The Proposal Development Guide is meant to provide the Clark University community with an easy-to-access reference tool for the preparation of proposals.
Outlined below are phases for developing a proposal, resources for information about funding, and other tools available to grant writers. Also check out tips and best practices for ensuring a competitive proposals. Underlined terms in this Guide are hyperlinked to pages containing more detailed information.
Proposal Development Guide
- Research Thoroughly: Understand the funder’s guideline, priorities, and requirements. Tailor your proposal to align with their specific objectives.
- Clarity and Conciseness: Write clearly and concisely. Avoid jargon and technical language when possible. Clearly explain complex ideas.
- Strong Rationale: Provide a compelling reason for your project. Explain the problem you’re addressing and why it matters. Use data and evidence to support your claims.
- Realistic Goals: Set achievable goals and objectives. Unrealistic expectations can harm your proposal’s credibility.
- Engage the Reader: Make your proposal engaging. Use visuals, stories, and testimonials where applicable to illustrate your point.
- Proofread and Edit: Eliminate grammatical errors and inconsistencies. A polished proposal demonstrates professionalism and attention to detail.
- Follow Instructions: Adhere to the funder’s guideline meticulously. Include all required documents and information.
The central dogma of grantsmanship is that a good proposal begins with a good idea. At the same time, the axiom that “the best writing can’t turn a bad idea into a good grant proposal, but bad writing can turn a good idea into an unfunded proposal,” also holds.
A good idea combined with clear expository writing in a proposal does not guarantee funding, but it certainly greatly enhances the prospects you will be successful.
Sources of grant writing tips, and other assistance for writing proposals are readily available. Consider attending a grant writing workshop, or a course on technical writing to brush up your skills, if necessary. The Office of Sponsored Programs and Research organizes such efforts, or can facilitate your placement in a program offered by another institution. It can also provide you with advice on writing for specific funding agencies.
Developing a good idea is a somewhat different challenge. The lack of one is the primary reason applications are rejected. So how does one develop a compelling, novel idea? While there is no formula for success, an iterative process can help to organize, a daunting challenge, into manageable tasks:
- The first is to identify a specific problem you want to solve. This is usually nested in a more general area of interest you have, and forms a step along a continuum of investigative activity you wish to pursue. A second task is to undertake a thorough literature review of the area in which you are interested. The review should provide insight into what is known and not known about the problem you want to investigate. Obviously, you want to identify the knowledge gap, and the idea you have to fill it. As you proceed, working ideas you had about your intended project will almost certainly change, and in some instances, be discarded. Eventually, the play between your ideas, and current and past knowledge of the field should yield the connections you need to move forward. If it does not, you need to continue the process, or strongly consider abandoning the line of inquiry for a different one.
- After you develop a working idea for your project, its feasibility needs to be determined. This, in part, requires a hard-eyed appraisal of your ability to carry out the project. For example, do you have the time, expertise, and resources at your disposable to pursue the work which it will require? If it requires quantitative or language skills, for instance, are you up to the challenge? You must also know what the competition is like. Is it possible that recent work in the field parallels yours, so that by the time your project is completed, it will be yesterday’s news? Finally, you must ascertain whether the idea has funding potential. For some ideas, investigatory costs are minimal, but for others, the feasibility of moving ahead very much hinges on the ability to attract support from a sponsor. OSPR is an excellent source of counseling on funding needs.
- Advice from colleagues is another component in the process of developing a good idea. The formative process of concertizing a good idea can be isolating. Therefore, it is necessary to reach out to others for the constructive criticism which can test whether the idea you have can stand up to the cold light of day. Colleagues, who work in the same field in which your idea is rooted, are best equipped to offer sound critiques. Certainly, at least one individual should be very closely identified with your area of expertise. In addition to close professional colleagues, you can sound out those with a more “generalist” understanding of your field as well. Once you have obtained feedback from colleagues, it is time for you to determine whether to refine the idea, stand fast, or discard it. If you decide to go forward, you must have total confidence in what you will propose to sponsors, that it meets the very highest standards of scholarship, and merits funding.
Regardless of the sponsor, proposals tend to be comprised of several components, which together, should form a seamless whole to make a convincing case for project funding.
Some grantors, such as NIH, seek proposals that require an exhaustive amount of information. Others, particularly private sponsors, may require very brief proposals that run only a few pages. Nevertheless, most funders, in one form or another, require the applicant to provide a summary statement, a capabilities section, a problem statement, a statement of objectives, a description of the methodology, or activities to be undertaken, and a budget. These elements may be compressed into fewer (or more) sections, have different titles, or are required in a different sequences. However, they represent the generic components of a proposal.
The summary statement, or executive summary, or abstract, or project summary provides reviewers with their first impression of what you propose. Too often, it is written as an afterthought, rather than crafted to elicit the best possible reaction from the reviewer. A poorly conceived summary statement can bias the reader against the rest of your proposal. In some cases, it may be the first, and last section of the proposal that is read. This section is best understood as a welcome mat where you first engage the reviewer.
Another element of a proposal is the introduction in which the applicant can lay the foundation as to why the individual, or team, is best suited to undertake this work. Sometimes this information is placed in a section called the bio-sketch. Regardless, the objective of this part of the narrative is to provide reviewers with an understanding of who you are, and to establish your credibility to carry out the work.
The needs, or problem statement, or central hypothesis component of the proposal conveys the significance of the problem to be addressed. This is the part which provides a focus to your proposal. The importance of the project must not be regarded as self-evident. The narrative should clearly define what the problem is, and why it is worth solving. Too broad a problem statement can make the investigator appear as if the agency is being asked to support a fishing expedition. Too narrow a problem raises the question as to why funds should be allocated for a trivial pursuit.
The objectives section details what the investigator expects to accomplish, that is the outcome, product, or service, attendant with the need statement, or central hypothesis. A cardinal rule, when formulating your objectives, is the more specific they are, the better. Whenever possible, provide a metric that allows project results to be measured.
A methodology, or activities unit provides the reviewer with a nuts and bolts view as to how the project is to be done. It should flow from the objectives statement you provided. The basic requirements of this section are clarity and justification. You need to provide a rationale, for example, as to why you have chosen qualitative methods for your inquiry, or why a particular statistical test has been selected.
Finally, you must include a budget, and often, a narrative budget justification. A budget is a numerical expression of your work plan, not numbers pulled from thin air. All too often, the budget is the next-to-the-last (after the project summary) part of a proposal to be done. In the last-minute rush of proposal preparation, the budget is slapped together using figures that bear little relation to the tasks enumerated in the project narrative. Reviewers, however, are often very cognizant of costs, being investigators themselves, and know what an appropriate budget should look like. A poorly constructed budget can reflect as poorly on the overall submission as an ill-conceived section on objectives or methodology. The key to a good budget is not to skimp, so not jeopardize the viability of completing the project, nor to be greedy by padding it with extraneous items. Ask for what you need.
Finding support for your application constitutes a critical step in moving from an idea to a proposal to a project.
The objective is to locate a cohort of sponsors with interests that closely match the work you wish to do. Resist the temptation to tailor your interests to the availability of funds. In the end, your passion for a project, which you have defined, will be far more sustaining than one developed out of sense of expediency.
In the search for appropriate sponsors, you will need to scrutinize the funding environment. Is the sponsor really interested in your area of interest? An agency program announcement may nominally appear to be a good fit, but on closer investigation, is understood to focus on a limited number of priorities areas, under which your study does not really fit. The range of funding available is another consideration. You need to ascertain the costs of completing your work. If the funding range is too low, you may be unable to undertake the project you propose, have to downsize the scope of work, or seek additional support from another source. A funding range that exceeds your needs suggests that the sponsor is looking for projects more ambitious than the one you are proposing. You also want to determine the ratio of applications to awards. A success rate in the single digits, within a given program, indicates chances for obtaining an award are small, and the work involved in making an application may not be worth the time and effort. Success rates, however, should not be the sole criteria for deciding whether or not to apply. The quality of your idea, your writing, and the fit with agency guidelines may prove irresistible to the sponsor.
Locating potential sponsors is multifaceted . A good starting point is to utilize both proprietary, such as Pivot-RP, and non-proprietary grant information databases which allow you to run funding searches based on a number of fields that can be tailored to specific needs. Networking with colleagues, scrutinizing professional publications and websites in your field, and attending professional meetings at which agency officials often appear is another valuable way to identify the universe of appropriate funding organizations to which you may apply. Working with OSPR and Corporate and Foundation Relations staff should also be an important part of your overall funding strategy. OSPR can assist you in setting up funding alerts to receive targeted, e-mail notices of funding opportunities as soon as they are announced, furnish other funding information germane to your interests, and provide strategic assistance on working with program officers within funding agencies. Corporate and Foundation Relations can introduce you to informational sources on private funding including The Foundation Center.
Once you have identified a cohort of funding agencies, and obtained all the necessary guidelines, program announcements, and information, read the material CAREFULLY to determine which ones seem most likely to be receptive to your funding idea. Work with professional and administrative colleagues for assistance in refining your choices. Remember, most often, you will want to apply to more than one funding source, simply because the probabilities of success at any one sponsor are not favorable. In all likelihood, this will require slightly different proposals, using the novel, compelling idea you developed, to accord with the funding guidelines for individual sponsors.