Preparing the Narrative


The narrative’s goal is to convince the reviewer(s) that you are the right person to complete the described project. Your proposal must be organized, well written, and include all of the requested information. This seems relatively simple, but most proposals fail due to an inability to deliver what the reviewer(s) need to be excited about the project.

  • First and foremost, read and follow the guidelines the funding agency has prepared. They are commonly referred to as requests for proposals (RFP), solicitations, or invitations to participate. Your proposal must provide the content the funding agency requests and adhere to all formatting requirements.
    • Focus on RFP in the same way you expect students to address the guidelines for completing an assignment in your courses. What do most of us do when our students don't follow assignment guidelines?  
    • Personal Experience:  While serving on a review panel for a foundation, one of the proposals we were asked to review was clearly the strongest that was submitted. The research and assessment plans were clearly presented, logical, and supported by preliminary data, and the goals were lofty but attainable during the funding period. When we met to discuss the proposals, no one else had reviewed this particular proposal. The authors used a slightly smaller font than was permitted (11.5 vs. 12 pt.). The program officer agreed that this violated the guidelines and rejected the proposal. If relatively minor formatting issues can sink a proposal, not providing the information requested in the RFP will undoubtedly lead to a denial.
  • After developing a preliminary plan (sometimes referred to as a white paper), strongly consider reaching out to the funding agency/program officer to ensure that your proposal aligns with the foundation's funding priorities. 
    • Personal Experience:  While attending a conference, a funding agency held a breakout session on their current funding priorities. During the session, the presenter stressed, "we will not fund _________." During the previous funding cycle, I had submitted a proposal asking them to fund exactly what they were not interested in funding. At one time, they had funded what I had proposed but had changed their priorities.  
  • Don't bury the objectives for your proposed work too late in the narrative. Many grant seekers start their proposals with a detailed introduction to the problem they are trying to address. This is wonderful because it sets the stage for why the problem needs to be addressed and demonstrates to the reviewers that you understand previous work in the area. However, some reviewers may lose interest and never get to the heart of your proposal. Succinctly state the problem, summarize your plan to solve the problem, and then go into more detail. Agencies, and therefore reviewers, are often overwhelmed by the volume of proposals that are submitted. Some reviewers will primarily focus on the executive summary/abstract. Some will skim the proposal for key points, and others will read the entire document in detail. A carefully crafted proposal can accommodate all three review styles. 
  • Use headers to help reviewers navigate the proposal. This relates to the previous recommendation. By assisting the reviewer(s) find what they need to evaluate your proposal, they will have a more favorable impression of the proposal's organization. 
    • Personal Experience:  Upon reading a reviewer's comments from a denied funding request, I was confused as to why one reviewer criticized my proposal while another commended me for the proposal's organization. A former program director recommended that in my resubmission, I start with a summary of the work and add subheadings to the proposal's significant sections. I was funded during the next funding cycle, and there were no comments about the proposal's organization. It is crucial to consider different review styles.
  • Don't promise more than you can deliver.Reviewers know that there are only so many hours in the day. It is tempting to add every approach you consider to address your objectives. However, if you propose to do more than can be achieved during the funding period, reviewers may question your decision-making ability and, therefore, your fundability. In addition, if you are funded but fail to achieve several of your proposed objectives, it will reduce your chances of having renewal requests funded. Including too much may also cause reviewers to conclude that you are planning to try everything you can think of until you find something that works. The goal is to demonstrate that you can follow a logical path to achieve your objectives. Reviewers know that you will encounter obstacles that need to be addressed. It is advised to mention areas where challenges may be encountered and provide alternative solutions, but it is essential to keep the proposal focused. 
  • Find others to proofread and CRITIQUE your proposal. Receiving constructive criticism from a trusted colleague can be one of the most valuable “gifts” we can receive during our careers. In proposal preparation, that gift can significantly improve the chances that a project is funded. Finding talented proofreaders is incredibly helpful, but you also want to find individuals who will provide a critique of your proposal. In other words, try to find individuals who will take on the reviewer role before you submit your proposals. Take any and all concerns that they raise seriously before submission. One of the most productive grant writing workshops I have ever participated in required the participants to bring a completed draft of a proposal to the workshop. We then exchanged proposals and provided one another with comments. This exercise provided insight into areas where I failed to convey my message clearly and exposed me to other strategies for preparing proposals. 
  • Don’t be offended by reviewers’ comments if a proposal is denied.Use the comments to write more competitive proposals in the future. It is tempting to conclude that they didn’t read the proposal or they didn’t have the background to understand the project fully. This is a mistake because you may miss a valuable opportunity to improve. Reflect on what you could have done to excite them and keep their attention as they read your proposal. 
  • If they didn’t understand your proposal, critically review what you submitted. Did you provide a clear strategy for achieving your objectives? Did you prepare a proposal that was appropriate for your audience? Did you give them what was requested in the RFP?

Much of this may seem like common sense, but it is amazing how many people get caught up in their work and forget to provide reviewers with the information they need to effectively evaluate a proposal.