Writing a Successful Proposal
For the student seeking a grant, the proposal is an incredibly important part of the process. The facts of the scenario can only sway the committee so much. The format and style of the proposal is paramount to achieving a positive result. The following tips have been collected from various different sources, including universities, government organizations, and professors; they tend to agree on the major issues with proposals. This article will serve to help students better prepare and write their proposal and increase their chances of a favorable response. Here are some important things to keep in mind while drafting:
- Read the Directions
It sounds inherent to the process, but unfortunately many students skip this step. The instructions are there to tell students exactly what they expect to see. This can include length requirements or restrictions, format requests, and deadlines. There is no excuse for the student who does not follow the basic instructions laid out for a specific grant.
- Plan it Out
Planning is an extremely important aspect of the application and proposal. There are times when more than one person is involved, in which case there needs to be a review of the application information and a discussion between all parties about what the sections will be about, who will write what, and who will edit the final project to ensure that each piece flows together. Having multiple authors runs the risk of each section sounding jarringly different in style and tone. It is immensely important to have a thorough editing and final read-through process before completion.
- Success is in the Style
Style is just as important as content in proposal writing. Oftentimes, the instructions will tell students what the organization wants to see in the proposal in terms of format and style. However if this is not the case, seek out examples of proposals for the same or similar grants. Sometimes it is possible to request a copy or viewing of the previous grant winner’s proposal. Even if there are explicit directions about how to divide the proposal, it is a good idea to compare your proposal with other ones. Evaluate the similarities, differences, strengths, and weaknesses.
- Make it Concise
Keep it brief and succinct. Academic papers require loquacious sentences, proposals do not. Whoever is reading the proposal does not want to wait until the end of the paragraph to find out what the paragraph is about. Proposals should have the information and intent stated clearly and up front. While descriptive words can add to the style or tone, it is a common mistake to over-use them and wind up boring the reader.
- Read It Out Loud
As advanced as word processing programs have become, they do still miss things. Nothing can catch mistakes or awkward wording better than the author reading their application and proposal out loud. Some students find it helpful to read the entire proposal in front of other people, and others find it better to read each paragraph out loud to themselves and evaluate it one paragraph at a time. Whichever way you choose, read it out loud. Any time you decide to make changes or edit a portion, read it out loud again.
The proposal writing process begins well before you type up the document or even brainstorm ideas. One of the most important steps in writing a successful grant proposal is making sure that you completely understand the RFP, or request for proposals. The RFP will indicate exactly what the grant-funding organization wants to accomplish. Although often short, RFPs usually include some technical jargon that a proposal writer must understand.
Once the writer understands the goals of the funding agency, the proposal should be focused on the idea of how the individual or group applying for funds can solve the problem. Don’t describe the issue, which the funding organization already knows about. Instead, focus on the solutions that the group or individual will bring to the issue. When there are multiple goals or issues listed in a request for proposals, it’s safe to assume that the first issue listed is the most important, but solutions to all issues should be addressed.
Grant-funding organizations sometimes have their own format that proposals must follow. Even where an outline format isn’t provided by the funding organization, proper organization of the proposal document is integral to a successful proposal. Organizing the information properly indicates to the funding organization that the proposing entity is serious about the work they intend to do.
Most grant proposals include seven major sections:
- A table of contents
- Mission statement
- Statement of need
- Project rationale
- Project narrative
The mission statement is a concise statement of the project’s goals, typically written to 50 words or less. Abstracts may be a paragraph or two and contain more information on objectives, project methods and potential impact. Statements of need must demonstrate both familiarity with current research on the issue and the planned solution that needs funding. A project rationale discusses the project in terms of recent publishing on related topics, typically from trade journals. A project narrative breaks down the project into small details, including outreach, proposed activities and project management plans. Proposal attachments should include a research bibliography, resumes of project managers and any relevant letters of endorsement. The table of contents, meant to help readers find information quickly, should be completed last once all other information has been compiled.
Many unsuccessful proposals are lost on the strength of their budget. Funding organizations want to be sure that every penny possible is being used to advance project goals, and even small gaffes in budgeting can severely impact a proposal’s chances of being accepted.
Find out whether the funding agency requires a line item budget or a categorical budget. Different funding organizations will likely include the preferred format in its budget guidelines for proposals. A budget must account for all monies spent towards completion of a project, including operational funding, supplies, facility fees or other costs. Identifying individual costs and scouting prices beforehand is very important, especially for line item budgets. Avoid budgeting for miscellaneous costs; funding agencies aren’t quick to fund projects with costs that they can’t define or seem unnecessary.
Budgets are usually included in the project narrative portion of a proposal. In the narrative, be sure to explain why each cost is necessary to the project. Be sure to note whether money was saved through other funding opportunities or efficient project design. Funding agencies think in terms of “low cost, high return,” so projects that can prove cost reductions look like stronger investments.
Work on a successful proposal doesn’t end when the information’s been compiled and outlined. Before submitting, proofread the document multiple times. Even one or two grammatical errors can cause a funding agency to overlook the entire project. First and foremost, proposal evaluators working for funding agencies want to see that the group applying for funds can communicate their goals clearly. Evaluators also look to see if the proposal relates closely to the specific RFP or if the writer instead copied and pasted generic legal information from other proposals.
When evaluating proposals, government entities or other funding agencies will judge proposals based on a set of criteria, typically assigning a letter or number grade for each criterion. Important criteria typically include risk and return, company background and alignment of project goals with agency goals. Although a proposal must be written well enough to merit notice by the funding agency, the proposal process is the first step of a process that also includes interviews and contract negotiations.
7 Tips for Writing Successful Proposals – From the Washington Grantmakers, here are their top seven suggestions to improving your proposal.
Tips on Writing a Competitive Grant Proposal and Preparing a Budget – The United States Environmental Protection Agency receives many, many grant proposals each year. This site has helpful links to other government grant webpages.
Sample Proposals for the Undergraduate Engineering Review – Also from Penn State, two examples of proposals from students in the Engineering and Science departments. While the subject matter might be different, the style, format, and headings should be very similar.
Writing a Good Grant Proposal – Microsoft presents a guide to writing proposals. This site attempts to collect together a number of suggestions about what makes a good proposal and why.
The RFP Database – Searchable online database of requests for proposals.
Philanthropy News Digest RFPs – Nonprofit and government RFPs posted online by PND.
Tips for Writing Successful Proposals – By the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Proposal Writing Short Course – Short online course on proposal writing, maintained by international philanthropy organization The Foundation Center.
Grant Proposal Writing Guidelines – Resources on successful grant proposal writing from the United Nations.