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Preparing a competitive proposal

Having a great idea, and understanding the funding program guidelines are two prerequisites for success.

The successful grant seeker then must communicate that great idea in a thoughtful, clear way, and demonstrate thorough planning for execution of the idea.  Success in grant seeking requires both "in-the-box" and "out-of-the-box" thinking.  "In-the-box" in that you must follow the funder's guidelines (deviate at your peril); "out-of-the-box" in that funders like to see creative solutions to vexing problems.

As you get started with your proposals, keep in mind these simple, common-sense, but often overlooked strategies* to improve your chance of receiving a grant award. 
  • Show the funding organization that you've done your homework by demonstrating an awareness of what the funder has funded and wants to fund.  Except in unusual circumstances, keep your request amount within the funder's typical funding range.  Describe how your proposal fits the funder's interests.
  • Follow the guidelines carefully and answer all the questions. Don't hand the reviewers an easy excuse to decline your proposal by not following the guidelines. If there is a legitimate reason you can't respond to a specific request for information, acknowledge the request and state why you can't respond to it.  
  • Make your proposal easy to read. Neatness and appearance count for more than you may realize!  Use 12-point font and 1-inch margins unless otherwise directed. Allow sufficient white space; reviewers can feel a sense of fatigue before they even start reading if your pages look like solid walls of text.  Use a heading hierarchy to distinguish between main sections and subsections.
  • Make it easy for reviewers to find the information they are looking for by using headings that correspond to the information requested in the foundation's guidelines.  If your proposal is long, use a table of contents.
  • Avoid jargon and highly technical language. Do not presume that all readers share your use of language or your level of expertise. Unless you know that your academic peers will be reviewing the proposal, write for the educated layperson.  Even in peer-reviewed competitions, a panel may include reviewers who are not experts in your sub-discipline. If you use abbreviations or acronyms, spell them out upon first use.

  *Adapted from 5 Simple Ways to Make Foundation Staff Feel Better About Your Proposal by Deborah Koch  

More Guidance on How to Prepare a Competitive Proposal  

Murder Most Foul: How Not to Kill a Grant Application  The first part in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on the importance of the proposal title.  

Abstract Killers: How Not to Kill a Grant Application  The second part in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on the importance of the abstract.  

So What? How Not to Kill a Grant Application  The third in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on strategies to avoid the deadly "so what?" response in your proposal reviewers.  

Lost at Sea: How Not to Kill a Grant Application  The fourth in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on the super-importance of clarity, clarity, clarity.  

How Not to Kill a Grant Application: Facts of the Case Thus Far  The fifth in a six-part series published by Science magazine summarizes the points made in the first four installments.

How Not to Kill a Grant Application: Developing Your Research Plan  The sixth in a six-part series published by Science magazine focuses on developing a description of exactly what you plan to do with a grant, should one be awarded.  

On the Art of Writing Proposals  This nine-page article from Social Science Research Council, directed to applicants for SSRC grants, provides excellent general proposal advice applicable across many academic disciplines and funding agencies.   

Writing a Successful Grant Proposal  This six-page article from the Minnesota Council of Foundation provides good general proposal preparation guidance.  

Foundation Center's Proposal Writing Short Course  A short course applicable especially to grant applicants to foundations (less so for applicants to government funding agencies).

National Science Foundation's Guide for Proposal Writing  This guide contains the advice NSF program officers give in answer to the question, "what makes a good proposal?"

Food for thought

Noted steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835 - 1919) observed, "It is more difficult to give money away intelligently than it is to earn it in the first place."

Today, funding organizations attempt to "give money away intelligently" through an application process which is usually published on the funding organization's website.   Funding organizations may publish general instruction for all the funding organization's programs, and/or application information that is specific to only one program.  While this application instruction is often referred to as the program guidelines, grantseekers would do well to mentally replace the word guidelines with rules, since they are usually not mere suggestions.