Suggestions for Proposal Writers
The information below is intended to assist faculty who are relatively inexperienced in the art of preparing proposals for external funding of research or other projects.
- Develop a novel idea for funding that addresses an important problem. Research previous work on this subject, and become an expert with the literature. Determine the need for preliminary data.
- If applicable, assemble a high quality team that has the background, experience, interest and ability to successfully accomplish project goals.
- Enlist the support of organizations that have similar or complementary interests.
- Search for potential sponsors using databases such as Pivot. Read sponsors' guidelines thoroughly. What are the submission deadlines, eligibility requirements, requirements for university support?
- Contact Research Services (firstname.lastname@example.org; 773-508-2471) for help with identifying potential sponsors.
- Look at the proposed project from the sponsor’s point of view. How will your work accomplish the goals of the sponsor? How do they evaluate proposals? Review the work of successful applicants.
- Prepare an outline or summary of the proposed work. Explain the importance of the project, i.e. who will benefit.
- Consider talking to a sponsor’s program officer about whether your project fits their goals. Be prepared to explain the goals of the proposed project. Ask how your proposal fits the objectives of the sponsor. Be enthusiastic, but do not try to sell the project. Their representatives may be an important part of your future, so try to develop a rapport with them. Listen carefully to their response. If the sponsor does not support the type of project you propose, ask if they know of other sponsors who might be interested. Please contact Corporate and Foundation Relations at 312-915-6191 before contacting a private funding agency.
- Adjust your thought process and resulting proposal, as necessary.
- Allow approximately three months to prepare your first proposal.
- Each proposal should be well organized with a table of contents. Follow sponsor requirements regarding the outline of the proposal. If there are no requirements you may use the suggested format below:
- Proposal Abstract
- Project Purpose – Goal and specific objectives
- Workplan – Activities and Timelines
- Applicant Qualifications and Capabilities
- Evaluation Plan
- Budget Summary
- Budget Narrative
- Follow the format requirements of the sponsor, which may be very rigid. Your Research Administrator can assist in checking that all formatting requirements are met.
- Number every page
- Use the margins and fonts specified
- Do not exceed page limits
- Do not send extra material, such as videotapes, newspaper articles, etc., but consider including supplementary documents, such as a formal signed letter from a collaborator stating the facilities/equipment they will supply and their level of participation
- The Research Services website has general information that may be needed, such as Employer Identification Number, Duns Number, Congressional Districts
- Write the summary last. It is a very important part of the proposal. It should grab the reader and make him/her want to know more.
- Propose an innovative, creative concept or idea that is responsive to a pressing issue or problem. Describe how the project will meet at least one of the sponsor’s priorities. Provide rationale in the form of preliminary data as to why the project is compelling.
- Focus on the selected priority. Avoid restating the goals and priorities stated by the sponsor. A project with a clearly defined purpose, which can be accomplished, is better than a project that attempts to address multiple priorities.
- Describe the project accurately and precisely:
- Research the project and describe exactly why there is a need for the project in the community or in the field of study
- Identify existing efforts related to the project – use the information to support the project or to justify a different approach
- Define the specific goals and objectives or hypotheses of the project
- Describe exactly what you are going to do and how you are going to do it
- Consider alternative approaches, describe why the proposed approach is best
- Describe potential problem areas and consider other options
- Specify the methodology you will use to implement the project
- Use direct statements and the active voice
- If the project goals are achieved, describe the impact
- Provide information on how your partners will strengthen the project
- Secure a commitment of services or dollars
- Identify how partners will collaborate and describe specific responsibilities of each partner
- Submit letters of commitment or memoranda of understanding from partners which state the dollar amount or the services committed to the project
- Describe your qualifications to lead the project and the accomplishments of other team members
- Develop a realistic time line
- Demonstrate that you can complete the project within the funding period
- List the sequence and time frames of all tasks you will undertake to meet the goals of the project (on a schedule that covers the entire grant period)
- Describe what will happen after the project ends
- Explain the project’s potential for wide application or how it could serve as a model
- Describe your plans for dissemination of project results
- Discuss how the project will be sustained after the funding ends
- Develop a methodology for evaluating the project
- Describe how you will measure the success or failure of the project
- Identify the strategies, milestones, and tools that you will use to monitor the project
- Describe how monitoring will be used to strengthen the project
- Address all the evaluation criteria in the application, for example, NSF requires the Summary to address:
- What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
- What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity? [Click here for NSF guidance.]
The ORS "Resources" page contains links to help complete some sections required in many federal proposals. In addition to broader impact example cited above, there is help with budget justifications, data management plans, postdoctoral researcher mentoring plans, description of LUC's facilities, including resources for high performance computing.
Your budget should enable you to meet the project goals within the context of the sponsor’s target grant amount.
If you need help with the budget, call for an appointment with a Research Administrator in the Office of Research Services at 773 508-2471 at least a week in advance of the deadline. Click here for a budget template (in Excel) that you can use and adapt to develop your budget.
Think of the resources needed for the proposed project
- Salaries: See http://www.luc.edu/ors/facultysalary.shtml. Multi-year budgets should project best-guess salary increases, currently estimated at 3% per year.
- Fringe benefits: See http://luc.edu/ors/facostrates.shtml.
- Graduate students: Eligible to receive tuition waiver if the grant will pay full stipend ($14,000 for 9 months; $16,000 for 12 months); fringe benefits will be charged at the current rate for grad students.
- Equipment: Defined as items costing $5,000 or more and having a useful life of more than 1 year. Be aware that it is the responsibility of the department/unit to maintain equipment. Also, be aware that departments need to be mindful of the intended location for their new equipment; very often the existing building systems (HVAC, Electric conduit/outlet configuration, concrete floor etc.) are not designed to support the new load and need significant capital investment that should be added to the grant proposal.
- Supplies (general office supplies are usually not allowable but may be on very large projects).
- Travel and conferences (be aware that federal grants are subject to the Fly America Act).
- Consultants: See http://www.luc.edu/ors/payingindividuals.shtml.
- Indirect costs: See http://luc.edu/ors/facostpolicy.shtml.
Clarify any contributed costs and identify the funding sources. Sponsors can request documentation of contributed costs.
Request only allowable costs. The work scope should be consistent with the budget and may need to be revised if budget changes are necessary at a later date.
Check the math.
It’s important to include a budget narrative justifying the costs in detail [click here for a sample budget justification].
- Human and Animal Subjects
- Contact an ORS compliance assistant at (773) 508-8831 for help
- Provide a compelling rationale for using human or animal subjects
- Explain the basis for the selection of some groups and not others
- Address the protection against risks, versus the potential benefits and the knowledge to be gained
- Paying third parties
- Review the application
- Ask an experienced colleague, with no stake in the project, to review the application
- Perform an editorial review for clarity and conciseness
- Look for consistency throughout the proposal, from summary through conclusion
- Check the proposal for typographical, grammatical, and mathematical errors. 99% of unfunded proposals have typos. Sloppiness in the proposal may lead the reviewers to believe the project would be executed carelessly.
- Avoid common mistakes
- Common Proposal Problems - As Noted by NIH Reviewers
- Title: Too long, confusing, cute but distracting, not program related.
- Cover Page: Does not follow format precisely, does not include all necessary information.
- Abstract: Not comprehensive, omits significant elements, poor grammar or spelling, too long (more than 1 page).
- Table of Contents: Not included, inaccurate pagination.
- Institution Description and Statement of Need: Irrelevant information, does not lead reader to proposal objectives, good history-so what?, too long, deals with wants rather than needs, no documentation, unrelated to objectives/outcomes, desires, problem already solved, not supported by current research.
- Objectives/Outcomes: Not clear, too ambitious, omitted, procedures rather than objectives.
- Innovation: Not new or innovative, attempt to justify new equipment, materials. not clearly described.
- Review of the Literature: Unrelated to needs, objectives, innovations, does not lead reader, dated materials.
- Task/Activity Plan: Insufficient time, tasks not related to objectives, task not justified by needs, time and task charts not included, responsibilities not clear.
- Collaborative Efforts: Names and responsibilities of all involved in proposal not identified, no identification of institutions involved.
- Evaluation: Unrelated to objectives, unrelated to innovation, not usable in assessing program, uses outmoded or inaccurate methods.
- Budget: Unrelated to activities, little or no institutional contribution, amounts not supported by reasonable data, budget justification missing, categories not those of funding source, budget cannot be sustained after project ends.
- Project Staff: No identification of responsibilities and roles, no documentation of competence, no indication of time each staff member will contribute to project.
- Be innovative, and know the literature
- Focus on key questions
- Be convincing and thorough
- Demonstrate knowledge of the subject
- State the expected contribution to the field of work
- Follow sponsor instructions
- Price the project competitively
When the funding is imminent, submit the proposal to IRB (for human subjects), IACUC (for animal subjects), biosafety committee, or radiation safety committee.
After the review…
If you are funded, Research Services should receive an award document from the sponsor. They will transmit it to Sponsored Program Accounting for establishing an accounting unit and inputting the budget. At a later date, Research Services will work with you if you need sponsor approval for budget revisions, date changes or substantive changes to the project.
If you’re not successful at first, don’t blame the sponsor. Get feedback from them. Analyze the critique. Step outside the box and take a hard look at the proposal. Consider submitting a revised application. Many successful principal investigators were not successful on their first attempt.
Think creatively about the needs in your field. You may have a better idea!
- Attend workshops in your field
- Read successful grants in your discipline
- Serve on a review panel