Grant Season Journal, Part 1

Please note: the application procedures described in this article are no longer applicable.  Please refer to the Programs section of the Foundation’s website for current application procedures.

Wenner-Gren’s President, Dr. Leslie C. Aiello, with some invaluable inside tips and hints for those planning on applying for our Spring 2012 season.

Wenner-Gren’s spring 2012 grant season for our major programs is now underway (May 1, 2012 deadline).

Over the next few weeks I will be blogging with tips to help you write a competitive grant proposal. We would like to fund everyone who applies, but the reality is that we only have money to fund 12-15% of the almost 1500 applications we receive each year. My aim is to help you get into that top 12-15% and become a successful Wenner-Gren grantee.

I plan to cover all of the basics of preparing successful grant proposals for Wenner-Gren. Weekly topics will include:

  • How to write winning answers to our project description questions.
  • Resubmitting a previously declined application and how to prepare a convincing resubmission statement.
  • Preparing your budget:  what is fundable and what isn’t.
  • How to be successful in our most competitive grant program, the Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship
  • Funding your conference or workshop: The Conference and Workshop Grant

Today’s topic is Basic Do’s and Don’ts in Preparing your Application.  You shouldn’t ignore the following points – you would be surprised how many applicants do so and run into trouble as a result. This information applies to all of our grant programs.


1. Make sure your project is something that Wenner-Gren would potentially fund.  

You might think that if you self-identify as an anthropologist, your project would be potentially fundable by Wenner-Gren. This is not always the case. With Wenner-Gren – as with all funding organizations – it is important to pay close attention to the mission statement to determine whether your project is fundable (or could be written in a way to make it more competitive).

For Wenner-Gren there are two important things to remember.

(a)   We prioritize projects that have the potential to make a significant contribution to a specific body of anthropological theory that would have the broadest possible impact across the discipline.

This means that you should start out the description of your project with a strong statement of a theoretical question or problem from the anthropological literature and go on to demonstrate how your proposed research offers an ideal way to address this question or problem to move the field forward.

It also means that we do not prioritize research that merely “fills-in-a-gap.” This type of fill-in-a-gap project might include research duplicating that of your advisor in another village, or excavation of an archaeological site in a particular location just because no work has been done there before, or it will fill-a-gap in the cultural history of the region. You need to give us a good theoretical reason for doing the research. Ask yourself the following question:  Why would someone who is not a specialist in the local region be interested in reading your work? If you cannot answer this question easily, we are not the funding source for you.

Our focus on theoretical anthropology also excludes research that is primarily applied in nature. Wenner-Gren is always happy when research has a positive benefit, but it is very important to realize that the funding decisions are made on the basis of the arguments you make for the theoretical relevance of your work.

(b) Your project must be “anthropological.”

Anthropology as a field tends to have “leaky edges” and one of the problems we have at Wenner-Gren is defining what Anthropology really is. For example, when does Medical Anthropology become Public Health or Linguistic Anthropology become non-anthropological linguistics? It is essential for you to convince Wenner-Gren that your research falls squarely within the field of Anthropology and addresses important current issues in anthropological theory.

It is also important to realize that Wenner-Gren defines Anthropology as having something to do with humans – and particularly human biological or cultural origins, evolution or variation.

This is a particular issue for primatologists. We receive many strong primatological applications that do not address anthropological questions and as a result fall outside of our funding mission. The best advice I can give is to think of Jane Goodall and the anthropological questions that she was asking with her work at the Gombe – she was basically asking the question of what is “human” and answering this question by provide unique knowledge of non-human primate behavior.

If you are submitting a primate application, it is essential to start off your application with an anthropological question and demonstrate why your particular primate-based project is the ideal way of answering this question. It is not enough to merely allude to the fact that the data might be of potential importance to unspecified anthropological questions that might be asked in the future. Anthropology must be central to the project.

This point is also relevant to the emerging area of “multi-species ethnography.” The focus must be on the human side of the multi-species equation.

The question of what is Anthropology is also important for people applying from allied disciplines. Wenner-Gren realizes that anthropological research does not have to originate in Anthropology departments – and this is particularly true for applicants who are based at Institutions outside of the United States.

It is important for ALL applicants to demonstrate that their research is derived from, and will potentially contribute to, current theoretical arguments in the anthropological literature. We are not particularly interested in funding historians, musicologists, political scientists, economists, etc. unless they clearly demonstrate the anthropological nature of their research and its relevance to a specific body of anthropological literature.

A final point here is that many applicants coming from outside the discipline feel that the mere fact their research deals with non-western societies or that they are using participant observation as a research technique qualifies the research as Anthropology. This is not the case. It is up to you to demonstrate that it is anthropological.

2. Make sure you apply at the right time for your research – not too early and not too late.

For the Dissertation Fieldwork Grant and the Post-Ph.D. Research Grant we expect the research to commence within six months of notification of the award. For applications submitted at the May 1 deadline, this means that the research should commence between January 1 and June 30 of the following year. For applications submitted at the November 1 deadline, research should commence between July 1 and December 31 of the following year. Applications with start dates outside of the appropriate six-month period will be returned to the applicant (unreviewed) for submission at a later, more appropriate, date.

We cannot accelerate the review process to accommodate research that begins before the designated funding period for the particular grant cycle. Make sure that you apply at the deadline that is at least six months before you intend to begin your research. Note also that we do not fund retrospective expenses, so don’t start spending on your research in anticipation of being funded (and reimbursed) by Wenner-Gren.

Applicants for the Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship must have their doctorates in hand at the time the application is submitted. Proposals for the Post-Ph.D. Research Grant are accepted from applicants close to receipt of their Ph.D.; however, the doctorate must be in hand before the designated start date for the project. There are no exceptions to this.

3. Don’t wait until the last minute to write (or submit) your application.

(a) Submitting your application

In any one grant cycle approximately 40% of the applications are uploaded within six hours of the application deadline. Avoid unnecessary stress and possible computer grief – submit your online application early.

The deadline for applications is 12 midnight Eastern Standard time on November 1 or May 1. Plan ahead. We do not give extensions if the date falls on a weekend or on a national holiday.

(b) Last minute applications

Don’t wait until the last minute to write your application. A short application form can be deceptive. It does not mean that it is easy to write convincing answers to the project description questions – in fact many applicants think that it is harder to write short answers than longer ones. Take your time – it will pay off. The most important thing is to get as much feedback as possible from your advisor/s and fellow students.

It is also very important to use the space that is available. Short answers to the questions are rarely convincing and many of the reviewers think that a lot of blank space on the application form indicates that the applicant has not fully thought through the project and doesn’t have much to say about it. These brief applications are rarely if ever funded.

One other important thing that should be obvious is to carefully proof-read your application form. Typos, grammatical errors and missing words suggest sloppy preparation and are often taken as indicators of the eventual (poor) quality of the proposed research. Some applicants even misspell their own names, project titles, etc. This type of mistake is easy to avoid with a little care and attention. Also, make sure that your budget adds up correctly. Some applicants make errors in the thousands of dollars.

4. Be sure to apply to as many relevant funding agencies as possible. The best strategy is to spread your risk.

This last point will not necessary increase your funding chances with Wenner-Gren, but it might just get you into the field sooner rather than later. We have a question on the form asking what other agencies you are applying to for funding. Many applicants answer “none” to this question. I hope that this is really not the case. In today’s very competitive funding climate, it is extremely important to apply to as many funding sources as possible. The best strategy is definitely to spread your risk.  In fact, we have a list of other potential sources of funding (Outside Resources) on our programs page (in the left column). Have a look at this. You may find a “weird and wonderful” source that you are not familiar with and is perfect for your project.

If you do indicate that you have applied to other funding organizations, this will NOT affect your chances of being fully funded by Wenner-Gren. We are pleased when an applicant is also funded by other sources and will work with the applicant to spread the costs across the various funding organizations.


If you are totally overwhelmed by preparing your application and particularly by presenting your research in the best possible way, I would strongly recommend having a look at: “Writing Grant Proposals for Anthropological Research” by Sydel Silverman (Current Anthropology, 32: 485-489). Silverman was a previous president of Wenner-Gren and although this article is now over 20 year old, it is still one of the best available (short) articles on writing a competitive grant proposal.  A PDF of this article can be downloaded from our Programs web page ( The link is at the top of the page (Read about how to write a grant proposal.)


A final word is about our review process.  Wenner-Gren operates a two-stage review process and you need to realize that your application will be read by both specialists in your research area and by generalist anthropologists. It is essential to avoid excessive jargon and present your work in the clearest possible fashion. We occasionally have expert reviewers comment that a particular proposal was so jargon-laden that they had no idea what the applicant was going to do and how they would achieve it. The best advice is to have someone outside of your research area – or even a non-anthropologist – read your application for clarity of presentation.  What we are looking for in our successful projects is a feasible, clearly presented project that will make a significant contribution to anthropological theory.

We have put considerable effort into trying to ensure our web site is clear and easy to navigate and that our application procedures are easy to follow. You should read the application procedures (downloadable at the time you download the application form) before you begin to fill out the application form. We are happy to answer any questions you might have and will promptly answer your e-mails to However, we cannot read and advise on proposal drafts – there are simply too many applicants to be fair and do this for everyone.


Next week’s topic is How to Write Winning Answers to the Project Description Questions.  This is information that should not be missed.

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