Writing Letters of Support

Table of contents


Introduction

The objective of this document is to provide guidelines for writing effective letters of support. The information in this guide is based on an analysis of the extent to which the strength or weakness of letters of support impacts peer review scores on integrated Knowledge Translation (iKT) applications.

In accordance with the goals of iKT research, CIHR’s iKT program requires that knowledge-users be included as partners on the following grants:

  • Knowledge to Action
  • Knowledge Synthesis
  • Partnerships for Health Systems Improvement
  • other CIHR programs that use the iKT model

When applying to these grants, CIHR strongly encourages that each knowledge-user applicant (including the Nominated Principal Applicant) submit signed letters of support. Generally, there are two types of letters of support:

  • letters from knowledge-user partners who indicate that they will provide monetary and/or in-kind support
  • letters from a person or organization that supports the idea that the research project is worthwhile

This guide is geared toward the first type of letter, but provides some useful tips for writing letters of support in general.

There are 5 criteria to include when writing letters of support:

Details of criteria

The following sections provide details about what to include in letters of support. The information is not exhaustive, and including each detail, or different details, will not necessarily guarantee a successful or unsuccessful application.

The examples below are based on actual research projects and are meant to illustrate how each detail might be conveyed in a letter of support. The examples do not “add up” to a complete letter, but are instead meant to illustrate the criteria.

Each example below is written as though the letter writer is addressing the Nominated Principal Applicant.

Style

Style refers to how letters of support are structured and written, and should be thought of in terms of:

  • clarity
  • conciseness
  • originality

In terms of originality, letters of support should be personalized to the Nominated Principal Applicant. Review committees do not view the use of a template letter positively. Template letters do not allow for sufficient details about background, relevance, impact and support.

It is important to point out that letters of support can be addressed to:

  • the Nominated Principal Applicant
  • the review committee
  • CIHR in general.

Intent

The intent of the letter should be stated up front (often it is the first sentence of a letter).

Example

I am writing in support of your application, Dr. Smithers, for your Partnerships for Health Systems Improvement application entitled: Decreasing costs and improving outcomes in the management of venous leg ulcers.

Background information

Effective letters of support typically open with information that tells the reader about the letter writer’s:

  • relationship to the research project
    • role in the organization
    • organization as it relates to the project
    • personal and professional credentials
    • role the letter writer will fulfill in the project (for example - Nominated Principal Applicant, Principal Knowledge-User, Knowledge-User, or Collaborator)
  • relationship to the Nominated Principal Applicant
    • familiarity with the credentials, work and goals of the applicant
    • history of prior work or collaborations with applicant and/or the team
    • history of prior support of research endeavors of applicant and/or the team
    • status of any ongoing partnerships (if applicable)
  • previous involvement in projects that are topically similar to the proposed research
  • previous support of other valuable research endeavors

Examples

Background information

As the CEO of this organization, I have played a leading role in ensuring that my interdisciplinary team provides outstanding care to every person, every day, in every community in our area of responsibility. The Chair of our board was a former Dean of the faculty of Health Sciences at the university and has a strong interest in research that has spread throughout the organization. In my role in this research project I will be the authority on home care and the primary knowledge-user on the team. I have worked with Dr. Smithers on previous high impact projects in the past. These initiatives have informed our work by using the best evidence to improve care and make it more cost effective.

Letter writer’s relationship to the research project

I am the CEO of [name of organization] and am writing in support of this research project. Our mission is to deliver a seamless experience through the health system for people in our diverse communities, providing equitable access, individualized care coordination and quality health care. Our organization provides a central access point for working with all community nursing staff involved in leg ulcer care As such, we are well positioned to contribute to the project.

Relationship to the Nominated Principal Applicant - Familiarity with credentials, work and goals of applicant

The interdisciplinary team led by Dr. XXX has worked with our organization in the past to provide best evidence for community care, and because of this very positive experience, our organization is pleased to embark on this research project.

Previous support of other valuable research endeavors

In 2009, we worked together to organize an evidence-based practice and critical appraisal skills workshop. The meeting increased the understanding and ability of our staff to seek out and apply best practice.

Relevance

Relevance typically covers two areas:

  • how the research project is timely - why does it make sense to do a research project of this nature now?
    • how does it address a need or a gap
    • how does it build on or improves previous or current research
    • how will it serve as a foundation for future research initiatives
  • how the research project is applicable to the work of the letter writer and/or the organization
    • how does the research project addresses or fulfills the goals, vision, and/or mandate of the organization
    • how will the letter writer and/or the organization move the research results into practice (relevance and impact)

Examples

Timeliness: How does the project address a need or gap?

Aware of the growing trend in England to care for leg ulcer clients in nurse-run community clinics, our Board asked Drs. Smithers and Poutine to set up and evaluate a demonstration leg ulcer service that included clinic and home care. We are concerned that there is still insufficient evidence about the benefits of leg ulcer clinics to warrant a change of this sort in Canada.

Timeliness: How does the project build on or improve previous or current research or how will it serve as a foundation for future research initiatives?

The evaluation of the effectiveness and efficiency of nurse-run leg ulcer clinics will provide important information to other organizations like ours in our province as well as other provincial home care providers about how to care for individuals with leg ulcers. Perhaps more importantly, the study may have implications for the delivery of home care for other health conditions as well.

Relevance: How will the project fulfill the goals, vision and/or mandate of the organization?

The research questions that have been proposed for this scoping review are linked to the following ideas, that are particularly relevant to the mandate of our organization: to identify the characteristics of everyday activity that, in the context of living with a chronic illness, promote health and well-being; to identify the role that engaging in valued activities plays in preventing or delaying chronic illness or co-morbid conditions. Although primarily focused on arthritis, the research questions are equally relevant to chronic illnesses.

Impact

It helps reviewers to assess the overall impact if letter writers describe potential outcomes of the research project. Impact might include:

  • specific details - how the letter writer and/or the organization will use the results of the research project to achieve a certain end
  • general details - what the results will contribute to the proposed health research topic/area

Examples

Specific details

The next priority research area within our organization is to address methodological factors that may influence our understanding of the social determinants of health, which is precisely the aim of your proposed research project. This in turn will feed into the evidence base which we use in making policy decisions about the health of populations. We expect to be able to use the findings of this knowledge synthesis project to make better decisions about staffing models that improve quality of care.

General details

It is clear from recent reports that the link between public health, occupational health and infection control needs to be strengthened in Canada. Infection control networking is now a priority in health care and this project will explore ways to make this happen and to evaluate its impact on the health care system.

Support

Reviewers assess whether partner support is appropriate and sufficient. Only letter writers who are knowledge-user partners need to include information for the type of support they and/or their organization will contribute.

The extent and level of support that the letter writer and/or the organization will provide should be outlined in terms of monetary and in-kind support.

The description of the monetary support should include both the:

  • dollar amount
  • duration of support

The details of the in-kind support should include the names, expertise, and titles of people willing to contribute, and contributions that the letter writer and/or organization have made to date. In-kind support could also include:

  • time allotted to and type of in-kind contributions
    • specific tasks performed
    • time volunteered
    • staff
    • student assistance
    • space and/or equipment provided to the project
    • help/mechanisms in place to facilitate dissemination
  • knowledge-user involvement to
    • shape the research questions
    • interpret study findings and craft messaging around them
    • move the research results into practice

Examples

Monetary support

As we discussed, our organization will provide $20,000/year over the 2 year term of the project. The funds will be deposited into a research account at your institution, and will be allocated to the KT dissemination strategy, which will include the development of a website, conferences, monthly newsletters, and two workshops geared to capacity building.

In-kind support: Staff assistance

We will provide $45,000 ($15,000/3 years) as in-kind support for our staff of occupational health professionals. This will include consultations, as well as the provision of office space, computers, and overhead necessary to house these staff members.

This organization will provide the on-the-ground perspective and will also provide the research team with access to patient records as well as cash and in-kind support. We have agreed to reallocate existing funding support to leg ulcer clinic care for the two year duration of the study.

In-kind support: Help/mechanisms in place to facilitate dissemination

In addition, in my capacity as knowledge-user, I will enable the dissemination of the resultant policy recommendations to a wide range of decision-maker audiences. To fulfill this commitment, I will provide the following opportunities: bring the researchers in to discuss the findings with senior management and the boards, and, depending on our decision as to the implications of the findings, plan a workshop with appropriate stakeholders to determine how to best implement the findings. We will also plan how to best disseminate the results to the broader community and facilitate ongoing dialogue within the broader healthcare system to ensure dissemination of your findings to decision makers responsible for the delivery of health care services.

In-kind support: Specific tasks performed

Our organization will participate in the project in the following ways: refinement of the research questions; assist in finding relevant literature; participate in focus groups to help clarify the issue and what needs to be done.

In-kind support: Contributions that the letter writer and/or organization have made to date

To date, my staff has already had three meetings with the researchers discussing the grant proposal and how we might work together collaboratively. We developed the work plan appended to the grant proposal with the researchers.

Summary

Characteristics of strong letters

The general goal of a letter of support is to provide substantive information regarding the proposed partnership, as well as the means and appropriateness of knowledge-user support; thus, the more detail the better. This does not mean that letters of support should be several pages long.

Effective letters are to-the-point, and tend to be 1 - 1.5 pages long. Although there is no standard way in which a letter should unfold, it is a good idea to first highlight the intent of the letter, and then to proceed with the necessary details regarding background, relevance, impact and support.

Personalizing the letter to the Nominated Principle Applicant allows the review committee to see the letter writer’s familiarity with and interest in the project, and commitment to moving the research results into practice.

Finally, strong letters often end with a statement of enthusiasm or excitement regarding the potential research findings/and or participation in the project.

Characteristics of weak letters

Although there is no standard length for letters of support, weak letters are often too short. One or two paragraphs are usually not enough room to expand upon the import that the project has for the letter writer and/or organization.

Ineffective letters tend to be token or template letters that are impersonal. In many cases, weaker letters do not have enough background information or discussion of relevance.

Among the majority of the letters we analyzed, most often lacking was a description or hypothesis of the outcomes or impact that the research might have for the letter writer and/or the organization.


Appendix A: Quick reference

Criteria Key questions Options
Style

Is the letter original (as opposed to using a template)?

Style could include:

  • Intent of letter stated up front
  • Well organized and clear
  • Personalized to applicant
Background information

Is the relationship of the letter writer/organization to the research project clearly outlined?

Is the relationship of the letter writer/organization to the applicant clearly delineated?

Background could include:

  • Credentials of letter writer
  • Letter writer’s role in organization
  • How organization is linked to project
  • Background information of organization—demonstrates link to project
  • Previous involvement in topically similar research
  • Previous support of valuable research
  • Role letter writer will play in project
  • Letter writer’s familiarity with credentials, work and goals of applicant
  • History of prior work with, collaboration with or support of applicant’s research
  • Status of partnership
Relevance

Is the timeliness of the research project articulated?

Is the applicability of the research project to the letter writer and/or the organization (goals, vision, mandate) outlined?

Relevance could include:

  • How/why this project addresses a research need or gap
  • How/why this project improves/develops previous research
  • How/why this project can serve as foundation for future work
  • How this project addresses/fulfills the goals, vision, and/or mandate of the organization
  • How the letter writer and/or organization will move the results into practice (this point bridges both relevance and impact)
Impact

Are the potential outcomes and impact of the research project and findings described with some detail?

Impact could include:

  • How the letter writer and/or organization will move the results into practice (this point bridges both relevance and impact)
  • What the project results will contribute to the proposed health research topic/area
  • How the letter writer and/or organization will move the results into practice (this point bridges both relevance and impact)
Support

Is the extent and level of support that the letter writer and/or organization will provide specified?

Support could include:

  • Dollar amount and duration of support
  • Time allotted to, and type of in-kind contributions (e.g. time volunteered, staff or student assistance, help/mechanisms in place to facilitate dissemination etc.)
  • Specific tasks that in-kind support will consist of
  • Names, expertise and titles of people willing to contribute support
  • Contributions that the letter writer and/or organization have made to date

Appendix B: Definitions

Integrated Knowledge Translation (iKT)

Integrated Knowledge Translation is an approach to research that engages potential knowledge-users as partners in the research process. Integrated KT requires a collaborative or participatory approach to research that is action oriented, and focused on solutions and impact. In this way, integrated KT research should produce findings that are more likely to be relevant to, and used by the end users. As a minimum requirement for conducting integrated KT, knowledge-users and researchers must work together to: shape the research questions; interpret study findings and craft messaging around them; and move the research results into practice.

Knowledge-user

CIHR defines a knowledge-user as an individual or community who is likely to be able to use the knowledge generated through research to make informed decisions about health policies, programs and/or practices. A knowledge-user's level of engagement in the research process may vary in intensity and complexity depending on the nature of the research and their information needs. A knowledge-user can be, but is not limited to, a healthcare practitioner, policy-maker, educator, decision-maker, health care administrator, community leader, citizen, or individuals in a health charity, patient group, private sector organization, or media outlet.

This document was prepared by Lina Johnston and Samantha Pockele, with input from Jacqueline Tetroe, Nicole Robinson, Adrian Mota, Ian Graham and Ryan McCarthy.