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Grant Writing as a Means to Fund Supportive Cancer Care Services

August 12, 2021
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ACCC President Krista Nelson, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C, FAOSW, chose “Real-World Lessons from COVID-19: Driving Oncology Care Forward” as her 2021-2022 President’s Theme. The theme focuses on three critical lessons learned that call attention to the urgent and emerging needs of oncology programs and practices fueled by the ongoing effects of the pandemic. One lesson is that “the escalating need for high-reach, high-impact psychosocial and supportive care services require innovative care delivery models that demonstrate measurable value to the oncology ecosystem.” But during this time in which supportive cancer care services including social work, navigation, financial advocacy, and mental health services are needed the most, financial losses from the global pandemic threaten the ability of organizations to provide these critical services.  

Because supportive cancer care services are not reimbursed by payers, cancer programs and practices fund most of these patient-centered services from the bottom line of their budget. But COVID-19 has made that practice increasingly challenging, and many organizations are scrambling to identify other funding sources. Philanthropic funds and federal, state, and local grants are two options. In this blog post, we offer practical tips and strategies to help. 

How to Distinguish Yourself From Your Competitors 

Grants are a source of financial aid given to help specific programs and projects. For cancer programs and practices, grants can help fund patient transportation, navigation, and survivorship efforts. Grant-writing for cancer programs in rural America, where many communities must find creative solutions to unique health issues, is particularly challenging, since the amount of funding allocated to rural organizations is considerably smaller per capita when compared to their urban counterparts. Rural organizations must compete for funding alongside well-prepared, well-funded organizations with experienced grant-writing teams.  

For busy cancer programs and practices, the key to finding grant funding opportunities and writing successful grant proposals is identifying what organizations want to read—and fund. The Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy is currently hosting a monthly Rural Cancer Collaboratory Educational webinar series, the first of which focused on grant writing for rural communities. Grant writing experts Matt McGarvey, executive director of Telligen Community Initiative, Rachel Schramm, senior outreach specialist for the Iowa Cancer Consortium, and Jason Semprini, a pre-doctoral NIH fellow at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, shared key guidelines on grant writing. 

When researching grants, said the presenters, identify programs or services that align with the funder’s objectives by perusing lists, databases, and donor websites. This will also help you determine which grants are worth—and not worth—pursuing. The next step is to understand applicant eligibility and identified needs. 

When writing grant proposals, you will need to gather a variety of documents, including a cover letter, project narrative, and supporting information. Letters of endorsement from members of the community explaining why a program or service is important, and an explanation of how funds will be used are key. Describe your previous, current, and future planned activities to the funder. Follow the grant organization’s guidelines to the letter and ensure that you meet all eligibility criteria. Finally, you will need to develop and provide a budget outlining how the grant money will be spent.  

Once your grant proposal is submitted, respond to funder questions or requests for additional information in a timely manner. Many grants are multi-year and fund ongoing programs or services, so it is critical to develop relationships with current and prospective funders and donors. Finally, as with any transaction where money and resources are involved, it is important to show return on investment, so measure and document the grant’s impact at the conclusion of a project. 

The webinar offered these additional “insider” tips to improve your chances of getting approved for funding: 

  1. Be prepared. Locate and review information about the grant program or application, then follow up with questions.

  2. Make the call. If an opportunity to speak directly to the funding organization is offered, take it. This will draw attention to the proposal, provide an opening to ask questions, lead to a superior application, and ensure that the grant-writer’s time is well spent.

  3. Identify needs. Research organizations that do similar work and use this knowledge to demonstrate why your efforts are essential to the community. 

  4. Plan ahead. Prepare your proposal in advance to give the application a better chance of getting approved. Funding organizations can tell when proposals are put together in a rush or at the last minute. 

  5. Match budget and narrative: Ensure your budget and your narrative offer two ways of looking at the same project; otherwise, the project will seem poorly developed and organizational lines of communication will appear unclear. 

  6. Proofread proposal. Share the final proposal with at least one reviewer to identify potential grammatical and content errors. Ask each reviewer to explain what they read; if they have misunderstood points in the proposal, chances are the funding reviewer will also struggle to understand it. 

  7. Submit application early. Do not wait until the last minute to submit your grant application. Aim to be early with the application, or, at least, not the last submission. 

  8. Engage with the funder. Invite them to organizational or project events to demonstrate how their investments are being put to work in your cancer program or practice. 

The purpose of grant-writing is to not only request funding for programs and services, but also to build long-term, sustainable programs and funding relationships.  

To help you get started on your grant writing journey, here are a few national grant opportunities, including some focused on funding for rural communities: 

  1. American Cancer Society. This is the nation's largest private, non-profit source for funding basic, clinical, translational, and cancer control research. ACS may also fund supportive care services like transportation, navigation, survivorship, and more.  

  2. Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation. The Innovation Center funds a wide range of initiatives. For example, The University of Alabama at Birmingham Comprehensive Cancer Center was awarded a $15 million, three-year grant to expand and enhance the cancer center’s well-established, non-clinical patient navigation program. The Innovation Center also funded the $20 million “Community Oncology Medical Homes (COME HOME)” project at cancer practices in the states of Florida, Georgia, Maine, New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas. 

  3. Livestrong Solution Grant. This non-profit funds organizations developing inventive, cutting edge, and sustainable solutions to overlooked cancer problems to improve quality of life for cancer survivors, caregivers, and loved ones after treatment. A number of ACCC member programs have received grants from this organization to fund supportive cancer care services, including this 2019 ACCC Innovator Award Winner.  

  4. National Cancer Institute. NCI funds research for a wide range of initiatives in areas like complementary and alternative medicine, cancer health disparities, and cancer prevention.   

  5. National Cancer Institute Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences. A portfolio with more than 700 grants and valued at more than $500 million, this organization funds a large portfolio of grants and contracts. 

  6. ProposalCentral. This grants management platform helps organizations tap into funding, manage their application and award pipeline, and realize the full potential of their researchers' scientific efforts. 

  7. Rural Health Information Hub. This hub provides summaries of the latest funding opportunities for rural communities, including federal, state, and foundation opportunities searchable by topic. 

  8. Stanford Medicine. This organization offers internal and external sources of support for cancer research, training, and career development. 

Although success is not guaranteed with any grant application, the primary focus is to share a story that will compel a funder to support your work. It is important to note, however, that most funders prefer organizations with a track record of success—including money raised—before they invest in programs or services. Therefore, the better an organization is at fundraising, the better it will be at successfully applying for a grant. 

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