Proposal Tips

Outline Your Idea

You have an idea for a new course, for a summer of research, or for a project in which your students can be involved. You need outside funding, but you do not know where to begin. Often the best first step is to make an outline and/or write a one-page description of what you want to do. This will help you to clarify your goals and objectives. The Office of Academic Grants and Foundation Relations will then be able to use this description to help identify the broadest group of potential sources of funding.

Current CV

It is a good idea to keep several versions of your up-to-date CV on file for quick access. Some proposals require a one- or two-page version while others call for a complete curriculum vitae. Still others may ask for a brief narrative biography. If you keep these current, you can quickly give them to possible collaborators, publishers, or potential funders.

Successful Proposal Writing

This is a brief overview of what to consider when writing a proposal for external funding for your research, writing, sabbaticals, etc. It can serve as a guide for new writers of proposals or a list of reminders for those with more experience.


Think about answering the following questions:

  • What do you intend to do?
  • Why is the work important? What difference will it make?
  • To whom is the work important?
  • What has already been done and written?
  • How are you going to do the work?


1. Decide which funding agency and program are best suited to your project. The Office of Academic Grants and Foundation Relations can help.

2. Recognize the deadline as an opportunity to further your work, not a reason to start work.

3. READ the program announcement, including ALL instructions, before you begin. This cannot be emphasized enough! READ the program announcement!

4. TALK to everyone who can help you. They become your support team. Here are some suggestions:

  • Office of Academic Grants and Foundation Relations (overall guidance, samples of successful proposals, contact names, etc.)
  • Program Officer at the funding agency
  • Department Chair
  • Colleagues on or off campus who have been successful in grant seeking
5. Consider collaboration with another faculty member within your department or from another department, college or university , or someone from a community organization, or a K-12 school or teacher.

6. Consider including undergraduate students to assist you with your research projects.


1. Set a positive tone. Using conditional language weakens your proposal:

  • "We would like to . . ."
  • "We may include . . ."
  • "Possible results might be . . ."
  • "Dr. Jones may be invited to . . ."
Instead, march boldly forward in your proposal with positive language such as:
  • "We will . . . "
  • "Programs will include . . ."
  • "The results will be . . ."
  • "Dr. Jones will participate . . ."
Your proposal will be much stronger if your writing reflects confidence in your project and in the forthcoming funding.

2. Address every criterion listed in the guidelines.

3. Identify your specific goals. What is the hypothesis to be tested, and what objectives will test the hypothesis? What preliminary data or evidence do you have to support your hypothesis?

4. Explain background and significance. What is the current relevant literature? What is your evaluation of the existing knowledge? What are your long-term objectives? What is the relevance?

5. Outline project design and methods. How do your methods relate to the goals of your project? Demonstrate your awareness of potential problems and solutions and your familiarity with methodologies.

6. Create a realistic timetable.

7. Create evaluation and dissemination plans. Some ideas to consider:

  • Establish baseline and end points;
  • Document meaningful changes;
  • Actively promote your new information (a web site linked to/from other web sites, workshops on/off campus, personal contact including visits to other campuses, possible beta test sites at other schools);
  • Engage external evaluators who are qualified to produce a realistic assessment of your work.
8. Get clear commitments from collaborators and attach appropriate letters of support.

1. This summary of your project can be the most important element of your proposal since it will likely be read first by reviewers.

2. Write it last after you have fully developed your ideas.

3. It should be succinct, logical, accurate and able to stand alone.

4. Make sure you include:

  • Need for project
  • Broad, long-term objectives
  • Specific goals
  • Research design and methods
  • Project cost


1. EARLY in the process, meet with the Office of Academic Grants and Foundation Relations. We can offer assistance with budget construction and provide information on summer salary, fringe benefit and indirect cost rates. If cost sharing is required, it is important to to make this know in the beginning.

2. Make sure your budget is accurate and realistic.


1. References should be experts in your field, not a good friend in an unrelated field.

2. They should be visible, active scholars in your field.

3. They should know you, your project, and the field.

What panelists/reviewers look for:

Most proposal reviewers look for projects that are:

  • Innovative
  • Ambitious
  • Realistic
  • Well-documented
  • Well-focused
  • Well-developed
  • Currently relevant

Other important criteria include:

  • Principal Investigator's competence and record of accomplishments
  • Adequacy of institutional resources and facilities
  • Institutional commitment and administrative support
  • Evidence of collaboration
  • A model that can be replicated
  • Use of new technologies
  • Student learning through guided research
  • Impact on national infrastructure

A Positive Rejection?

What if your proposal should not be funded on the first (or second or third) try? Don't look at a letter of rejection as a personal affront, but as a tool for implementing improvement. Funding agencies typically receive significantly more applications than they are able to honor with awards. If you are turned down, try to get comments, either verbally or in writing from a program officer. Then you can take a closer look at your project and decide if you want to incorporate any of the suggested changes into another submission. The odds of success improve greatly on the second try.


1. Be prepared to resubmit your proposal if it is turned down.

2. Call the Program Officer to get reviewers' comments, meet with your support team (Grants Office, colleagues, collaborators, etc.) to determine how and where to adjust the proposal for the next round.

3. Try again!