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Writing a Successful Proposal


Getting Started: The Concept Paper

The most universal advice on writing a successful grant proposal is to present a well written, focused solution to a problem in a logical progression. This is much easier said than done, and finding the focus is often the most difficult piece of the puzzle. To find this focus, we suggest writing a "concept paper." A concept paper summarizes in two to three pages the entire project from beginning to end. The point is to take all of the ideas in your head and put them down on paper as concisely as possible. Writing a concept paper is a good exercise in defining your priorities and mission, and can be a useful tool in obtaining valuable feedback before "diving into" the full proposal.

Organize your concept paper with three sections, which are discussed in more detail below:

  • A Mission Statement that explains what it is your are trying to do in fifty words or less.
  • A Statement of Need that explains what the need is that you are trying to address.
  • A Project Narrative that explains what the proposed activities are going to be.

Putting it Together: Writing the Proposal

Following is a suggested format for grant proposals. Many grant competitions have their own prescribed format which may require you to modify the suggestions offered here accordingly .

Generally, there are seven major sections of a proposal:

  1. Table of Contents
  2. Mission Statement
  3. Abstract
  4. Statement of Need
  5. Project Rationale Incorporating Literature Review
  6. Project Narrative
    1. Goals and Objectives
    2. Proposed Activities
    3. Facilities and Resources
    4. Evaluation
    5. Dissemination
    6. Sustainability
  7. Attachments
    1. Bibliography
    2. Resume
    3. Letters of Support/Endorsement
    4. Relevant Publications (if allowed)

I. Table of Contents

After you write your proposal, create a table of contents.

II. Mission Statement

In 50 words or less, what is the mission of your project? This helps you clarify the project's primary goal. Most importantly, this allows the reader to have an immediate understanding of what you are proposing right from the start without having to search for what you are trying to do embedded in the narrative of the proposal. Following is an example of a mission statement from a successful grant proposal:

"Our mission is to establish a self-sustaining, continuing education program to retrain middle managers in the hospitality industry in Croatia with the ultimate goal of making the Croatian hospitality industry more competitive in a global free-market system."

III. Abstract

The well-written abstract is the single most important part of the proposal. Often, initial proposal review, or "first cuts", are based on the abstract alone. The abstract should not be the last part of the proposal that is written. Deadline pressures prior to submission of the proposal are often intense. The writing of this crucial aspect of the proposal should be given the time and consideration it deserves. The abstract should be written early in the proposal preparation process, and modified as needed as the proposal develops. The abstract be understandable to a scientifically or technically literate lay reader, and it should be suitable for publication. The abstract should be written in the third person. It should include objectives, methods to be employed, and the potential impact of the project.

IV. Statement of Need

This is where you present the problem you are trying to solve. Our advice is as follows:

  • Stick to one problem.
  • Avoid circular logic in your thinking and in the development of your statement of need. Circular logic decrees that the lack of a solution is the problem. Requesting scholarship funds as a solution to the lack of scholarship funds is an example of circular logic. A more convincing argument is based on a problem with a much larger scope. For example, women are greatly underrepresented in engineering-related fields and scholarship funds will enable more women to pursue engineering as a career choice.
  • Use a logical progression in your statement of need starting as globally as possible. You will need to prove that you have an understanding of the problem and the latest research on the problem. For example, if you are proposing a computer lab to serve a minority population your statement of need should focus on the "digital divide." Hence, your statement of need will start with a discussion of the digital divide in the United States, then it will focus on the digital divide in Rochester (in this case), then it will focus further on the digital divide in the specific community you are proposing to work with.
  • Close with a discussion of what else is being done, and lead into the project narrative with a brief discussion of how your idea is better or different. To do this, you will need to cite that latest body of research and specific projects that are currently happening and how yours is different and better. Preparation is essential, and you are encouraged to pick up the phone and call people who are working on similar projects, call program officers at agencies, and gather as much information as possible. This is an area where the Sponsored Research Services office can offer guidance, advice, and assistance.

V. Project Rationale Incorporating Literature Review

Any successful grant application must incorporate a strong theoretical basis that is grounded with an extensive discussion of the literature. The rationale for the project comes from what the literature says works, does not work, is missing, needs to be looked at differently, or however you choose to broach this extensive discussion. This is how the proposal demonstrates that the individual making application is incorporating the latest research into the project.

VI. Project Narrative

A project narrative has six main sections. Check the funding agency announcement for a specific outline; some agencies require a different organization of the proposal narrative.

  1. Goals and Objectives. What are the major goal(s) and objectives of the project? Describe the expected outcomes of this project and how success will be measured in the project (and reference the evaluations section below).
  2. Proposed Activities. What are the activities that are going to happen during the period of this grant? What are you are proposing to do? What timeframe are you accomplishing this during the project?
  3. Facilities, Resources, and Project Management. What facilities and resources are available? How is the project going to be managed? Who will provide leadership and management for the project, and who are the people involved in implementing the project? What credentials make this project team unbeatable?
  4. Evaluation. To the potential funding source, the deliverables of your project are the justification for your funding, so it is imperative that you have in place a comprehensive and accepted method to evaluate your outcomes. Reviewers will want to know what works and what doesn't work. Be sure to give this section its due priority, and pull in an evaluator very early in the process of developing a proposal. Oftentimes, external evaluators are included in the budget for projects. SRS can refer you to persons on campus who are schooled and well respected in the field of evaluation; contact us for more information.

    Evaluation plans should include both formative evaluation to inform development of the project and summative evaluation to assess the impact of the project on the target audience. Each proposal should describe a performance evaluation plan that includes goals, objectives, indicators, and specific measurements for assessing the progress toward the achievement of the goals. Information on data collection and analysis should be included.

    Examples of indicators that may be useful are:

    • shortening time-to-degree
    • broadening career opportunities
    • assessment of the graduate trainees' performance
    • impact of the research experience on the career plans of undergraduates
    • placement of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows upon completion of the program
    • the participation of women and members of underrepresented groups

    The absence of a good evaluation plan may result in the rejection of a proposal with an otherwise innovative idea and well-described goals and objectives.

  5. Outreach and Dissemination. An outreach or dissemination plan is often required by program guidelines and will enhance any proposal. A proposal should include a detailed description of activities that disseminate information on the success and content of the project to other scientists and educators. Dissemination efforts should be tailored to specific customers and target audiences.

    Some suggested mechanisms for dissemination:

    • Websites
      • Serve as a content expert for science/education web sites
      • Establish mutual links to suitable science/education sites
    • Publications
      • Peer-reviewed journals
      • Newsletters
      • Fliers/Pamphlets
      • Interim Working Papers
      • Books or Manuals
      • Nontraditional journals, such as trade journals
      • Poster Displays
      • Audio-Visual Materials (CD ROM, Videotape, etc.)
      • Press Releases
    • Presentations at conferences
      • Conferences with industry specifically for dissemination
      • Teleconferences or videoconferences
    • Training & Education
      • Course Materials
      • Distance Learning Courses
      • Workshops that provide hands-on experience
      • Mentorships to undergraduate students, high school students, teachers
      • Summer institutes for students and educators
      • Visit local classrooms as guest speaker
      • Assist teachers in developing curricula related to your field
      • Provide professional development or research orientation for staff
      • NETAC (Northeast Technical Assistance Center, located at NTID)
      • PEPNet (Postsecondary Education Programs Network) - see their website at www.pepnet.org
    • Public Outreach
      • Public lecture series
      • Public open-house of research facilities
      • Host a public science day
    • Museum/Library Outreach
      • Exhibits at the Student Alumni Union or Wallace Memorial Library
      • Serve as a content expert for a museum exhibit
      • Contribute articles to museum publications

  6. Sustainability. It is important for the potential sponsor to know that the project will not simply end once the grant funds are gone. The best way to do this is it ensure that this is a project that the institution is committed to as a part of the bigger picture and that it will be supported beyond the funding period. It is also important to build in and discuss a plan for growth of the project. Grant funding should be used as seed funding for follow-on funding. The proposed management plan can indicate to the sponsor that not only sustainability, but growth of the project is going to occur.

    Multi-year grants are usually awarded contingent upon the successful progress of the project. Sponsors often require interim technical reports upon which the decision to continue the grant is based. Others, such as the National Institutes of Health, require the submission of non-competing continuation proposals. Specific guidelines, similar to those of the initial proposal submission, must be followed. Some agencies require site visits in order to assess the progress of the project. Principal investigators should review the continuation criteria as soon as the initial award is made, so as to properly prepare for this important part of the grant cycle.

VII. Attachments

  1. Bibliography. As mentioned, this needs to be a well-researched project, and a bibliography is an essential component of good, scientific inquiry. If the format is not dictated, any reasonable format will suffice as long as it is consistent.
  2. Resume. Credentials of the project management will be taken into consideration in every proposal. Check the guidelines to see if there are limits as to pages for a resume or biographical sketch.
  3. Letters of Support/Endorsement. If the proposed project is a partnership, letters of support from the listed partners are required. In any situation, letters of support from carefully selected individuals and/or organizations may be in order. For example, on a recent proposal to host a conference targeting secondary school teachers, we enclosed letters of support from school districts and the teachers' unions.
  4. Relevant Publications (if allowed). The funding announcement or guidelines will explain if you can attach relevant publications (such as a paper you wrote last year that further provides the rationale for your project). If you are uncertain about attaching anything further to your proposal, check with SRS.

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