Proposal Writing Tips
The intent of this document is to provide SPSU proposal writers with an overview of
what it takes to write a successful proposal. Significant portions of the information
that follows have been excerpted from "Strategies for Winning Proposals" by Lucy B.
Langworthy, Vanderbilt University School of Engineering, August 1994.
Establish a Track Record
Developing a successful proposal strategy actually begins well before you start planning
a specific proposal. To prepare proposals that respond to the needs and goals of a
sponsor, you must position yourself within your field of expertise to both understand
the needs of potential sponsors and to become known by them as someone who is both
knowledgeable and credible. Proposal writers who are the most successful are those
who commit themselves at the beginning of their careers to establishing a track record.
This process involves two commonly accepted principles:
- Develop an Open-minded, Persevering Attitude. Realize that relatively few specific
areas of research remain as top funding priorities for long and keep your mind open
to new areas of research. If your attempts at obtaining funding do not succeed at
first, then try, try again. Reevaluate your project to determine why it was not funded.
- Commit Yourself to Involvement in Your Chosen Field. There are several ways to accomplish
this activity. Try to spend a summer as a fellow at an AFOSR, NASA, ONR, or ARO laboratory
or, at the very least, send a graduate student. Make appointments to visit with program
managers at agencies from which you hope to get funded. Attend national scientific
meetings, become involved in national committees, and commit yourself to networking
within your field. Get the word out on what you've already accomplished by presenting
papers at technical conferences and publish in respected technical journals.
Analyze the Project
It is always helpful to start writing your proposal by first asking yourself some
questions that stimulate your thinking and help to determine if the project is feasible
for you and the University. Some of these questions are:
- What is to be done? What hypothesis is to be tested? What questions are to be answered?
- Is your proposed work original?
- Are you aware of what is being done elsewhere in this and related fields?
- Why is the work worth doing?
- What is the long-range goal of the project and the specific objectives?
- Is the methodology to be employed state of the art?
- Does the sponsor you are approaching need your work and why?
- Is your proposal consistent with your professional goals and the philosophy and goals
of your institution and department?
- How much will the project cost in terms of time, personnel, and money?
- What facilities will the project require and do you have access to these facilities?
- Do you have a contingency plan if you experience problems with the project?
- What are the benefits of your proposed project to your institution, the sponsor, and
- Does the project you are proposing have potential opportunities for commercialization?
Make a serious effort to answer these and other questions you may think of objectively
and honestly. If you determine after this exercise that the project you have in mind
is feasible, then further analyze the project by narrowing down potential funding
sources, the problem to be addressed by the project, the objectives of the project,
costs, timing, and resources, and the approach you need to take in developing a specific
Analyze the Sponsor
The key to developing a winning proposal strategy is thinking about the sponsor to
which you are submitting a proposal and the readers at the sponsor. In order to be
successful, your proposal must have a positive effect on the people who read it. The
chances of success increase if your proposal explains problems from the sponsor's
point of view and addresses the kinds of objections that readers will raise to your
recommendation. The following list includes several of the reasons why proposals are
- Lack of trust - the sponsor does not trust you, your institution, or members of your
profession in general
- Lack of need - the sponsor does not perceive a problem that needs attention
- Lack of desire - the sponsor sees a problem, but hasn't prioritized it high enough
to warrant funding a project
- Lack of value - the sponsor perceives a problem, but does not feel that your solution
will provide an adequate return on investment
- Lack of belief - the sponsor does not believe that your solution to the problem will
work or that you can deliver what is promised in your proposal
Learn who will be the primary and secondary audiences of your proposal. The primary
audience consists of those persons in a position to make decisions or act on your
proposal. You should try to determine who these people are at the sponsor and what
type of review process the sponsor uses. The secondary audience may consist of those
people who are not responsible for reviewing your proposal but who, nonetheless, are
affected by it and may have some indirect influence over it.
There are two basic types of review processes that are used by certain sponsors:
- Peer Review. Reviewers are fellow researchers in your field. You will not need to
spend a significant amount of time "educating" your readers about why your project
- Panel Review. Reviewers are probably involved in your general area, but may not do
research in your specific subject area.
Regardless of the type of review process, readers of your proposal will want to address
the following recurring topics:
- What problem or concern are you addressing? Why are you submitting the proposal?
Why should they be interested in funding your project?
- What do you intend to do or make and how will it solve the problem stated in your
proposal? How do you intend to do the things you are proposing? What makes your solution
the best one?
- What will your project cost and will it be worth this cost given the limited resources
available with which to fund projects?
- Can you be depended upon to perform the work you are proposing? What experience do
you have with this kind of project? Are there sufficient support personnel and facilities
available for your use?
Examine the Variety of Potential Funding Sources
A variety of information currently exists regarding potential sponsors of research
and other projects. Examine the sponsors most likely to be interested in your project
and learn all that you can about them. The Office of Sponsored Programs should be
contacted for assistance in identifying these information sources and/or specific
potential sponsors. Some of the resources presently available include:
- COS - The Community of Science database to which OSP subscribes annually. Sign up
for COS at http://www.cos.org to identify your research interests if you have not done so already.
- Visit the Funding Opportunities section of the OSP website to review a variety of
Federal and other specific opportunities
In addition to the above "official" sources of funding opportunity information, valuable
information can also be derived from less structured sources, such as through contacts
obtained by networking within your field of interest. The following sources can be
helpful in gathering additional information on sponsors:
- Program Managers. Many sponsors welcome direct contact during proposal preparation
with program managers, who can provide insights into the sponsor's current funding
- Professional Committees. Persons serving on professional committees often have contacts
at major sponsors for research proposals.
- Conferences. Presenting papers at conferences or other technical meetings at which
sponsor representatives are in attendance can provide an opportunity for you to "try
out" your ideas and see how these people respond before spending valuable time and
money on proposal preparation.
When contacting potential sponsors for information, ask questions such as the following:
- What is the sponsor's mission?
- How is the sponsor organized and who is responsible for approving funding?
- Is there a preferred or prescribed format for proposal submission?
- What is the technical background of those individuals who will be reviewing proposals?
- What is the sponsor's attitude toward your specific area of research and your institution?
- What is the sponsor's policy on white papers and/or preliminary proposals?
- What are the sponsor's methods and criteria for evaluating proposals. Is the sponsor
looking for the best technically qualified proposal, the technically qualified proposal
with the lowest cost, the proposal providing the highest chance of potential commercial
applications, or a combination of criteria?
If you can find the answers to some of these questions, you can determine if your
proposal will be of interest to a sponsor. Use this information to create an effect
on the sponsor and write from their point of view.
Define the Problem
To implement a successful strategy, you must have a clear understanding of the problem
that the proposal addresses. The problem, in terms of basic research, has multiple
characteristics. The research must be fundamental and involve technological advances
with increases in basic knowledge. At the same time, the research must achieve societal
benefits in the short term. Finally, the problem for any sponsor that funds basic
research is to "sell" the research internally, both to the sponsor's management and,
for Federal sponsors, to the sponsor's source of funds (e.g., Congress).
In describing what it is you wish to accomplish, you should not define the problem
in terms of what you are interested in but, rather, in terms of how the agency perceives
the problem. In other words, learn how each sponsor defines a problem before trying
to sell them on why your approach to solving it is the best method.
If you are submitting an unsolicited proposal, state the problem in terms that will
allow the sponsor to sell your proposed solution in competition with other proposals.
If you are responding to a Request for Proposal (RFP), interpret the detailed requirements
in terms of what the sponsor has defined as the problem addressed by the RFP. Follow
the RFP instructions closely and determine what the sponsor is trying to accomplish
and what the underlying issues are. When responding to Broad Agency Announcements
(BAAs), identify the statement in the BAA that indicates the problem and what the
sponsor seeks to address by creating new funding. This often involves doing some research
on the current issues and motivations of the sponsor.
Regardless of the specific situation under which you are submitting a proposal, attempt
to see the problem from the sponsor's perspective and not the other way around. A
sponsor's definition of a problem may require that investigators be flexible in their
own research desires so that what they propose offers solutions to the real sponsor
Define the Objectives
In order to successfully define the objectives of a project, it is necessary to first
identify what criteria the solution to the problem must meet in order to be successful.
One criteria that should always be considered is the completeness of the technical
approach to the problem. All elements of the proposed approach must support an outstanding
solution to the clearly stated problem. Reviewers will judge the completeness of your
approach to the problem from the sponsor's perspective, using established evaluation
criteria and the chosen type of review process.
Other criteria are often not stated directly by sponsors, but are still important
to consider in constructing a proposal. For solicited proposals under RFPs or BAAs,
read the sponsor's objectives carefully for words that indirectly express the sponsor's
intentions. Words such as the following illustrate objectives:
- Immediate payoff
- Scientific advancement
- Educational or societal benefits
- Transfer of technology
- Commercialization opportunities
For unsolicited proposals, personal visits and telephone conversations with program
managers are important methods of determining how much weight these and other objectives
may carry in the sponsor's evaluation of your proposal.
Identify Management Considerations
Available resources, such as facilities and personnel, scheduling, and research costs
are all management considerations that can affect the approach to be taken in developing
a proposal. Each of these factors should be identified clearly to determine the impact
that each one will have on your overall strategy.
- Resources - Investigators should identify all institutional resources that will be
needed to complete the proposed project and verify in advance that access to these
resources is available. Resources are often an integral part of the design of a project
and, in cases where the investigator has access to state of the art equipment and
facilities, can provide a distinct advantage.
- Personnel - If you are the only person who will be working on the project if it is
funded, you should identify what makes you uniquely qualified to undertake the effort
and deliver the product or service being proposed. When assembling a proposal team,
structure the players in such a way as to represent who will play key roles. It is
always useful when building a team to consider utilizing the efforts of an individual
(e.g., collaborator or other senior person at the University) who is either Well known
to the sponsor or highly respected in the area of research you are proposing. Your
ultimate goal in presenting the personnel needed to carry out the project is to prove
credibility and demonstrate that these persons have the appropriate qualifications.
- Costs - How much a project will cost is nearly always an important factor in the evaluation
of proposals. In the preparation of a project budget, the two most critical issues
are the allowability of certain costs by the sponsor and the prescribed format itself.
In the absence of any sponsor guidance regarding either or both of these issues, contact
the Office of Sponsored Programs to discuss industry standards for unsolicited proposals.
Project budgets normally contain two distinct categories: direct costs and indirect
costs. Direct costs consist of two broadly defined sub-categories: personnel costs
and non-personnel (or operating) costs.
- Personnel costs - This part of the budget includes salaries and may include faculty
salaries (summer or academic year), research associates (postdocs), research assistants
(graduate students), undergraduates, and, in the case of larger proposals, project
managers or coordinators. Fringe benefits should be calculated at the currently approved
rate (for current year approved rates for research assistants and fringe benefits,
please see the Proposal Preparation Reference Sheet) based upon non-student salaries
- Non-Personnel costs - Include in this section of the budget all of the other types
of expenses needed to carry out the project. Non-personnel costs may be further subdivided
into the following categories:
d. Materials and Supplies
e. Other Expenses (publication costs, tuition, etc.)
Indirect costs are determined as a percentage of total salaries and wages, not including
fringe benefits (for the currently approved indirect cost rate, please see the Grant
Proposal Guide). All proposal budgets should include indirect costs at the currently
approved rate unless the sponsor specifically does not allow this type of expense
- Schedule - Investigators may need to consider two different schedules in the development
of a proposal. The first schedule is for planning when the proposal will be finished.
Because of deadline dates, investigators need to plan their development effort so
that sufficient time is allowed to complete the proposal and secure the necessary
University approvals. In the case of Federal sponsors, the Federal fiscal year begins
on October 1st and proposals submitted in time for an October review may have an advantage
over proposals submitted at other times of the year.
The second schedule is for completion of the planned project. For small projects,
the development of this type of schedule may be as simple as telling one or two people
what they need to do and by when. For long-term and/or major projects, the schedule
becomes more important in that the tasks involved may be complex and there may be
a specific time limitation imposed by potential sponsors. As part of their review,
sponsors will compare the proposed work to the planned schedule to determine if they
are reasonable in relation to each other.
Work with a Team
Compared with only a few years ago, many proposals are now submitted by a project
team comprised of investigators and other key individuals from multiple departments
and/or institutions. This phenomenon is at least in part due to the increase in interdisciplinary
projects. The most valuable method for identifying potential collaborators for your
proposed project is to network within your institution and at conferences and technical
meetings. The Office of Sponsored Programs is also developing a comprehensive listing
of faculty interests, which may be of help to investigators wishing to collaborate
on a project.
Working with other investigators can be both rewarding and challenging. During the
life of a project, communication of progress and the ability to straighten out differences
that can occur during the course of the project are both essential to success. Initially,
team members should assign roles such as writers, production manager, budget expert,
graphics expert, and most importantly, a project manager. Investigators can add credibility
to their proposal by identifying their project team in terms of an organizational
chart that defines the involvement of individuals having expertise in areas specified
in the sponsor's criteria for evaluation.
Team members must also evaluate the amount of work required of each person to prevent
conflicts over unrealistic expectations. For team members within the same department,
regular status meetings and an efficient system for tracking progress are important.
When working with team members in off-campus locations, investigators should communicate
regularly via e-mail or conference calls to report on progress and any problems with
the project (e.g., budgeting concerns, shifts in an assigned scope of work).
Identify an Approach
To be most effective, a proposal should have a specific approach, one that stresses
the strengths of the investigator. The approach taken should also address the particular
need or problem of the potential sponsor while showing your understanding of their
mission. Taking these factors into account, your proposal will most likely have one
of the following approaches:
- Technological or Innovative Approach
One of the most convincing elements of a proposal is a new product, design, or analysis
that is technologically superior and/or that represents an advancement of the state
of the art. Investigators can support a technological approach by showing that their
idea, design, or product is superior in such characteristics as performance, capacity,
quality, speed, or accuracy. It is always useful to show the potential benefits to
be derived, such as scientific advancement, transfer of technology, or commercialization
opportunities. The use of the most technically qualified personnel and modern advanced
equipment designed to be responsive to potential sponsors' requirements also rates
high when a proposal's technological matters are considered. Potential sponsors often
look for the latest computer-based technologies for design, manufacturing, testing,
materials handling, logistics, and management reporting. A unique design of a product
or uniquely useful features of a service can build a strong technological approach
and can give an investigator an advantage over competitors.
- Geographical Approach
The location of an investigator's proposed project can be a significant factor to
a sponsor. Proximity to the sponsor's location may result in improved communications
among all parties concerned. Location may also result in reduced transportation, travel,
and communications expense. Proximity to materials and equipment may offer a cost
and scheduling advantage in addition to the geographical advantage. If these advantages
are apparent, focus on this approach in your proposal.
- Cost Approach
Given the limited availability of funds, the cost of funding a proposal is usually
a major concern of sponsors. In addition to showing the sponsor that your proposal
is cost effective in relation to the benefit(s) to be derived, your design may include
technological advancements that result in a longer-term savings to the sponsor. If
your product or design has a significant cost advantage and you know that cost is
an expressed concern of the sponsor, consider building your strategy around the economical
nature of your proposed project.
- Presentation Approach
Proposal reviewers often admit that quality proposals can be overlooked simply because
they are not noticed among the many proposals being reviewed. To avoid this situation,
many investigators emphasize the attention-getting techniques of the presentation
approach in their proposal writing efforts.
The two most commonly used presentation techniques are:
- Graphics - making the physical appearance of the document stand out or in some way
relate visually to the sponsor's mission or major concern; and
- Language - using language, particularly in the opening statements, that gets the reviewer's
attention and/or relates to the sponsor's mission.
Techniques such as the ones mentioned above will not alone win support for your proposals.
However, in cases where your proposal must compete against many others, these techniques
may make your proposals more noticeable and memorable.
Define Your Strategy
After analyzing your project, the sponsor, the sponsor's problems and objectives,
the project requirements, and your approach and advantages, you should be in a position
to notice a strategy beginning to emerge. While your strategy will be unique to the
particular proposal at hand, it should, in general:
- show an accurate and complete understanding of the sponsor's needs, especially what
is of greatest concern to the sponsor,
- present a practical plan that responds to the sponsor's greatest concern,
- identify a specific approach that emphasizes your proposal's strengths and shows the
sponsor that your plan is the best choice, and
- prove that you can be depended on to carry out the plan.
Employing a specific strategy does not guarantee success. However, it does encourage
a process that is invaluable - a way of thinking about research and scholarship that
requires investigators to plan their proposals in response to sponsor needs.
Strategically communicating your proposed ideas is critical if your proposals are
to be successful at garnering the positive attention of potential sponsors. Your strategy
should be focused, well thought out, and responsive to the sponsor's needs. To help
you identify a workable strategy, you should:
Preparing winning proposals is the ultimate goal of all investigators who seek external
funding. Rejected proposals, though, can offer opportunities to learn if you are willing
to follow up on them to better understand why they were not funded. Such perseverance,
coupled with expertly designed products and skillfully crafted proposal strategies,
should eventually yield winning proposals.
- begin with the proper attitude, committed to being open-minded, involved, and communicative
in your chosen field,
- understand the scope of your project,
- know your sponsor (customer),
- identify the problem and objective,
- understand the importance of cost, personnel, scheduling, and resources,
- consider ways to incorporate the services of team members, if applicable, and
- focus on an approach that emphasizes the advantages your proposal has to offer.