglect to Ask…

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You have an idea for an exciting project, narrowed down its goals, have a sense of the amount of money you need, and possess the skill set and experience to pull it all off. Now you just need to find an agency to provide the financial support. Given the number of foundations, corporations, and federal, state, and local government agencies out there with money earmarked for research or charitable organizations, it shouldn’t be that difficult to find support for your work, right?cropped-cropped-toolkit-24157707-copy.jpg

Like most challenges, it is not necessarily difficult yet requires some insight and preparation to successfully achieve the task at hand. Before committing the significant time, effort, and thought required to write an application, first ask yourself this basic, yet often overlooked, question….


Grantmakers typically focus their awards on specific criteria, e.g., support for a particular population (e.g., children) or a particular type of support (e.g., research, equipment, conference). In addition, grantmakers provide explicit guidelines about how to request funds from them, including who they deem eligible to request those funds. Make sure you carefully read a grantmaker’s website and/or written guidelines in response to any request for funding proposal (RFP) or program announcement (PA). There is no quicker way to have your application returned without review and potentially negatively impact your professional reputation than to ignore a grantmaker’s eligibility requirements.

A quick story to emphasize this point…

I once worked with an assistant professor at a major research university. His research was innovative, well respected, and consistent with the mission of several funding agencies. He decided to apply for funding and did not inform anyone else he was working on an application until the day before the submission was due at the agency. At that time, he contacted me and asked that I review the application and create the budget request to support the proposed project. I noted in the guidelines that eligibility criteria included a statement about obtaining one’s academic degree within the past 5 years. This researcher had obtained his degree within the past 5 years + 3 months based on the criteria provided. I mentioned this to the researcher and cautioned against submitting without prior discussion and confirmation from the funding agency. Long story short…the assistant professor submitted the application without contacting the agency. The application was rejected and returned with the comment, “ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS NOT MET”. The assistant professor lost countless hours writing the application and the opportunity to submit the application to an appropriate grantmaker for that funding cycle, yet he gained an insight not easily forgotten: ALWAYS CHECK ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS FIRST!

Eligibility considerations as the Individual/Principal Investigator (PI)

Eligibility requirements may be related to your level of education, current employment or appointment status, PI eligibility at your institution or organization, years of experience, time available to devote to project, availability of other funding, and your citizenship among other factors.

Foundations and specific federal application guidelines are often quite detailed in their requirements and deserve careful review. A good example of the level of detail included comes from the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation eligibility requirements for their Innovation Award:

  • “Applicants (including non-U.S. citizens) must be conducting independent research at a U.S. research institution.
  • Applicants with a background in multiple disciplines are especially encouraged to apply.
  • Applicants must belong to one of the following categories:
      1. Tenure-track Assistant Professors within the first four years of obtaining their initial Assistant Professor position. (Cut-off date: July 1, 2010.)
      2. Clinical Instructors and Senior Clinical Fellows (in the final year of their sub-specialty training) holding an MD who are pursuing a period of independent research before taking a tenure-track faculty position. Such individuals must have an exceptional record of research accomplishment, dedicated laboratory space and the support of their institution.

      3. Distinguished Fellows with an exceptional record of research accomplishment identified by their institution to pursue an independent research program and who have dedicated laboratory space. These candidates are markedly distinct from traditional postdoctoral fellows. . If you are unsure about your eligibility for this award program, please contact the Foundation’s Award Programs at 212.455.0520.]

  • Applicants are expected to commit a minimum of 80% of their time to conducting research.
  • Applicants must demonstrate that they have access to the resources and infrastructure necessary to conduct the proposed research.
  • The department must guarantee the Investigator is conducting the proposed research independently.”

Eligibility considerations for the Institution or Organization

Eligibility requirements may be related to your organization’s federal tax exemption status, mission, geographical location, fundraising plans, existing facilities and equipment, Board of Directors membership, accounting systems, and business practices among other variables.

If you are a non-profit organization interested in seeking grant opportunities, it is essential that you obtain 501(c) (3) status to be eligible to receive grant funds. For an overview on this topic, read the Grant Helpers Blog about the importance of being a 501(c) (3).

Keep in mind that grantmakers want to provide funds to organizations that have the resources and ability to carry out the proposed project with no appearance of conflicts of interest.  Consequently, eligibility to receive funds may extend to your Board of Directors and/or senior leadership in a non-profit organization.  Any concerns are typically resolved by the inclusion of required legal and financial documentation requested by a grantmaker.  If you are troubled that your non-profit organization may not have all of the required pieces in place, helpful resources are available via the Foundation Center and GrantSpace.


1.  When you find a funding opportunity that appears to be good fit, carefully read the eligibility requirements.  If you are unclear about how an agency operationally defines their requirements, call the appropriate agency contact or seek assistance from a research administrator experienced in obtaining that information.

2.  Ask the following questions and determine if you and your organization meet ALL eligibility requirements for the opportunity of interest:

  • Are my academic degree(s) and/or field of study appropriate for selection?
  • When was my degree or postdoctoral appointment conferred? When was my organization established?  Does this impact selection?
  • Is my academic appointment or employment status appropriate for selection?
  • Is U.S. citizenship for the PI and/or collaborators a requirement?
  • Is the site of performance (country, state, county, city) appropriate for selection?
  • Do I and/or my organization have the necessary facilities and equipment?
  • Am I the PI on other projects that may conflict with selection?
  • Do I and/or my organization have any scientific, financial, or commitment conflicts of interest that negatively impact selection?
  • Is my organization’s mission consistent with the grantmaker’s defined needs?
  • Does my organization have 501(c) (3) status?

As always, happy grant writing!



Author: Jeanine Jesberg

Jeanine Jesberg is a grants consultant, Certified Research Administrator (CRA), and licensed clinical speech-language pathologist (CCC-SLP) specializing in work with academic institutions and non-profit organizations. Her multi-faceted career includes several positions, including Program Director, Director of Research Operations, and Executive Director, at the University of Chicago as well as Manager of Research Administration at Northwestern University with knowledge that spans strategic planning, conference planning, program management, budget development, research operations, and research administration. She also has over 15 years of experience as a speech-language pathologist in the roles of clinician, Clinical Instructor, Lecturer, private practice Founder/CEO, and speaker. Jeanine currently lives and works in Chicago, IL.

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