Grant Writing in Academic Public Health – The Funder

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM


The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This post offers advice on writing public health grants.

Dr. Justin B. Moore

In my previous post in this series, I covered the basics of getting started on the grant writing process. In this post, I’m going to discuss the process of finding a funder for your research. As you’ll see, the choice of who to target for funding can be a complicated one, with a number of considerations to guide the selection. For example, funders can have numerous mechanisms through which they provide funding, and each mechanism may have specific requirements that vary substantially. However, as you become familiar with the various types of funders, specific funding organizations, and mechanisms of funding for each, the decision of who to target for funding will become easier.

Funders can be placed in a few large categories, which can aid in understanding the differences between them. The first place to look for funding is your home institution. Most academic settings have funding mechanisms that can be applied to for relatively small amounts of money. The second are philanthropic organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The third are non-profit organizations such as the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society. The fourth are governmental agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Industry is another source of funding for some in public health, but I have very little experience with private funding, so I’ll leave it to other to discuss the pros and cons (and there are definitely cons).

  • Institutional (internal) Funding
    • Most institutions have a formal mechanism for funding research. These amounts can range substantially, from a few thousand to more than one hundred thousand, depending on the institution and intent of the funding. Most mechanisms are designed to provide investigators with enough money to get some pilot data collected (on a shoestring budget). The good news is that these mechanisms are competitive but are attainable to new investigators. They are usually just enough money to buy supplies, pay incentives, and (maybe) support a staff member or student to help collect data. They bad news is that they rarely cover salary support or course buyouts, so they can represent a new project to carry out in you “spare time.”
  • Philanthropic Organizations
    • Philanthropic organizations can be a great source of funding, especially for more applied aspects of your work such as the dissemination and implementation of policies or programs. Funding amounts can vary considerably, but many larger foundations are willing to fund multi-year projects with total budgets in the six-figure range. However, every foundation is unique, and many prefer to take a model of partnership and collaboration rather than a traditional grantee/funder relationship. As such, it’s paramount that you develop a relationship with the program officers at the foundation before attempting to submit an application. Many foundations require this step, as they may not accept unsolicited applications. Your institution may have an official who can help make introductions or broker relationships between you and the funder, so it’s important that you explore this possibility before reaching out directly to the foundation. One thing to consider is that many foundations avoid funding pure research, so you’ll want to be careful to frame your work in a manner that is consistent with the mission of the organization.
  • Non-Profit Organizations
    • Many non-profit organizations fund research in their specific areas of interest, and most have a relatively straight forward application process. Like foundations, awards tend to be a bit larger, and can run up into the mid to high six figures. As with other types of organizations, it can be valuable to reach out to a program officer at the organization to ensure that your research idea is consistent with their funding priorities. Just because you have a good idea that focuses on the outcomes of interest of the organization doesn’t mean that it will fit within the portfolio that they are trying to build (or that they aren’t already funding research in that area). One thing you’ll want to consider when dealing with non-profits (and philanthropic foundations) is that they often limit the number of applications that an institution can submit per cycle. If multiple investigators at an institution want to apply, there may be an internal vetting process to select the one considered the most competitive. As such, you’ll want to reach out to your office of sponsored projects to make sure that your application will get consideration for submission.
  • Governmental Agencies
    • The largest funders of health research are governmental agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. The amount of funding varies significantly between the organizations, as do the funding mechanisms, but the awards can range into the millions. The National Institutes of Health is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, and it tends to rely on Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) to solicit applications. However, organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also fund research, but they often use different mechanisms such as cooperative agreements rather than traditional investigator-initiated grant applications. Regardless, each agency will have its own structure, procedure, timelines, and protocols that you’ll need to learn about prior to applying. Again, program officers can be very valuable in helping you tailor your idea to the priorities of the organization.

In the next post in this series, we’ll take a closer look at the structure of the National Institutes of Health, their application process, and strategies to match your research ideas with their funding priorities. In the interim, I would strongly encourage anyone embarking on a grant writing journey to reach out to your office of sponsored projects to familiarize yourself with the internal processes and resources for identifying funding opportunities. Many institutions have excellent support staff who can help you shop your ideas to funders and find the best fit that will improve your chances for success (and funding).


Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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