Don’t Just Write It, Cite It: Ethical Research in Grant Writing by Leah Hyman

The topic of ethics in grants is incredibly broad, as there are often many moving parts and people involved with grant awards. The fund-seeking agency might have a variety of staff members contributing to the process: the executive director, program staff, finance staff, a grant writer, maybe even the board of directors. And then, of course, if the agency receives an award, there are ethical considerations for managing the sometimes very large sums of money. Once again, there might be a host of individuals carrying out the program activities, reporting progress, expending the funds, and so on. In other words, the agency is responsible for ensuring ethical practices across many levels of a grant award.

But for the purposes of this discussion, I want to back up a bit. What about some of the ethics that go into researching and writing the proposal?

The foremost ethical consideration that comes to mind is one we all learned about when we wrote our first book report in school: plagiarism. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines plagiarism as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” This can be accidental – maybe you simply forgot to include quotation marks when you were taking notes – or you didn’t notice that your footnote citations didn’t paste into the online form. However, when you present someone else’s ideas or information without giving them credit, it raises questions about your agency’s ethics, practices, and credibility. And when a funder is choosing to whom they should entrust their grant dollars, they’re probably going to choose the agencies that inspire the most confidence.

There are multiple ways to cite sources, ranging in formality. From simply introducing your source as part of your sentence (just as I did with the New Oxford American Dictionary definition), to in-line parenthetical citations, to including a full bibliography as an attachment to your proposal; there’s really only a right or wrong way if the funder says so in the application guidelines. Usually, it’s as simple as citing your sources consistently and in a way that works well with the proposal format.

I think we can all agree that plagiarizing your sources – whether intentional or unintentional – is a pretty straightforward “no,” ethics-wise. But are there ethical implications to choosing your sources? Imagine this scenario: you’re writing a needs statement for an agency that serves individuals experiencing homelessness. In your research, you’ve found that there were 1,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in your community in 2017. You’re familiar with this statistic. You’ve used it in the past, and it aligns well with your agency’s service data. However, 2019 data is now available, and you see that the number dipped down to about 750 individuals. Your experience tells you that there are a variety of complex factors that led to this perceived decrease, but suddenly you’re trying to write a compelling needs statement for an issue that actually seems to be improving. The grant program for which you’re applying is extremely competitive, and you want to paint an urgent picture of your target population’s challenges because your organization does great work and would put the funds to good use. Do you ignore the new 2019 number, knowing that it doesn’t capture the full picture of the need, and cite the 2017 data instead? After all, you’re not fabricating statistics…just choosing the most compelling ones to write the best needs statement you possibly can.

The truth is that this act of cherry-picking research is dishonest. The least of your concerns should be this: what if another applicant who works with your target population cites the more recent statistics? Just as with plagiarism, this might call your organization’s credibility into question.

If more recent data is available, it is the writer’s ethical responsibility to provide that data… even if that means a slightly less compelling argument on the surface. This gives you an opportunity to explain the situation in a more holistic way. For example, why was there such a significant reduction in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness from 2017 to 2019? Maybe there are new organizations that are providing services aimed at homelessness in your community. If so, can you discuss how your agency uniquely fits into the overall service infrastructure, which is proving to be successful? Or maybe the reduction is a direct result of your agency’s programming: your supportive services are helping more individuals successfully transition into permanent housing, which reduces chronic instances of homelessness. What a great investment for a funder – a successful program that is making measurable strides in the community!

Of course, there’s also the possibility that the 2019 statistics are inaccurate or incomplete. Maybe the methodology for measuring the scope of the target population was flawed that year, or it fails to consider certain environmental factors that you’re seeing among your clients. In either case, it gives you an opportunity to explain to the funder that while the issue seems to be improving on the surface, your data shows that this is still a significant need. Discuss the issues that your target population is still facing and why; is there historical context that has contributed to the population’s current barriers? Take a strengths-based approach and highlight the population’s unique characteristics and abilities to overcome these challenges with the help of agencies like yours.

By digging a little deeper into the research and showcasing your agency’s experience, knowledge, and awareness of the community, you can paint a complete and more compelling picture of the need for your programming. And as a grant writer, your commitment to presenting thorough and accurate research will inspire confidence that your agency is an ethical and credible steward of funding.

GPCI Competency #4: Knowledge of how to craft, construct, and submit an effective grant application. Skill #4: Identify and cite accurate and appropriate data sources to support proposal narratives.

GPCI Competency #6: Knowledge of nationally recognized standards of ethical practice by grant developers. Skill #3: Distinguish between truthful and untruthful, and accurate and inaccurate representations in grant development, including research and writing.

Additional blogs in our Ethics series:
What if You Have Too Much of a Good Thing? by Jennifer Murphy, MPA, GPC
Let’s Go Shopping! Ethics in Procurement, Part 1 by Whitney Gray, MA, GPC
Let’s Go Shopping! Ethics in Procurement, Part II by Whitney Gray, MA, GPC
Above All Else, You Must be Honest by Maryam Gilmore, JD
Building an Ethical Foundation for Your Funder Relationship by Emily Hampton, MPA, GPC