Crafting the Proposal

  • Be familiar with the guidelines and selection criteria.
  • You can Google sample funded applications! Many federal agencies provide examples of funded proposals and budgets.
  • Talk with the Program Director:  Prior to a Letter of Intent (LOI) or application - This can help you get a better sense of the sponsor's specific focus during that funding round and if there is a strong fit between your work and the sponsor's funding goals. Sometimes, the program officer might even suggest applying to a different program or another funding source that you were unaware of. Also, if there is a strong match, the program officer might pay more attention to your application over others. After an LOI has been accepted - Talk more with the program officer about any suggestions they may have for the application. 
  • Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations (CFR) facilitates and orchestrates the creation and maintenance of strategic partnerships between Villanova University, corporations, and private, philanthropic foundations.  CFR also provides planning and research assistance throughout the entire cultivation, proposal submission and stewardship process.
  • Don't create a project to fit a sponsor's priorities.
  • Some funding agencies have a policy of staggering their award cycle or limiting applications to one program. Guidelines usually explain funding policies.
  • With some funding agencies, there might be a limited number of applications that VU can submit within one funding cycle. Hence, it is important you speak with the Director of Grant Development prior to submission. (See the Submission of Proposals section)
  • Unless the funding policy states otherwise, sponsors that have funded you expect you to reapply. They have dedicated their own effort to choose to invest in your work and are therefore likely to continue investing in your work (provided you fulfill reporting obligations and are in good standing). Funding from one sponsor also provides leverage when applying to other sponsors. 
  • Develop a timeline and a budget.  If your budget exceeds what you are requesting, the sponsor will want to know how you expect to secure other funding. Some sponsors require a listing of past, present and pending funding.

See also:

   How to prepare an NEH Proposal (pdf)
   How to prepare an NIH Proposal

   Guidelines for various NIH application forms
   How to Prepare an NSF Proposal (pdf)
   NSF Merit/evaluation Criteria (pdf)
   Guidelines - as of December, 2014

  • Begin early, apply early.
  • In some cases you can include a one page cover letter. This should contain information from the Executive Summary/Abstract, and includes a very brief summary of work, need, total cost of the project and the amount requested.
  • A preliminary Letter of Intent (LOI) may be required prior to full proposal submission to allow reviewers to narrow down the applicant pool.  LOIs often have a word limit, so spend a lot of time revising and editing the language to become as concise and direct as possible.
  • Give them what they want. Follow the application guidelines exactly. If you don't, the application might not even be reviewed.
  • Make it easy on the reader: Be explicit, specific and try to eliminate jargon, or include definitions if necessary (it helps to have an idea of who your audience is). 
  • Don't assume the reader will make connections, make it for them. 
  • Be realistic in expected deliverables or outcomes, and consider limitations or other possible outcomes.
  • Keeping in mind who might be reviewing your proposal is perhaps the single most important exercise in grant writing.  Each sponsor has their own mission, set of requirements and funding priorities. Don't just copy and paste from one submission to another.  On the other hand, don't change your project to fit the audience. 
  • Federal grant review panelists are academic reviewers who may or may not be experts in your area of specialization. Your Program Officer might have a general idea of the range of expertise amongst the panelists and sometimes you can request that a specialty be included (but not a specific person).  
  • Sometimes the review panel may not necessarily be comprised of academics or specialists in your area. Don't assume the reviewers know the primary literature, terminology or importance of your work. 
  • Your Grant Development Director may be able to help you learn more about the reviewers and selection criteria.
  • Reviewers often score applications by following a selection criteria rubric. Pay attention to the sponsor's guidelines and selection criteria. If you omit something, be sure that it is done so intentionally and even addressed in the narrative, if possible. 
  • Remember that reviewers have a lot to read, and will not appreciate a poorly organized, poorly written, or confusing proposal, no matter how important they might find your research question to be. Be sure to make it as easy on the reader as you can!  Follow all the guidelines to a T. Without fundamentally changing your project's goals or outcomes, you often have to rewrite or reorganize your proposal to fit the guidelines and selection criteria.   

Most guidelines provide their own headings/structural template and page restrictions. It cannot be stated too often: Do not stray from the guidelines. If you aren't provided a structural template, then format the proposal so it is easy to follow. Use headings to break the proposal up into sections. If it is long, include a table of contents with page numbers. (With many online federal grant applications, the TOC is automatically generated upon submission).  

Abstract/Executive Summary: The abstract provides reviewers with their first impression of your project. It may also serve as their last impression when they go over final recommendations. The abstract should contain the key elements of your research project: the general purpose, specific goals, research design, methods, and significance (contribution and rationale). Be as explicit as possible in your abstract. For clarity, you could use the phrase “The objective of this study is to …”

Introduction: The introduction should cover the key elements of your proposal.  

  • Statement of the problem and purpose of the research - Background and rationale for the project, establishing the need and relevance of the research. How is your project different from previous research on the same topic? Will you be using new methodologies or covering new theoretical territory?
  • Research goals or objectives - List only the principle goal(s) or objective(s) of your research and save sub-objectives for the project narrative. Identify the anticipated outcomes of the research and match up to the needs identified in the statement of problem. 
  • Significance of the research – Reviewers want to see your evaluation of pertinent works and how it fits into the significance of your research. A review of the relevant literature should be selective and critical, not exhaustive. 

Project Description: The project description should supply all of the details of the project, including a detailed statement of problem, research objectives or goals, hypotheses, methods, procedures, outcomes or deliverables, and evaluation (including other potential outcomes or limitations) and dissemination of the research. This may require several subheadings. 

For the project narrative, pre-empt or answer all of the reviewers’ questions. Don’t leave them wondering about anything. Explain why the methodology you’re using is best suited for your research questions, or explain the advantages of the methodology.  

Clearly and explicitly state the connections between your research objectives, research questions, hypotheses, methodologies, and outcomes.  Address the limitations or some possible alternative outcomes of your research. Such transparency lends to objectivity and is looked upon favorably by reviewers. These steps make the process a bit easier for your reviewers.

Personnel: Explain staffing requirements and qualifications. Be very explicit about the skill sets of the personnel (you will probably include their Curriculum Vitae as part of the proposal). 

Budget:  Go to this page for more information

Decisions are usually based on:
  • Is the project well planned and feasible?
  • Are the investigators qualified to execute the project?
  • What are we going to learn as a result of the proposed project that we do not already know? (Found in the Goals, Aims and Outcomes)
  • Why is it worth knowing? (What is the intellectual significance)
  • How will we know that the conclusions are valid? (Found in the Methodology/Expected Outcomes/Deliverables).
If the grant was funded:
  • Talk to your program officer, to thank them for their help and to ask if there's anything to follow up with.
  • Pay attention to reporting requirements and submit by deadlines. Failure to do so can sometimes result in remission of funds. 
  • Celebrate!

Discuss your application with the program officer if your application has been rejected:

  • It is likely that your application won’t be funded in the first round. As painful as rejection is initially, it provides an opportunity to further develop the application. You can almost think of the reviewers and program officer as "consultants." Before more than a month has passed, set up the appointment to have a telephone call to discuss the reviews. During the call, review any feedback you might have received and ask for advice on how to proceed. Have specific questions ready, for example:  Am I overlooking anything? Am I putting the emphasis in the right place? Is there a particular issue that concerned the reviewers? Is there something that wasn’t being addressed that reviewers had wanted to see? Remember not to get defensive. Listen carefully, ask questions and take notes. The goal is to find out, in as much detail as possible, what went wrong and how to correct it. Any input you can get will be valuable. 
  • At some agencies, or depending on the availabilty funds, program directors might have a fair amount of discretion and decide to fund a proposal that reviewers had put in a “fund if possible” category. Discussing your work with the program officer may tip the application into the funded category. 

Aside from regular grammatical editing, the Director of Grant Development is available to review guidelines and selection criteria to check them against your narrative to help craft the proposal.

Questions should be directed to:
Lyla Kaplan
Director of Grant Development
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
SAC 190
Phone: (610) 519-8411