Funding

10 Steps to Writing a Winning HRSA Grant Proposal

By Marsea NelsonSeptember 8, 2015

cupped hands holding change with a small plant growing out of it

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Will 2016 be the year your program receives federal funding? With a little elbow grease and these tips, you can make it happen.

When a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) funding opportunity is announced, it’s easy to come up with excuses not to apply. If you’ve never submitted before, the process can seem daunting. Plus, you’re a PA educator, so you’re probably already stretched pretty thin.

But HRSA grants are an unparalleled resource; one that every PA program could benefit from. So to help demystify the process, we went straight to the source — the four most recent HRSA grant recipients — to get their advice on what it takes to write a successful proposal.

 1. Be ready to pounce. When the last HRSA grant call was released, it was over the winter holiday. Imperfect timing to be sure, especially considering applicants only had two months to submit. Just one example of why it helps to prep in advance.

“It is important to begin planning now for grant writing,” said PAEA’s Chief Policy Officer and Head of Research Tony Miller, MEd, PA-C. “This includes developing ideas and potential partnerships.”

Director of Grants & Operations at Red Rocks Community College Kristin Aslan agrees. The institution’s PA program successfully submitted a proposal that aims to advance the Patient-Centered Medical Home model in Colorado. “Partnerships that would support the project’s success were in place and supported through letters of commitment,” she noted.

A number of grantees will soon be coming off a 5-year grant cycle, so PAEA expects a significant amount of funding to be available next year. You can consider this a major heads-up.

2. Use your resources (Psst, that’s us!). When she first applied for HRSA grants, Upstate Medical University’s Sandra Banas, MST, RPA-C, didn’t expect she’d be funded. Instead, she looked at it as a learning opportunity. To prepare, Banas payed close attention during a PAEA grant-writing webinar, led by Miller and Dave Keahey, MSPH, PA-C, who had previously served on a HRSA advisory committee. “I still have the notes from the webinar,” she said. And what do you know ― her first grants were ultimately funded.

PAEA will again be offering webinars early this fall along with a grant-writing PandoTM workshop at this year’s Education Forum.

 3. Remember there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Idaho State University’s PA program was recently awarded a HRSA grant for their Pipeline to Diversity project. Program Director Paula Phelps, MHE, PA-C, said she and her team built upon material that they had already developed for a PAEA workshop presentation.

“I think one of the things that made it successful was that we weren’t starting from scratch,” Phelps said. “We had the basis of what we already wanted to do.”

 4. Think big but not too big. Phelps had written HRSA grant proposals before, but they’d been declined. Why does she think this one was successful? “I think that in the past we were only looking at a small slice, just Spanish language acquisition,” she said. “It didn’t have as much of a far-reaching emphasis.” 

With that said, there’s a fine line to tow. Aslan said she believes Red Rocks’ proposal was successful because “the outcomes were ambitious yet realistic and measurable.”

 5. Who’s HRSA again? Banas said that, when writing a grant, she always keeps the mission statement of the sponsor in mind. Here’s HRSA’s: “To improve health and achieve health equity through access to quality services, a skilled health workforce, and innovative programs.”

 6. Get to the point. Banas has an impressive track record; all four HRSA grant proposals she’s submitted have been funded (the most recent for continuity of care clinical curriculum). So what’s her secret?

“You want to make sure you’re organized and very attentive to clarity and details,” she said.

She begins by reviewing the reviewer criteria that’s listed in the Funding Opportunity Announcement. Each criterion is assigned a point value. Not only does Banas make sure to articulate those points, she does so in the beginning of the section because, simply, “I know grant reviewers get tired while reading.”

Aslan added an additional suggestion: “Use a logic model to develop your plan, and make sure anything in your budget ties back to the logic model.”

 7. But don’t sacrifice passion for points. Have you ever said to yourself, “I’d love to do this with our program, if only I had the money?” That’s what you should write your grant about.

“A year ago this was a pipe dream. It was like, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we could do this?’” Phelps recalled. “And so we started looking at what it would take.”

She recommends following an idea you’re really passionate about. “It’s not just about getting the money to say, ‘I got a HRSA grant to do X,Y,Z,’” Phelps said. “It’s ‘What do I really care about?’ and ‘How would federal dollars help us achieve that goal?’ because it will never be enough money.”

 8. Write away. Three people contributed to the Idaho State grant proposal, but Phelps worked to meld them into one consistent and cohesive voice. “It was honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever edited,” she said. 

“If there is time, have someone less familiar with the project read your proposal,” suggested Aslan.

This past grant cycle, LeMoyne College was awarded funding for its Primary Care Enhancement Initiative. Program Director Mary Springston, MSEd, PA-C, relied on a professor in her department who is a “flowery writer” to finesse the language and “make it sound beautiful.”

 9. Close the door, clear the calendar. Banas said writing a grant isn’t something you can do in 15-minute increments here and there. She put in many evening and weekend hours.

“I think that’s the biggest challenge,” Banas said. “As PA educators we’re all so busy, and you’re pulled in so many directions, so it’s trying to find the time.”

Springston agreed. “It does take time, and I think that’s the most intimidating part,” she said. “You need to be able to shut your door and write and let the whole world go on.”

10. Think long game. “I really encourage people to do it because, unless you actually put the time in, you’re never going to know,” Banas said.

Plus, even if your proposal isn’t accepted, you can use the negative feedback you receive from the reviewers to make the next one stronger.

“I would recommend writing grants to anybody,” Springston said. “It’s a lot of work to get started, but it’s so worth it.”

Marsea Nelson
Marsea Nelson

Marsea serves as public affairs manager at the Physician Assistant Education Association. She helps write and edit the Association's external communications.