10 secrets of successful grant applications

During my career I have won bids with a collective value of over £10 million. My success rate is two out of three. Not bad eh! In this post I am going to share all my secrets with you.

1. Start small

When I started at Manchester Metropolitan University I worked in a team well known for their retail research, on a small bid aimed to investigate the training needs of independent retailers. Although the problem was really quite big, the actual project was tightly focused. Without realising it, this was a very important project that went on to define my research profile and identity. I became known as Mrs Small Shops.

2. Think big

Establishing the training needs of independent retailers in the UK is one thing. Actually designing interventions that will improve their business performance is quite another. The next couple of bids I wrote built upon the reputation I had in understanding of research problem and included a diverse range of partners who wanted to tackle the problem in a practical way. One of the outcomes of the Retail Enterprise Network project was the creation of new bite-size qualifications for retailers that could be studied in 10 hours that led to measurable improvements in key performance indicators, such as footfall, sales and profitability.

3. Instill confidence

Having lots of relevant partners is often a good way to instil confidence in the people that are assessing your grant application. If you have all the major players that can help answer a research problem, or a practical problem, or a combination of the two, who are willing to work on your project, then why would the funders reject your application? Another good way of instilling confidence is showing how the project supports the core aims of the organisation you work for. Sometimes grant calls don’t expect you to work with other people, however, having a few letters of support, in my view, never does any harm.

4. Humility

There’s a fine line between instilling confidence and sounding arrogant! If your research is trying to solve ‘real world’ problems, then the ‘real world’ should be part of defining the research objectives and interpreting the research findings. I would class all my research now as a form of engaged scholarship or ‘knowledge partnering’ (Eversole, 2014). Project partners enter into a process of co-inquiry. We agree up front what everyone wants to achieve from the project, and, as Principal Investigator, it is my job to make sure everyone gets what they expected.

5. Accept divides

Whilst I strongly believe all the partners in a project should benefit from participating, that doesn’t mean all the key people in your project can work in the same space. Often there is such big differences in people’s background/foreground, e.g. public sector vs private sector, it is naive (and irresponsible) to expect everyone to work as one happy family. In our latest project, for example, we have created user-groups, so that people from similar backgrounds (property, retailing, policy) can work together. 

6. Collaborate

If other people or other groups are doing similar or useful things related to what you are proposing in your bid then you must try and collaborate. If they don’t seem to want to work with you, then persevere. What are the barriers to working together? How could these be overcome? Is it possible for you to arrange a joint seminar, for example, to share findings at the end of your project. Is someone willing to be a key informant, keynote speaker or visiting researcher or advisor? Sometimes I have had to wait years for a key organisation or person to become a true partner in joint projects. But it is always worth the wait. After all, if they have a reputation in the area in which I am working, then that reputation will have been earned for a reason. Your funder will want to feel that they are spending money which will end in a contribution to knowledge, or practice, or policy. This rarely happens without partnership. To show that you are working with the key players and willing to collaborate will be crucial to your success.

7. Offer value

Funders want to know they are getting value for money. So pack what you can into your bid. This is where having the support of your organisation is very important. Are there opportunities to include activities in your bid that are part of your organisation’s mainstream business? For example, if you work in a university, can the findings of your research project be incorporated into the curriculum? Do you have partners in your project that can incorporate project findings into dissemination events that they run regularly anyway?

8. Think backwards

I learnt this secret fairly late in my bid writing career. It is much easier to craft a convincing bid if you have the end goal clearly in your mind at the beginning. About 10 years ago we realised that town centres should meet the needs of their catchment communities. Common sense. But it’s surprising how easy it is to lose sight of this and write over complicated bids that, collectively, take us no further forward towards an agreed goal.


Following on from my last point, if you cannot explain to someone on the bus or someone in the pub what you are doing and why, in general terms, then it is unlikely you will convince your funder either. Obviously, there will be parts of your bid that may be incredibly detailed and assume a high degree of technical knowledge. But there is always a section that allows you to write a short and simple summary of your project. This is very important. It might only be 150 words but be prepared to invest time and effort in getting this right.

10. Have fun

Bid writing is hard work. And it is even harder work when somebody actually gives you that money to deliver your project! If you don’t enjoy what you do, if you are not really passionate about your end goals, then my advice is to focus on doing something else. Projects can be hard work for your team and your partners too. So don’t be afraid to factor in some fun time. Going on visits, having drinks or meals out, chatting over coffee et cetera are all ways in which you can show your appreciation for everyone’s hard work – and give people a bit of ‘down-time’ as a much-needed contrast to all the high-energy doing and thinking in your project.


Here is a number of publications that have come from the research project funding I have won.

Parker, C., Ntounis, N., Quin, S., & Grime, I. (2014). High Street research agenda: identifying High Street research priorities. Journal of Place Management and Development, 7(2), 176-184 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/JPMD-06-2014-0008

Coca‐Stefaniak J.A.,  Cathy Parker, Patricia Rees, (2010) “Localisation as a marketing strategy for small retailers”, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 38 Iss: 9, pp. 677 – 697 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/09590551011062439
Coca-Stefaniak, J.A., Parker, C., Quin, S., Rinaldi, R., Byrom, J. (2009) Town centre management models: A European perspective, Cities,vol. 26 (2), P. 74-80 http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezproxy.mmu.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0264275108001236

Parker, C., Gimenez, R.Y., Coca-Stefaniak, J.A., Byrom, J. (2007) Perceptions of the Andalusian independent retail sector, International Journal of Business and Globalisation, Vol. 1 (1), 125-142 http://www.inderscienceonline.com/doi/abs/10.1504/IJBG.2007.013723

Roper, S., Parker, C. (2006) Evolution of branding theory and its relevance to the independent retail sector, The Marketing Review, Vol. 6(1), pp. 55-71 http://mmu.library.ingentaconnect.com/content/westburn/tmr/2006/00000006/00000001/art00005
Coca-Stefaniak, A., Hallsworth, A.G., Parker, C., Bainbridge, S., Yuste, R. (2005) Decline in the British small shop independent retail sector: exploring European parallels, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, Vol. 12(5), p. 357-371 http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezproxy.mmu.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S0969698904000943
J. Andres Coca‐Stefaniak, Cathy Parker, Amadeu Barbany, Xavier Garrell, Enric Segovia, (2005) “Gran Centre Granollers – “city, culture and commerce””, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 33 Iss: 9, pp.685 – 696 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/09590550510611878

Parker, C. and Coca-Stefaniak, J. A. (2005) Looking back and looking forward. In J. A. Coca-Stefaniak and B. Oldfield, eds. The persefones project: a twinning experience. Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University http://e-space.openrepository.com/e-space/handle/2173/85934

Cathy Parker, Tracey Anthony‐Winter, David Tabernacle, (2003) “Learning by stealth: introducing smaller retailers to the benefits of training and education in Barnet”, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 31 Iss: 9, pp.470 – 476 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/09590550310491441

Ruth Anne Schmidt, Cathy Parker, (2003) “Diversity in independent retailing: barriers and benefits – the impact of gender”, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 31 Iss: 8, pp.428 – 439 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/09590550310484106

Hallsworth, A., Parker, C., & Coca-Stefaniak, A. (2003). Small Retail and TCM Shemes: Theory and reality from UK y USA. I Encuentro Centros comerciales Abiertos.

John Byrom, Cathy Parker, John Harris, (2002) “Towards a healthy high street: identifying skills needs in small independent retailers”, Education + Training, Vol. 44 Iss: 8/9, pp.413 – 420

Richard Hudson‐Davies, Cathy Parker, John Byrom, (2002) “Towards a healthy high street: developing mentoring schemes for smaller retailers”, Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 34 Iss: 7, pp.248 – 255 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/00197850210447237

John Byrom, John Harris, Cathy Parker, (2000) “Training the independent retailer: an audit of training needs, materials and systems”, Journal of European Industrial Training, Vol. 24 Iss: 7, pp.366 – 374 http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/03090590010377727
Parker, C., & Byrom, J. (Eds.). (2000). Towards a healthy high street: Training the independent retailer. Manchester Metropolitan University. http://www.opengrey.eu/item/display/10068/578514