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Useful information for proposal preparation

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 one to two-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.
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