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Writing Tips

Organizing a Proposal

The most universal advice from successful grants writers, review panelists, and program officers is to have a logical flow from the beginning to the end of a proposal. By presenting a project as a logical progression of thought and activity, the investigator is less likely to overlook important program components and can anticipate questions that a reviewer might ask.

A suggested approach is as follows:

What is the problem/need/gap in knowledge to be addressed?

What are the proposed outcomes that will address these problems?

Why is it important to accomplish these objectives? What impact will it have?

How will each objective be accomplished? What activities will take place and when?

Who will carry out each activity?

What equipment and facilities are required to carry out each activity?

What costs will be involved in the activities, personnel, equipment, and facilities?

How will it be measured whether or not the objectives were accomplished? Sponsors, particularly federal sponsors, are more focused on measurable outcomes. Address your plans for assessment and evaluation.

Each section flows from the one before it. The presentation of an organized, logical proposal is the most effective means of communicating to a reviewer the details of the proposed work and the organizational skills of the investigator.

Putting your Idea into a Project Format

Sponsors fund activities, not ideas. No matter how good your ideas or noble your intentions, you must translate them into a specific set of activities in order to get funding. Potential sponsors must know what you actually plan to do in order to determine whether investing in your project represents an effective use of their resources. Whether you want to set up a training program, demonstrate a novel approach to service delivery, or conduct basic research, the task of moving from an idea to a practical work plan is the same. You must define the problem or need you wish to address, formulate goals and objectives for your response to that problem, and then decide what specific actions have been undertaken to fulfill those goals and objectives.

A good way to do this is to develop a concise outline containing each of the elements listed below. As you do so, keep working on each section until you have established a strong, logical connection between the activities you propose to undertake and the resolution of the problem you have defined. Developing the outline should allow you not only to organize your thoughts into a coherent plan of action, but also to muster the arguments you will need to persuade a potential sponsor of the value of your proposed activities. As you work on each section, try to look at the project from the perspective of a potential donor. Why would someone support this activity? Who might benefit from it, or what might be accomplished as a result of this project?

The format of a particular proposal will depend on the requirements of the sponsor to whom you are applying: most government agencies have application forms or very specific guidelines, while other sponsors are less directive. There are, however, certain elements that all proposals generally contain which include the following:

When you have finished outlining the project, choose a simple title that explains (to the extent possible) what you plan to do. There is no need for cute or catchy titles or fancy acronyms. If potential sponsors find your title silly, it may prejudice them against the project.

A brief statement of the project objectives, procedures, and methods of evaluation and dissemination. The abstract should not exceed two hundred and fifty words in length.

-Statement of the Problem
This section is a background and rationale for the project. It should establish the need and importance of the project and provide an adequate perspective in which to evaluate the impending objectives, procedures, and methods of evaluation and dissemination.

Identification of anticipated outcomes of the project in clearly specified terms. In most cases, an objective should be provided to meet each major need identified in the previous section.

This section describes, in explicit detail, how the researcher proposes to meet his stated objectives. An overall design may be described, but it its essential that specific procedures be identified.

Procedures to be utilized by the initiating agency and funding source to assess project outcomes. This section may specify the kinds of data to be collected and the methods by which it will be analyzed disseminated and utilized.

Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Related Materials:
Refer to OMB Circular A-11, Part 6, Preparation and Submission of Strategic Plans, Annual Performance Plans, and Annual Program Performance Reports.

Funding agencies are anxious that their grants produce maximum impact. This section specifies how the project products or results will be disseminated to the potential users thereby maximizing the impact of the investment. Dissemination plans may involve travel to professional conferences. Data sharing plans may be necessary. Describe fully.

JMU Data Management Plan Tool

Not appropriate in some proposals but essential in others. This section specifies facilities required and how such will be provided. Special equipment necessary for the project may be identified in this section.

Number and categories of project personnel are identified. Brief vitae or resumes for key personnel should be provided along with criteria for the selection of support personnel. The aim: to establish the competence of personnel involved in implementing the project. (Keep in mind that most agencies have a two page limit for vitae.)

Here, project costs are spelled out. Usually, the budget is divided into various categories such as personnel, equipment and materials, communications, travel, and indirect costs. In many cases, initiating agencies are asked to share part of the cost of the project. Thus, amounts required from the funding source and amounts contributed by the initiating agency should be spelled out.

After you have thought out each of these elements, review what you have prepared in order to be sure that the overall plan is logical and consistent. It should now be relatively easy to write a brief outline of the project, which can be used as the basis for the next step in the development of a proposal. The outline should include:

Title of the proposed project;
Statement of need or problem to be addressed;
Plan of action, project design, or methodology; and budget and personnel requirements.

Preparing a Full Proposal

There is no secret formula guaranteed to produce a perfect proposal. You can prepare a more effective document, however, if you keep certain general principles in mind.

First, the proposal document is the primary basis for evaluating your project and for determining whether financial support is justified. You must be sure it not only represents the need for action, but also includes all the information needed to evaluate accurately the proposed activity and your ability to conduct it.

Second, your document is likely to be read by people facing time constraints. Reviewers often read large numbers of similar proposals in a relatively short meeting. Yours must be well-organized and concise in order to make your point and stand out in the crowd.

Before embarking on the writing process make yourself aware of the proposal preparation services that may be available. A call to the Office of Sponsored Programs may save you some valuable time.

Proposal Development Guides

Art of Writing Proposals
Social Science Research Council

Proposal Writing Short Course
The Foundation Center

The Foundation Center's FAQs
The Foundation Center

The NIH R01 Grant Tool Kit

American Association for the Advancement of Science
AAAS Science's Next Wave

Frequently Asked Questions: Modular Research Grant Applications
National Institutes of Health website on NIH grant applications

NSF Proposal Writing Guide

National Science Foundation

Beginners Guide to Grant Writing
Two-day workshops offered through Purdue Center for Regional Development and Purdue Extension

Developing a Successful Grant Proposal
Materials developed by the Agricultural Innovation and Commercialization Center at Purdue University

Tips for Preparing Grant Proposals
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

The OSP Guide for Proposal Preparation (.doc)



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