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Appendix B: How to Write a Grant Proposal

Grant Application Checklist

  • Research potential funders thoroughly -- a cursory look through a foundation directory isn't good enough. Then apply what you've learned. Don't ignore a funder's guidelines in the hopes of fitting your proposal into their niche.
  • Once you verify available funding, divide your efforts into three further phases: writing the proposal, marketing, and management.
  • Writing the proposal should take only about 40% of your time. Try to get program officials to review a 3-5 page summary of your plan first, to make sure you're on the right track.
  • Basic rules of proposal writing: don't ask for more than you need; take your time writing the proposal; never lie; never use the same application twice; be upfront about asking for money; and don't waste time getting to the point.
  • Don't overlook marketing. It should take at least 10% of your time. Make sure your organization will appeal to a potential funder, try to look professional, and involve key community figures where possible.
  • Management is vital. You must be able to demonstrate that you have the management skills and experience that can deliver success.
  • Know the funder. It's been estimated that your chances of success improve by as much as 300% when you make contact with the funder before and during the proposal-writing process. Don't ask for hidden agendas, but do find out about general trends or new ideas the funder is currently interested in.
  • Always work to a timetable. Make sure you have enough time to complete your application so it meets the funder's deadlines. If you don't have time to do it properly, don't compete for the grant at all.
  • Give thought to the idea of cooperation. Many funders, particularly federal agencies, like applications where more than one organization is involved. If you submit a cooperative proposal, remember to make sure that there is both a formal and informal relationship between grantees.
  • When dealing with any funder, but especially federal agencies, remember to read all the instructions before applying. It sounds simple, but federal competitions live by two rules:
    1. The agency is always right,
    2. and, When in doubt, refer to rule 1.
  • Don't just tell the funder about the existence of the problem you intend to solve. Prove it with statistics, case studies, testimony, and any other measurable data.
  • Know your budget. It's probably the first thing a funder will look at in your proposal. It needs to be realistic and give credibility to your entire proposal. Present the budget separately from the rest of the applications, make sure the figures are correct, and that the budget accurately reflects your needs. Keep a record of how you arrived at your costs.
  • A few other writing hints:
    1. Avoid filling your proposal with jargon.
    2. Begin each section with a strong, clear sentence.
    3. Don't go overboard, but do try to make your proposal interesting to read.
    4. Check with the funder to see if there s a preferred format, typestyle, etc.
  • If your proposal doesn't win support, keep calm. Never berate funding officials or grant reviewers. Try to get more information, and ask whether it would be worth submitting another application in the future. Go back over your proposal with care, and see if you can find places where it might have been stronger.
  • The key to a strong proposal is proving the likelihood that it will achieve its goals. Result areas should always be clearly determined, and evaluation criteria should be outlined. It may not be easy to do, but the value of having clear performance standards can t be overstated.
  • Remember that often the key to a strong proposal is simplicity. Don't waste words. Funders are looking for a proposal that will succeed, so keep things clear, factual, supportable, and professional.
  • Don't give in to pressure. A rushed proposal rarely wins. Keep a file with standard information enclosed and updated, like staff resumes and community statistical data, so you can concentrate on the specific grant information needed when the time comes to apply.
  • When dealing with foundation or corporate funders, don't underestimate the importance of the original contact letter. Make it as strong as possible, and keep it to the point.

Grant Tips

  • Explaining is not enough. -- Always discuss how your approach will improve the situation or improve state of the art or knowledge and explain why it is the appropriate path to take.
    When statistics or research findings are cited to support a statement or position, the source of the citation should be referenced in a footnote or reference list.
    Use simple, straightforward terms the goals should describe the intended consequences or expected overall effect of the proposed project and steer clear of the tasks or activities to be conducted.
    Avoid jargon or the use of any specialized vocabulary that is not readily understood by the public.
  • Carefully describe methodology -- Describe as concisely as possible how you propose to achieve your tasks. All proposed tasks should be set forth so a reviewer can see a logical progression of tasks and relate those tasks directly to the accomplishment of the project s goals.
    When in doubt about whether to provide a more detailed explanation or to assume a particular level of expertise or knowledge on the part of the reviewers, provide the additional information.
    A description of project tasks also will help identify necessary budget items. All staff positions and project costs should relate directly to the tasks described.
  • Include an evaluation component -- There must always be a pre-arranged mechanism to determine whether a project accomplishes the objective it was designed to meet.
    Concept papers and proposals should describe the criteria that will be used to evaluate the project's effectiveness and identify program elements that may require further modification.
    The description should include how the evaluation will be conducted, when it will occur during the project period, who will conduct it, and what specific measures will be used. In most instances, the evaluation would involve persons not otherwise connected with the project.
  • How will others find out? -- A plan to disseminate results, beyond the jurisdictions and individuals directly affected by the result, should always be included. The plan should identify the specific methods that will be used to inform the field about the project, such as publication or the distribution of key materials.
    A statement that a report or research findings will be made available is not sufficient. The specific means of distribution or dissemination, as well as the type of recipients, should be identified. Reproduction and dissemination costs are allowable budget items.
  • A clear, unambiguous budget -- Major categories such as personnel, benefits, travel, supplies, equipment, and indirect costs should be identified separately.
  • The components of "other" or "miscellaneous" items should be specified in the application budget narrative and should not include set-asides for undefined contingencies.
  • How much detail is necessary? -- The budget narrative of an application should provide the basis for computing all project-related costs. To avoid common shortcomings, be sure to include: personnel estimates that accurately provide the amount of time to be spent by personnel involved with the project and the total associated costs, including current salaries for the designated personnel; estimates for supplies and expenses supported by a complete description -- including anticipated telephone charges and other common expenses, with the basis for computing these estimates included.
  • What travel regulations apply? -- Transportation costs and per diem rates must comply with NMSU policies and a copy of the NMSU travel policy should be submitted as an appendix to the applications.
  • The budget narrative should state which regulations are in force for the project and should include the estimated fare, the number of persons traveling, the number of trips to be taken, and the length of the stay.
    The estimated cost of lodging, ground transportation, and other subsistence should be listed separately.

Tips from the National Science Foundation

The NSF tries to give 90-day lead time for special programs. It publishes a Year at a Glance calender in October.

  • According to a senior NSF officer, "Don't write a proposal until you've spoken to a program officer." Ask the program officer the following questions:

    1. What is the budget for the competition?
    2. How many proposals do you have (or expect)?
    3. How will the proposal get reviewed? (What is the reviewer makeup?)
  • Read the review criteria and review process sections in the solicitations.

  • When writing the proposal, think of yourself as writing to the people you cite in the bibliography.

  • Find out who will be on the review panel. Will the reviewers be a broad or narrow group? What are their interests? Are they specialists in the field or general reviewers?

  • PIs can suggest potential reviewers to the Program Officer (or can list people who should not review his/her proposal -- attach a rationale). People on such a list may or may not all be used, but program officers often are looking for qualified people to review proposals outside the program officer's area of expertise.

  • Volunteer to serve as a proposal reviewer. This experience will give you insight into what projects are funded and why. Also, you will clearly see what winning proposals look like.

  • Get internal technical and editorial reviews of your proposal before submitting it. Technical reviews should include at least one person outside the speciality to check for clarity. If that person has trouble understanding what you're trying to convey, then your writing either has too much specialized jargon or is unclear. Perhaps your ideas are not clearly formulated. An editorial review is good because grammatical errors, inconsistencies, or wordiness can be detected and corrected.