How to Write Grants

Step 1: Match Your Interests

The initial step in pursuit of external funding is to match your interests with available funding opportunities. This can be done in one of two ways:

  1. You may already have a project, and you then try to find a suitable sponsor, OR
  2. You search through the available funding opportunities to find if they match your expertise and interests, and then develop a project.

You will need to go through the following steps, although the order of execution may differ depending on which of the above two approaches you take.

  • Clarify your specific area(s) of interest (make a list of descriptive "key words")
  • Identify potential funding opportunities. These sources can be identified by:
    • having OSP perform a customized search to match your interest(s) with available opportunities;
    • at the library, reading publications such as the Federal Register, NIH Guide, etc.;
    • consulting with your colleagues.
    • Obtain the guidelines or RFP (Request for Proposal) for the specific program you plan to pursue.

Step 2: Write a Concept Paper

A Concept Paper is a brief (2-4 page) description of your project idea. Developing a Concept Paper enables you to organize, think through, and refine your ideas. Many funding agencies require the submission of a pre-proposal as an initial step in the application process. The agency will review this pre-proposal to determine if it is interested in your project and if it wishes you to submit a full proposal. The Concept Paper can be utilized as a pre-proposal to be submitted to potential funding sources. Even if a concept paper is not required by the funding agency, it will serve as the basis for developing a full proposal.

The Concept Paper should have many of the elements of a full proposal as described below. The exact content and format depend on the specific funding opportunity.

Step 3: Proposal Development

Before beginning to draft your proposal, read the Request For Proposals (RFP) carefully and familiarize yourself with its basic structure and format. If there are ambiguities in the RFP, call the program officer with specific questions. Knowing the information that will be required before you start writing will save you time and allow you to approach your draft in a more organized fashion.

Remember that the proposal reviewer's time is limited, and the intent of your proposal must be ascertained as quickly as possible. A proposal with sound structure, informative content, and clear language will create the most favorable impression because of its genuine assistance to the evaluator. The proposal must be objectively written and guide the reader's judgment in a single direction-the acceptance of the proposed program. This involves the art of persuasion without using a blatant advertising approach.

NOTE: In preparing a proposal, it is desirable for the proposal draft to be reviewed and edited by a person knowledgeable in the same field to assure that your project is logically organized and complete; it is also recommended to have a reader from outside your field review your draft for clarity.

Writing your proposal will be greatly enhanced by following the process outlined below. By addressing each point in the order presented, you will have composed a "generic" proposal that can easily be adapted to conform to the specific program guidelines of any funding agency. Most agency guidelines share basic similarities for the format of proposals. However, it is extremely important to adhere to the specific guidelines of the agency to which one is applying.

Problem Statement

Questions to be addressed in this section include: What is the problem? Why is it a problem? To what extent does the problem exist? Who is affected? What has already been done to address this problem and why is this not sufficient?

Begin with the broad problem and then relate it to the smaller or contributing problem(s) that you plan to address. Be sure to draw on the literature of the field and document your sources, both in stating the problem and past efforts to remedy it. Be very specific, citing statistics or other relevant data.

The problem statement should be clear to an informed lay person. It should give enough background to place the particular project in a context of common knowledge and should show how the work will advance the field or be important for some other work. State specifically the importance of the project. In introducing a research problem, it is often helpful to say what the project will not address, especially if it could be easily confused with related work. It may also be necessary to explain the underlying assumption of the research.

For a research proposal, a discussion of past work conducted by others should lead the reader to a clear impression of how the principal investigator will be building upon what has already been done, and how this new work differs from the previous efforts. It is important to establish what is original in the approach, what circumstances have changed since related work was done, or what is unique about the time and place of the proposed research. Literature reviews should be selective and critical. Reviewers do not want to read through a voluminous working bibliography. They want to know the especially pertinent works and the project director's evaluation of them. Simply listing previous works contributes almost nothing to a proposal.

Project Objectives

Questions to be addressed in this section include: What do you propose to do about this problem? When? Where? With whom? In what order? To what extent? With what results?

The objectives of a project are its expected accomplishments. They should be presented in a format which parallels your Problem Statement. Begin with the long-range objectives as they relate to the broad problem; then specify your immediate or short-term objectives as they relate to the specific or contributing problem(s) you plan to address. Be clear and precise about what you plan to do, when you will do it, and how you expect to show you have accomplished your objectives.

When relevant, state how the anticipated results will contribute to the body of knowledge in this area or contribute to addressing a social or organizational need. Show why the contribution is important to the evaluator. Although it may sound commercial, this is the technical "sell" of the proposal. It is important because it helps the sponsoring agency rationalize its support.

Methodology

Questions to be addressed in this section include: What is your specific plan of action? How and why did you choose this particular plan? Is it the only way? Did you consider other methods and, if so, what was wrong with them? Can you do what you propose? Do you have the training, staff, facilities, etc.?

This section details the methods you will use to reach your objectives. They should be presented in a format which directly relates to the stated objectives (each objective should be matched to a corresponding method statement). The description of your methods is at the heart of the proposal and should provide the most information and detail. You must justify your choice of method, again drawing on the literature of the field to show why alternative methods have not succeeded and how the one you have selected is best. Also, include the credentials that will enable you and the other project personnel to carry our this project successfully. Discuss the parts of your background that are relevant to your proposed project, citing specific education, experience, professional activities, etc.

Project Personnel

This section of the proposal usually consists of two parts: the proposed personnel arrangements and the biographical data sheets for each of the main contributors to the project. The investigator should specify who will be participating in the project, their academic categories, and the percentage of their time working on the project. Student participation, paid or unpaid, also should be mentioned. It must be stated if any persons must be hired for the project and, if so, an explanation of why they must be hired, along with a description of the qualifications desired.

The biographical data sheets should immediately follow the explanatory text of the personnel section, unless the agency guidelines specify a different format. For a major program proposal with eight or more staff members, the data sheets may be included in an appendix. Although the specific credentials of all project personnel are contained in their vitae, the correlation between these credentials and their ability to carry out specific project objectives should be addressed in the above section on methodology.

Institutional Resources

This section includes information on your institution, its resources and background. Generally, it details the resources available and, if possible, shows why the sponsor should wish to choose this University and the faculty involved for a particular project.

In addition, you must show that the institution and the project you propose are a good fit-that Bradley is an "ideal" place to conduct this work and that it can support and strengthen the project. Some relevant points to emphasize might be the institution's demonstrated competency in the project area, its special facilities or support services, or its association with other agencies.

Evaluation

Questions to be addressed in this section include: How will you know if your objectives have been reached? What will you do to measure the results? How will you evaluate these results? When will evaluation occur? Who will perform the evaluation? Be as specific as possible in laying out your evaluation section.

Funding agencies are increasingly requiring detailed evaluation plans designed to accurately determine the success of your project in meeting its stated objectives. Again, this section should be presented in a format which directly corresponds to the project objectives (each objective should have a method for evaluating its success). There are several types of evaluations: formative, summative, impact and process. The plan you choose depends on your particular project and its objectives. You might want to use a consultant in the writing or actual implementation of your evaluation plan.

Dissemination

Questions to be addressed in this section include: How will the results of this project be disseminated? To Whom? When? Where?

Dissemination is the act of making the results known to the funder, to the project participants, to your own institution, to other professionals in your field both locally and nationwide, and to the general public. These audiences may be interested in the results for different reasons, and, thus, may require different methods of dissemination. Some traditional methods of dissemination include: journal articles, formal reports, presentations at professional meetings and conferences, media presentations, and electronic databases. Funding agencies want to ensure that, not only will your project be successful, but that the results will be shared.

Budget

The budget tells the funder if you really know what you are doing. It will be examined to see if it is large enough to cover the activities you propose, but not padded to buy "extra" things not directly related to the project.

Most funding agencies provide specific guidelines and formats for presenting your budget. Generally, costs are broken down into direct costs (personnel, fringe benefits, travel, materials, equipment, consultants, printing) and indirect costs (overhead, also called Facilities and Administrative (F&A) costs by the federal government). Fringe benefits are a pooled cost containing required costs for employment at Bradley, such as FICA (Social Security). The current rate is 25% for Full-time Bradley University employee wages (including grants, contracts, etc.) and 10.0% for Part-time employees and extra compensation/summer and winter interims for full-time Bradley University employees. Fringe benefits for employees are not waived in grant proposals where they are an allowable cost. However, fringe benefits are not calculated against undergraduate and graduate student salaries. Bradley University calculates indirect costs as 52% of direct labor costs (excluding fringe benefits). Some agencies require cost sharing or a matching contribution that is a specified percentage of the total funding requested.

In addition to the annual and cumulative budget forms, a detailed budget narrative is usually required by most funding agencies. Organized to correspond to the budget form, the need for each item should be explained and, in the case of personnel, the calculations used to come up with the total requested should be presented. Every budget item must be accounted for somewhere in the text, and every expense-generating activity mentioned in the text must be reflected in the budget.

NOTE: OSP can provide assistance with budget preparation and should be consulted early in the proposal development process to ensure that all necessary items are reflected both in the budget and in the narrative. For a more in-depth look at budget rules and guidelines, see the next section on "The Budget."

If any revisions are made to a proposal budget any time after it has been submitted, the revisions must be processed through the same University channels as the original proposal. This is required regardless of whether the proposal is pending or approved by the agency.

Multi-year Budgets: Generally, the budget for all years of a multi-year project is reviewed and approved before the project begins. Thus it is important that enough funds be included in the budget to cover cost increases after the first year. But even with one year projects it is necessary to anticipate cost increases because there is frequently a six to twelve month lag between proposal submission and funding. Cost increases result from salary increases for project staff, vendor price projections, inflation, or simply, professional judgment and experience. 3-4% cost increases per year, particularly for salary, is the norm unless justified in the proposal and budget justifications.

Project Abstract

The abstract is the proposal condensed to its basic components. It should engage the reviewer and encourage further reading. The abstract is often the most important part of your proposal. Although it is written last, it appears at the beginning of your proposal and forms the reviewers first impression. It should be a very clear, direct statement of the project, generally not exceeding 200 words. It is important to state any novelty in the project itself or in the methodology. Each sentence should say something specific and worth knowing about the following topics:

  • Subject: What is the project about?
  • Purpose and Significance: Why is this project being undertaken? What is to be accomplished? Why is this important?
  • Activities: What will be done? What methods will be used?
  • Target Population: What group is being studied or served?
  • Expected Outcomes: What findings or results will be produced? To whom will these be useful? How will they advance knowledge or the state-of-the-art in your profession?
  • Not all agencies or sponsors require project abstracts (NSF does, however). As a result, refer to the sponsor guidelines first.