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Reputable References: Time Well Spent or Wasted?

March 11, 2010

Undeniably, it can be a time consuming and often harrowing experience to gather facts and statistics for a grant application. Hours slowly slip by as you stare at reports filled with seemingly ambiguous graphs revealing assortments of statistics on the matter of interest. You can’t help but wonder—in the end, is all of the enormous effort worth it?

To answer this question, let’s quickly turn to the common format of a grant application. On a typical application there is a noteworthy section that details the project need or problem addressed. If the funder does not believe that there is a problem to be solved, they will not keep reading and all will be lost. It is your responsibility, as the applicant, to convince funders that your organization is addressing the most solvable and pressing problems at hand. Once you have taken the research plunge and committed to building your case with data, where should you start?

There are scores of effective research methods, but with the overwhelming amount of data that is hidden within the web one can easily get lost in a labyrinth of controversial numbers. Here is a step-by-step research guide to help you avoid wayward corridors, stay on task, and find citable sources.

Step 1: Review the guidelines, determine the need that the funder wants addressed, and identify topics for research. Research is most effective when tailored to each application. And time is best spent when we know exactly what to look for. Are specific statistics required, such as ethnic percentages or income level figures? Should statistics be limited to a specific geographical area or population group? Be sure you are answering the questions the funder is asking.

Step 2: Determine the type of sources that will best support your argument. Here are some basic research guidelines to follow:

  • Recent: Use the most current data available, even if old data supports the problem better. The funder may be well aware of new research that is not cited.
  • Unbiased vs. Biased: Is the source biased toward gathering research to support a certain viewpoint/agenda? In general, objective sources are the most desirable because they paint the clearest picture. There also may be times when subjective viewpoints are beneficial, such as when the funder is working to push a reform movement and the data sources “agree with” the funder’s goals and the work you are proposing.
  • Reliable and Verifiable: Be certain that the organization compiling the research is credible. At the same time, there is a time and place to use more informal sources (such as blogs or social media). Again, make sure you know the funder and use sources accordingly. If used correctly the use of informal data gives you the potential to:
    • Document a need that people within the serviced community have identified and can demonstrate the timeliness of the proposed solution.
    • Connect with local funders that are in tune with your community.
    • Reveal the need for a proposal that provides community outreach and education about an issue.
  • Cite your sources. Make sure the reader can find the data if desired. In most cases, a parenthetical citation, such as (Source, date), will suffice. Footnotes are useful to include more information. Some funders require specific citation styles, so keep your eyes open and be sure to follow directions.

Step 3: Conduct the research. To get a quality picture, it’s necessary to commit to time-intensive work; set aside a significant amount of time and proceed with patience. Start with noteworthy organizations that align with your research topic and goals. Here are some good places to start:

  • Census: Provides statistics on demographic, social, economic, housing characteristics, and more. Retrieve data on specific zip codes and census tracts and compare indicators on a local, statewide, or federal level. Spend some time exploring the Data Sets and the Summary Files. I like Summary File-4. Click on Detailed Tables and you can select the exact indicators you want to compare in any geographic area in the nation, right down to the census tract level. And, you can download the raw data in an Excel spreadsheet. Amazing and impressive to funders!
  • Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services: Provides information on population, employment, income, farm characteristics, farm financial indicators, and top commodities, exports, and counties for each state in the United States. My favorite use is to compare the county-level data, which comes in handy particularly when working on economic development proposals. You can get county-level unemployment data and median household income. Again, the data is downloadable in Excel, plus you have the option to get color-coded maps!
  • Department of Health and Human Services: Provides statistics on a variety of health and human service topics, population surveys, and more. What I love about this site is, if you click into the Statistics section, you can search data by federal department. For example, if I want to find out rates of illicit drug use, I click into the SAMHSA department and discover—by region—where the highest incidences of drug usage occurs, and where these areas are in relation to treatment centers.
  • Foundation websites: Many foundations maintain a data center on their website. Find foundations in your area of interest and browse the website.
    • Annie E. Casey Foundation: The Kids Count Data Center provides: 1) data by state which allows you to search by location or topic, includes community-level data, and enables you to create profiles, maps, and more; and 2) data across states which allows you to compare states or cities, search by topic, and create maps, rankings and more. The Foundation publishes a Kids Count Data Book that profiles the well-being of America’s children on a state-by-state basis. It’s especially helpful if you click into each Kids Count indicator, which are generally a different dataset than those provided by the Census – you can get the raw data, again, in an Excel format.
    • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Provides recent publications and research for Foundation areas of interest including: Addiction, disparities, end of life and palliative care, health insurance coverage, long-term care, nursing, obesity, physical activity, and public health. Plus, RWJF makes grants for research projects and publishes evaluations on the projects. It’s an outstanding source of comprehensive health information and the research methodology.
  • New Mexico Economic Development Department: Maintains a data center. You can search by county or by community and perform comparisons. The Data Center area is intended to be a central point of access for New Mexico business, economic and community development information. What’s helpful about this website is that it isn’t overwhelming—you can find specific data points that relate to economic development without experiencing information overload or being paralyzed from too many fancy options.
  • New Mexico Department of Health: Publishes county health reports, rural health, maternal/child health, and other indicators specific to the state. In fact, check out the Indicator Based Information System. Indicators are organized by category; anything from health insurance coverage to obesity to years of potential life lost.

Other helpful sources for data research are journals or other industry publications, newspaper articles, and especially interviews from both within and outside your agency—director, clients, policy makers. Interviews are an excellent source of quotes that can generate powerful responses when used efficiently.

Step 4: Present the research. Summarize your findings to support the heart of the problem, the problem that your organization is going to work toward solving. Experiment with how to present the data in the most effective way. Tables, bulleted lists, paragraphs, storytelling approach, graphs, and even color-coding maps are all useful presentation tools. More is not necessarily better when it comes to data, especially if there are page limits. Finally, remember that a real person will be reading your statistics on the other end. Make sure it is easy to follow and to the point!

In summary, strong applications include robust arguments that make the case—arguments armed with recent facts and statistics that prove, without a doubt, that there is an imminent problem that your services will help relieve. Research, when used effectively, is a powerful tool that not only strengthens the need for your program, but also shows that your organization is well-versed and on top of the issues. Building a case with numbers adds credibility to your organization and ultimately increases your chances of securing grant awards.

Contact: Wendy McCoy, Resource Development Officer wendy@thegrantplantnm.com

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