How to Run a Research Grant Program

How to Run A Research Grant Program

Your essential overview to planning, launching, and maintaining a successful research grant program.

Start With Why

First thing’s first: If you’re hoping to set up a research grant program, start by getting crystal clear on why. What breakthrough is the program targeting? What innovation might it lead to? What emerging scientific field or underserved community might it empower? By beginning with why you’re hoping to plan a research grant program, you’ll be all the more focused on how at every step of the way. 

And you should revisit that why as you go. Share your why with your colleagues, with peer reviewers, with your friends and family. Use your why to anchor your decision-making and focus each and every day.

Ok, so you’ve grounded this endeavor in meaning. Now, let’s dig into the details.

Lay the Groundwork

Before jumping straight into the who, what, how questions, you’ll want to determine what type of entity is going to be the backbone of the grant program. Do you need to set up a foundation? Here’s what to consider to answer that question:

Do you have private funds with which to set up your grantmaking program?

If so, you’ll probably want to create an incorporated private foundation. This type of foundation is tax-exempt and managed by a director or a board of trustees. Funds from this type of foundation are allocated to nonprofit organizations that apply for the funds.

Are you planning to fund your grant with a fundraising plan and public donations?

If so, you’ll need to set up a public charity, community foundation, or nonprofit organization. These organizations are also tax-exempt and are funded by public donations or grants from larger entities.

Does the prospect of setting up a distinct nonprofit entity seem too expansive for the nature of the research grant you have in mind?

If so, you might want to consider working with an existing nonprofit to back your grant idea. This option could be suitable if you’re comfortable taking on more of a collaborative role with a larger group and if you’re able to find an organization that’s aligned with your aspirations for the grant.

Once you’ve determined which approach you’d like to take, you may need to involve a few other expert stakeholders to ensure you’re managing the appropriate checks and balances to run a grant program that’s aligned with legal and regulatory considerations. You’ll want to work with legal and tax professionals to ensure you’re adhering to the appropriate regulatory and tax-specific parameters. 

If you’re hoping to establish a nonprofit as opposed to working with an existing one, you’ll also want to cultivate a passionate, dedicated, diverse board of directors or trustees who can champion the goals of the research grant program, provide strategic advice on key decisions and opportunities, and serve as the public face of your grant.

Get Into the Details

Now that we’ve covered the high level, it’s time to frame out the particulars. There are three foundational anchor points to have in mind when it comes to the structure of your grant program.

How much money are you hoping to grant and in what increments?

Perhaps you’re hoping to contribute a large sum of money to one individual recipient or research group. This could be the right approach if you’d like to maximize the potential value of the grant for one entity. 

Or, maybe you’re hoping to issue a large number of micro-grants to an array of groups or individuals. This could be the right approach if you’re hoping to stretch the value of your funding across a wider range of people, serve a broader geography, or invite groups to tackle the research grant program’s why from a variety of different angles.

How long do you want to offer the grant program?

Do you want to release funds annually? Seasonally? In an ongoing capacity? Think about how much time you’ll need to handle administrative tasks, peer review, and the other foundational to-dos that come with releasing funding. Also consider how much funding you have to work with, and how those increments or input streams might best be split up over time.

How will funds be used by grantees?

Lastly, you’ll want to get clear about how the funds will be used by research grant recipients. Setting clear guardrails from the beginning will help you effectively monitor how things are going over time. You may determine you want to adjust what is or isn’t within the parameters of the funding, but starting with a clear target will help empower grantees while also leaving some leeway to adjust.

Gather the Supporting Actors

You’ve fine-tuned the particulars. Now you just need to button them up a bit further. It’s very important to map out a business plan that walks through how you’ll allocate the funds and what you’ll need to make sure everything runs smoothly. Aim to focus a majority of your budget on the overarching grant spending—with administrative and operational costs playing a supporting role.

Once you’ve formalized your business plan, you should develop marketing and branding strategies to bring the program to the marketplace in fresh and creative ways. If the organization issuing the grant already has established branding or marketing resources, you have a leg up translating the grant particulars into a focused marketing strategy. And if not, you’ll want to seek out a partner or partners to help you come up with some fundamentals—namely, a logo, key messages and some sense of the personality of the organization, and a website and social channels as well.

Prepare for Applications

It’s time for one of the most critical parts: the research grant application. Plan out the specific application terms and approach. You’ll want to include guidelines for everything the grant writer will need to submit their proposal. 

A few essentials include: the grant’s overall why and the amount of the grant, and all deadlines, grant requirements, application requirements, timeline considerations, and reporting requirements.

Once you’ve documented the essentials, make sure they’re clearly formatted on a website landing page where grant writers can easily absorb them while writing their submissions.

When it comes to broadcasting the application online, capturing applications, and managing awards, Altum’s flagship grants management platform, ProposalCentral, can help. ProposalCentral is uniquely designed to help organizations unlock the full potential of their funding efforts and deliver outcomes that benefit humanity faster.

Determining how much detail and complexity to include is key when formatting the application. Find the middle ground between asking for too much info and not asking for enough. Too much could deter valuable applicants. But too little could bloat your application numbers and make it tough to choose the best.

Prepare for Peer Reviews

Now, the official call for proposals. The research grant peer review is when the research lifecycle officially kicks off. Once applications are submitted, you will need to convene a peer review committee to review, critique, and score submitted applications. Typically, this process comprises a few key milestones, including at least two rounds of expert evaluation by internal and external reviewers. 

Choosing the right peer review team is critical when it comes to running a meaningful research grant program. You’ll want to seek out an exceptional team that brings expertise, institutional knowledge, industry prestige, and diverse perspectives to the table.

For a more immersive breakdown of how to run a successful grant peer review, check out our eBook.

This valuable resource also includes tips and suggestions for developing a smart scoring rubric and moving smoothly and efficiently through reviews.

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Fund the Future

After concluding the peer review process, you’re ready to officially announce grant recipients. But even beyond the opportunity to champion awardees as they embark on their research, consider each rejected application as an opportunity for growth, too.

You’re picking the proposals with the best scientific merit and potential impact. But you’re also providing feedback to applicants so they can improve their proposals for future submissions. Enhancing the mindset and approach grant writers take to their applications boosts the potential of science across the board.

Once you’ve issued the award or awards for your research grant programs, there’s no time to sit back and relax. You’ll want to keep track of research stages, progress, setbacks, and funding allocation over time. This ensures you can effectively understand the utility of your program—and it allows you to highlight wins and learn from losses as you go. This begins by revisiting the details you documented in your business plan—and it continues through to understanding how you’d like to measure ROI.

Impact can take many forms, but above all, you’ll want to keep your eye on the future. Because the next big research breakthrough could be just over the horizon. And someone’s going to need to fund it.

For more information on maximizing research grant impact, check out this on-demand webinar.

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Let's Recap

Above all, there are three essential considerations we recommend keeping close when you’re starting and running a research grant program.


Understand why you’re creating a research grant program, and what you hope to get out of the program. When you orient everything around your why, you can continually zero in on researchers’ accomplishments and their impact, long after individual grants have ended.


Running a research grant program takes a lot of synthesis across a variety of people. Keep a collaborative mindset as you go. If there are areas where you have less expertise or experience, chances are your board, your peer review team, or any number of other valued resources can help you work through it. Teamwork is everything.

Attention to Detail

This isn’t easy. And there are countless small details that need to line up and stay coordinated along the way—like keeping track of the guidelines for your program, managing applications, tracking analytics, and financial reporting. But when you develop a clear game plan and repeatable strategies for handling each step of the process, you’ll be much better prepared should you need to adapt or adjust.

With Altum’s ProposalCentral platform, you can make smarter funding decisions and manage the entire grants management process easily through streamlined workflows and AI-based decision support tools.

Hundreds of research funders of all sizes choose ProposalCentral for simplifying grants management from application to award.


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