Proposal Development

The business of preparing a proposal can often be a reactive one – discovering a grant opportunity that is due in two weeks and scrambling to pull all the pieces together to meet the deadline.

Once you review Funding Opportunities and begin targeted funding searches, you are on the road to becoming proactive. When you are aware of what funding is available from which sources, it allows you to focus more on the research or project at hand.
The remaining sections focus on the steps to take when preparing a proposal, with an emphasis on being both proactive and interactive – that is, interacting with both internal and external stakeholders. Because proposals often involve significant personnel, equipment, facility and other commitments or requirements, it is important to ensure that proposal development is an inclusive and collaborative process.

Proposal Planning

There is no "one size fits all" solution to successful proposal writing. Competitive proposals, however, do share many common elements. Strong proposals are reasonable in scope, supported by evidence drawn from authoritative sources, concisely written, persuasive, and flow logically from one section to the next.
According to the National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA), the leading professional organization for sponsored research professionals, some additional characteristics of successful proposals are:

  • The idea is new and innovative.
  • The idea is timely.
  • The clear need for the project can be documented.
  • The project will make a difference and influence advancement of the field.
  • The project is cost-effective.

Two key success factors in becoming a strong proposal writer are planning and practice. Overall, proposals should reflect the thoughtful planning of an applicant. Proposals written in haste, without ample lead time and the inclusion of all relevant stakeholders, often fail. Even if funded, a project that lacks a strong action plan may be poorly implemented, giving the funding agency a negative impression of the PI, the organization and its ability to manage external funds.

"Practice makes perfect" is an oft-repeated mantra that holds true in grant writing. The more proposals a person writes (and reviews!), the better he or she understands what elements work - and which ones fail. Also, because proposals that do not get funded can be modified and resubmitted, the time spent crafting a grant proposal is never time wasted.

 

Preliminary/Pre-proposal

Before you begin drafting a proposal, it is important to do some preliminary work. Once you have read the guidelines and discussed your ideas with your chair, dean or other superiors, consider the following actions:
 

  • Will you be partnering with other faculty? Other institutions? If so, schedule meetings with them as soon as possible to discuss details.
  • Define the scope of your project. What is the problem? Why is it significant? What do you intend to do to solve it?
  • Research previously funded proposals from this particular program. Are these projects similar to the one you are proposing?
  • Conduct a literature review - in other words, what's already been done to address similar problems?
  • Beyond the necessary institutional approval, will your project involve human or animal subjects? If so, approval from IRB or IACUC may be necessary.
 

Concept Paper

The goal of the activities mentioned above is to not only help solidify your project, but also to produce a 1-2 page concept paper. A concept paper helps clarify your ideas and is something to share with colleagues and potential partners/consultants. Additionally, many private foundations (as well as state and federal grant making agencies) require a concept paper to be submitted for review prior to the submission of a full proposal.

A logical organization for a concept paper is as follows: 
  • Concept/Problem Statement: Define the problem and place it in context. 
  • Need and Significance: Why is this problem important? Make sure to cite authoritative sources. 
  • Project Plan: Describe how the project will be implemented. Identify the specific, measurable steps necessary. 
  • Required Resources: Estimate the necessary budgetary requirements for your proposed project.
After these steps have been completed, contact ORSP to schedule an appointment. ORSP staff can assist in developing the narrative, drafting a budget, or answering any other questions you may have. 

Writing the Proposal

While much attention is paid to funding source research, project development and compliance, writing the actual proposal is a topic that often gets overlooked. The following sections will break down the most common elements required in proposals and discuss ways in which the writer can strengthen them.

Take note that while these are common elements, you may not always be required to produce them, depending on the funding source and its guidelines. Conversely, other funding sources may require additional sections not mentioned here. This discrepancy brings us to a key point: Always follow the guidelines!

 

Introduction

The proposal introduction is where you describe your agency's qualifications and credibility as an applicant for funding. When writing an introduction that necessitates an organizational background, it is helpful to write from general to specific, transitioning from the University background to your college/department background, briefly highlighting:

  • Prior and current activities
  • Accomplishments and their impact
  • Any other significant aspects related to the funding source

 

Problem Statement

The problem statement (sometimes called the needs statement) is one of the most critical components of your proposal - it is the reason for the proposal in the first place!

Strong problem statements:

  • Should be clearly related to the purposes and goals of your organization.
  • Should be supported by evidence drawn from statistics/information provided by authoritative sources (don't make assumptions).
  • Should be of reasonable dimensions - something that you can realistically do something about over the course of the project period.
  • Should be stated in terms of clients or constituents rather than the needs or problems of the organization.

 

Objectives

Most grant proposals must include a list of objectives to be achieved within the project period. Program or project objectives are the "outcomes" of your activities - not the activities themselves. If you begin statements with "to provide" or "to create," you are talking about methods, not objectives. Objectives are the measurable criteria by which you judge the effectiveness of your program. To be useful, objectives must be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time constrained

To put it another way, objectives should:

  • Tell who
  • Is going to be doing what?
  • When?
  • How much?
  • How it will be measured?

Statements like the following refer to objectives:

  • At the conclusion of the five-day workshop, at least 20 to 25 participants will demonstrate a pre/post test gain of at least 25 percent on the Evaluator's Competency Test, covering the areas of (1) introductory statistical terminology, (2) measurable objectives, and (3) educational program evaluation concepts.
  • To increase employment in Rowan County by at least 10 percent in high-tech jobs by the end of the 12 month project period as indicated by Chamber of Commerce data.

 

Methodology

The methodology is simply a description of the steps to be taken to achieve your desired results. The two critical points to remember when developing your methodology:

  • Clarity - your methods should be understandable.
  • Justification - methods should be accompanied by an explanation of the rationale behind them (why do you think they'll work?). Justification can include description of your past related work or presentation of evidence drawn from the work of others.

Key elements that should be included in most methodology sections (when applicable):

  • Selection of staff
  •  Staff training
  • Selection of participants

Time charts (or Gantt Charts) can be useful in providing readers with a clear picture of program activities in an organized fashion (some funding sources will specifically ask for this).

 

Evaluation

Most funding sources will require an evaluation component. Even if you intend to budget for a consultant to conduct an evaluation for you, it is still important to understand what an evaluation is, and why it is important.
The evaluation is something to be considered throughout the program planning process, not something to be thrown together after everything else is done. An evaluation section that reads: "Evaluation will be afforded by a weekly conference of the multidisciplinary team and maintenance of comprehensive records and explicit documentation" shows only that the applicant took little time to develop an evaluative component.
A successful evaluation will answer two questions:

  1. To what extent has the project achieved its stated objectives?
  2. To what extent can the accomplishment of objectives be attributed to the project?

In designing an evaluation, consider the following:

  • Clarify program objectives - clear, measurable objectives will lead to a clear and logical evaluation plan.
  • Determine the potential audience for the evaluation - specific evaluation questions can come from considering who will be looking at the evaluation.
  • How will data be collected? This will depend on the nature of your project.
  • How will the data be analyzed?
  • How will the results be reported?

Evaluations are important for a variety of reasons. Accountability is critical in managing external grants and contracts. Funders want to see the fruits of their labor, and grantees that do not provide this can negatively affect future grant submissions. Evaluative data helps to strengthen the applicant's credibility. Additionally, designing an evaluation forces you to examine the clarity of your objectives. When searching for an external evaluator for your project, keep these things in mind:

  • Cost - the more prestigious the evaluator, the more they will charge. Keep your budget limitations in mind.
  • Reputation - does the potential evaluator have a reputation that will enhance the credibility of the application?

 

Abstract/Summary

While the proposal summary is usually the first thing on a funding source's list of required materials, it is last here because summaries should be the last thing you write. If you have already developed your concept paper, it most probably will form the crux of your abstract.
Clear, concise summaries include:

  • Identification of the applicant and a phrase or two about their credibility
  • The reason for the grant request: issue, problem or need to be met
  • Objectives to be achieved through the funding
  • The kinds of activities to be conducted to accomplish the objectives
  • The total cost of the project, funds already committed (if applicable) and amount asked for in the proposal

The importance of the summary:

  • It's usually a requirement.
  • It may be all that is read (along with the budget).
  • It will probably be the first thing that is read.
  • It provides readers with context for what is to follow.
  • It's good practice to express your ideas with clarity and brevity!

 

Scientific Research Proposals

A research proposal is similar in a number of ways to a project proposal. Many of the elements discussed are critical; however, a research proposal addresses a particular project: academic or scientific research. The forms and procedures for such research are well defined by the field of study, so guidelines for research proposals are generally more exacting than less formal project proposals. Research proposals contain extensive literature reviews and must offer convincing support of need for the research being proposed. In addition to providing rationale for the proposed research, the proposal must describe a detailed methodology for conducting the research – a methodology consistent with requirements of the professional or academic field.

The article “Understanding Research Proposals,” published by The Grantsmanship Center, provides an excellent framework for designing a scientific research proposal.

 

NSF: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is unique in that it asks applicants to discuss the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the proposed project. According to NSF, intellectual merit is how the proposed project will advance knowledge and understanding within a particular discipline. Broader impact refers to how the proposed activity will advance NSF's mission of advancing learning, broadening participation of underrepresented groups and enhance research and education infrastructure. An in-depth description of broader impact is available online.

 

Final Points

  • Read and understand the agency guidelines! Agencies may ask for more, less or different content than what is outlined here.
  • Avoid jargon and industry-specific lingo.
  • Because writers usually tackle proposals by sections, it is important to make sure each section flows logically into the next.
  • Solicit colleagues to review your proposal.
  • Become a reviewer - seeing other proposals helps to strengthen your own writing.
  • Always contact the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs before you begin - we're here to help.

Budget Development

The preparation of a budget is an important part of the proposal preparation process. Ideally, the budget should be considered as you are developing the project itself - not something to be hastily put together the day before the deadline. This is important for two reasons:

  1. Developing your budget alongside your narrative assures that the budget items are specifically related to activities described in the proposal.
  2. Reviewers often examine the budget in the context of the program narrative, evaluate whether sufficient and appropriate personnel to perform the work have been included, and match the overall budget to the work proposed.

Research expenses can be divided into direct costs, which are specific line items in a budget such as salaries and fringe benefits, equipment and travel, and indirect costs (also called Facilities and Administrative costs), which are broad costs incurred for common or joint objectives, such as building/equipment depreciation and general administrative costs. Indirect costs are paid as a percentage of direct costs, with the amount negotiated by the University and the sponsor.

Direct Costs

Morehead State University abides by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards (also referred to as the Uniform Guidance). These prescriptive regulatory requirements, codified in 2 CFR 200, set forth basic concepts relating to all direct costs. These concepts are applicable to all sponsored programs, federally funded or not.

A direct cost must be:

Allowable

  • It serves a University business purpose, including instruction, research and public service.
  • It is permissible according to both MSU policies and federal regulations.
  • It is permissible according to the terms and conditions of the sponsored project.

Allocable

  • It is incurred solely to advance the work under the sponsored program.
  • It benefits both the sponsored program and other work of the institution, in proportions that can be approximated through use of reasonable methods.
  • It is necessary to overall operation of the institution and, in light of the principles provided in the Uniform Guidance, is deemed to be assignable in part to sponsored projects.

Reasonable

  • The goods or services requested reflect actions that a prudent person would take under similar circumstances

Consistent: Costs must always be treated similarly under like circumstances 
 

Major Categories of Direct Costs

Personnel

The PI should consider who needs to be involved in the project, and how much effort each person will commit. “Effort” refers to the proportion of time spent on a sponsored program and is expressed as a percentage of the individual’s total available time. The basic rule to keep in mind is to ensure that you have sufficient time available to fulfill the proposed effort commitment.


Salary - Staff (Administrative, Clerical)

Per Uniform Guidance regulations, salary figures for staff are based on the individual’s annual salary.


Salary - Staff (Students)

Students (both graduate and undergraduate) frequently serve as Research Assistants on sponsored projects and can receive compensation. Typically, full time students are limited to working a maximum of 20 hours per week during the academic year and are paid minimum wage (although the PI can set the pay as he/she sees fit). Additionally, students can also receive tuition remission and other training expenses.


Salary - Faculty

Per Uniform Guidance regulations, salary figures for faculty are based on the individual’s annual salary. Subject to sponsor and University policy, faculty salary can be covered in a variety of ways:

  • Reassigned Time
  • Faculty can request that the agency pay for a reduced load in order to engage in sponsored programs. The provision of reassigned time is typically in the form of a course reduction, which will reduce the instructor's teaching load by a certain amount, depending on the needs of the project. In some circumstances, when taking a course reduction is unfeasible, a small percentage of a faculty member's time can be requested of the funding source. In either case, it is always best to request reassigned time from the funding source. When this is not possible, the University can sometimes cost share a portion or all of the requested effort.
 Summer Salary
  • Summer Salary is available to faculty with nine-month appointments for work on sponsored projects during the summer months. Faculty who receive summer salary must expend the effort associated with the summer salary during the summer period. Per University regulations, the maximum amount of summer salary permissible is three-ninths of the faculty's regular academic year salary. In other words, in any year, the faculty member may receive no more than three months of summer salary. However, some agencies impose stricter limits on how much summer salary a PI can request.

 

FRINGE BENEFITS

Fringe benefit charges are assessed to cover costs such as retirement benefits, health insurance, FICA and Medicare taxes and unemployment compensation. Fringe benefits are calculated by multiplying the fringe benefit rate by the salary requested for each individual. When developing a budget that includes personnel, make sure to include the appropriate fringe benefit rate.

 

EQUIPMENT

According to the Uniform Guidance (2 CFR 200.33), the term “equipment” refers to “tangible personal property having a useful life of more than one year and a unit acquisition cost of $5,000 or more per unit.” Even though the University has different definitions for equipment, it is important to adhere to the federal definition when preparing a budget. All federal agencies (and many private ones) do not allow indirect costs to be charged on equipment.

 

TRAVEL

Travel costs related to the sponsored program for the PI and project staff are allowable expenses. Refer to the University’s Travel Policies and Procedures Manual for specific information.

 

OTHER DIRECT COSTS

Materials and Supplies: Materials and supplies include variety of consumable items such as chemicals, glassware, small electronic components, computer software and more. General office supplies are considered to be part of the indirect costs of conducting a project, so they should not be charged as a direct cost on a federal award. However, just as in paying supplemental salary to staff, some extenuating circumstances would include:
  • If the purchase of these and similar products relate specifically to the technical substance of the project
  • If the nature of the work performed under a particular project requires an unusually high level of such costs

Publication/Dissemination: Any cost(s) associated with the publication of a research article based on your funded project, or dissemination of any results gained from the project.

Consultants: Many sponsored projects necessitate the use of an external consultant for a variety of services. The University does not have a standard consultant rate. An individual may be paid according to the customary scale for a particular field and level of expertise. It is important to specifically name your consultant in the budget – doing so will simplify the process of paying the consultant should the proposal be funded.

Subawards: Proposals may include work to be done at one or more other institutions. In these cases, the other participating institutions will be subrecipients under the University’s award. When a subaward has been prepared as part of a larger proposal, the total yearly cost for the subaward is included as a line item in MSU’s budget.

 

FACILITIES AND ADMINISTRATIVE COSTS (INDIRECT COSTS)

Similar to the overhead costs of a business, facilities and administrative costs (or “F&A,” as it is commonly called) are the basic expenses associated with carrying out sponsored projects but are difficult to quantify with respect to any given project. For example, heat, maintenance, building depreciation, administrative expenses and library use are all F&A costs. 

F&A is recovered on proposals by multiplying the sponsor’s indirect cost rate by the appropriate direct cost base and including that figure in the total cost of the budget. Unless the potential funder has its own specific guidelines for F&A, all budgets will request the University’s federally-negotiated F&A rate, which is currently 40% of Modified Total Direct Costs (MTDC), which excludes equipment, tuition, and subcontracts beyond the first $25,000 of each individual contract from the base.

Funds accumulated through F&A are distributed according to a distribution plan developed cooperatively between the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, and the Office of the Vice President for Planning, Budgets and Technology. 

 

BUDGET JUSTIFICATION

Not to be overlooked is the budget justification (sometimes referred to as the budget narrative). The budget justification is the narrative in a proposal that provides additional detail on line items in the budget. Sections should be included for Personnel, Equipment, Travel and any other budget categories that may require explanation. If the budget includes costs of normally unallowable items, these must be justified explicitly. Equipment expenses also require careful delineation, since the sponsor approves individual line items in this category.

It is important to approach the budget justification in the same manner you would your proposal narrative – be clear, concise and provide rationale where needed.


Proposal Review & Submission

Once a proposal is completed, it must go through an internal approval process prior to submission to the external funding agency. This is to ensure that all of the sponsor’s requirements have been met, and that the proposal complies with all applicable regulations – both internal and external. Additionally, depending on the nature of your proposal, other approval processes may be necessary. This section highlights what has to happen for proposals to be submitted at Morehead State University, who has responsibility for various approvals, and what is being approved when reviews of proposals and signatures are provided.

 

Internal routing of proposals

Deadlines

In order to ensure adequate time for review, notification of corrections that need to be made and institutional approvals, all proposals must be submitted to ORSP in final form at least five business days prior to the designated deadline. This deadline applies to all proposals, but it is particularly important for those proposals that are being submitted through the mail, due to the additional time needed to ensure the proposal meets the agency’s deadline.


Routing Process

Once proposals have been submitted to ORSP in their final form, ORSP staff will generate standard forms that must be signed by the PI/Project Director and their supervisors. The two standard forms are:

  • Internal Review and Approval for External Proposal - This form summarizes the proposal, lists all collaborators and budget information. The form is to be signed by the PI, all Co-PIs and their respective chair, dean or unit administrator as indicated on the form.
  • Investigator Financial Disclosure Form - Morehead State requires investigators on proposal to all external agencies to disclose prior to submittal of the proposal, any significant financial interest (including those of spouse and dependent children) which would reasonably appear to affect the project.

Once these forms have been signed by all parties and returned to ORSP, they are officially filed along with a copy of the proposal, budget, and any other pertinent documents relating to the project. 


Special Approvals

In addition to the approvals described above, investigators must obtain other special approvals for their research. Some of these requirements apply to all research projects. Others apply only to particular types of research. These approvals are summarized below, with links to Web sites where more detailed information can be obtained.

 

Human Subjects

The term “human subjects” includes not only individuals who participate in research studies, but also other living persons from or about whom information is collected and whom the investigator can identify individually. Most research involving the use of human subjects requires advance review and approval by Morehead State University’s Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects (IRB).
 

Whenever a researcher affiliated with the University engages in a project that involves human subjects, MSU must guarantee that the researcher will comply with federal policies safeguarding human subjects of research.  This is true whether the research is supported by federal funds or not, or whether the research is conducted at MSU or not.
 

If a sponsored project requires the use of human subjects, or tissue or other human material that may be identifiable, the PI must confer with the Research Integrity and Compliance Director to determine whether review and approval are required. Most agencies now allow proposals to be submitted with IRB review “pending,” but some will not make a funding decision until IRB approval is granted, and neither the sponsor nor the University will allow research involving human subjects to proceed without IRB approval or certification of exemption.


Use of Animals in Research

Whenever a researcher affiliated with Morehead State University engages in a project that involves animal subjects, MSU must guarantee that the researcher will comply with federal policies or guidelines, which affect the use of animals in research, teaching, and testing.  This is true whether the research is supported by federal funds or not.

If a project requires the use of vertebrate animals, approval must be obtained from the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Most funding agencies will accept evidence that IACUC review is pending. However, research that involves animals may not proceed (and animals may not be ordered from a supplier) until the IACUC has approved the protocol.


Electronic Proposal Submission

Prior to submitting a proposal to a sponsor using an electronic submission system, principal investigators/project directors are still required to have the proposal reviewed and approved by the University. Typically, there are four levels of approval needed: PI, Department Chair, Dean, and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.   

Most electronic proposal systems require approval of an application by an Authorized Organizational Representative (AOR).  The Associate Vice President for Research is the individual designated as the Authorized Organizational Representative for proposals submitted electronically.   

Several federal agencies have developed their own electronic proposal submission systems. Most systems require the creation of a profile by the project director. During the process of creating a profile, the project director will be required to assign themselves a username and password. The ORSP staff serves as administrators of these electronic systems. In order for the ORSP staff to upload proposal documents into the electronic proposal submission system, the project director must allow access to this information.  Access is provided by supplying the ORSP staff with the username and password of the profile.  

Prior to submitting a proposal to a sponsor requiring an electronic proposal submission (Grants.gov, NSF Fastlane, eRA Commons, etc.), the principal investigator/project director is required to submit all documents to the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, which is the unit responsible for all proposal submissions.  The ORSP staff will upload all proposal sections into the electronic system for submission to the agency. Once the electronic system has validated the application is complete and ready for submission, the ORSP staff will submit the application.  

Faculty and/or staff should not register Morehead State University for any electronic proposal submission system. The ORSP staff downloads and installs such applications, and reviews instructions/documentation on how to use the system.

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