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Preparing the Narrative

First and foremost, read and follow the guidelines that 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 that the funding agency requests, but also adhere to all formatting requirements.  

Focus on RFP in the same way that 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 that 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 had used a slightly smaller font than was permitted (11.5 vs. 12 pt.). The program officer agreed that this violated the guidelines, and the proposal was rejected. If relatively minor formatting issues can sink a proposal, not providing the information requested in the RFP will surely 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 what you are proposing is in line 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 they 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 it 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 helping 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 why on reviewer criticized the organization of 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 major 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 that you have considered for addressing 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. The approach of 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 and that they will need to be addressed. Mentioning areas were challenges may be encountered and providing alternative solutions is advised, but it is important 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” that 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 role of a reviewer before you submit your proposals. Take any and all concerns that they raise seriously before submission. One of the most productive grant writing workshops that 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 not only provided insight into areas where I failed to convey my message, but it exposed me to other strategies for preparing proposals.   

Don’t be offended by reviewer’s 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 fully understand the project. This is a mistake because you may be missing a valuable opportunity to improve. Reflect on what you could have done to excite them and to 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.