Office of Sponsored Programs Maggie's Hints and Tips

Proposal Development (green section)

General Hints and Tips


Problems with goals

Inappropriate for sponsor

Not responsive to guidelines

Outcomes not measurable

Inattention to guidelines

Poor administrative detail

Budget not realistic

Not specific

Top-heavy staffing

Experience not appropriate

Presentation problems

Assumes reviewers know things they don't

Lack of awareness of existing work

No recognition of possible problems

Unbalanced presentation

Interestingly enough, these errors are derived from the results of two studies, one taking place in the late 1960s and the other in the early 1990s. The results were virtually identical.

In addition, each of the errors directly correlates to one of my Three Laws of Grant Writing:

  1. Do your homework.
  2. Follow directions.
  3. Use common sense.


  • Get started. As with most tasks, once you take the first few steps, your momentum builds. Write your first draft today. Don't be concerned about grammar or spelling. You can correct such errors in later drafts.
  • Incorporate only the most significant supportive data in the body of the proposal. Put the rest in your addendum.
  • Don't leave anything for the reader to guess or assume. If you didn't include something in your proposal or addendum, then the sponsor will probably conclude that it wasn't part of your program, or even worse - that you overlooked it through ignorance or didn't include it through arrogance.
  • Read the RFP carefully, highlighting or outlining exactly what is being asked for. If you miss any of the information requested, you can be out of the running immediately. In fact, with electronic submissions, if you miss an essential form or category, your proposal will not be accepted at all!
  • Match what is being requested with the proposal evaluation criteria.
  • Set a proposal timetable to be sure you can make the proposal deadline.
  • If working with a committee, be explicit about instructions, responsibilities and expectations. Get commitments and set hard deadlines.
  • Put yourself in the reviewers shoes -- or eyes and mind, as is the case. Don't add superlative stuff. Make your proposal easy on the reviewer.
  • Don't be afraid to dream, but be realistic.
  • Do not neglect your evaluation component.
  • Prepare an accurate, workable budget. Too flabby and you may not be funded. Too light and you may get funding for a program you have insufficient resources to complete. You set yourself up for failure. Remember, if sponsors are impressed with the narrative pan of your grant, generally the budgets are negotiable.
  • Beauty IS skin deep - and that goes for proposals too. Great looks and super graphics but no content is not salable. Sponsors want content.
  • Simple language, clear description, concise - dot your I’s and cross your T’s.
  • Make use of all the resources and resource people you can, taking nothing or nobody for granted.
  • Well written proposals are defined as clear, concise, readable, with the appropriate literary style and the absence of jargon. Guide your reviewer through the proposal with subheads, suitable paragraph breaks, etc.
  • You must demonstrate:

-you have done your homework and are not being duplicative

-the project is relevant to the funding source, is important and will address a critical need

-you have selected a sound, feasible approach and tangible results justify the resources requested

-staff/organization/researcher have the capability, credibility and experience needed to make the project succeed

  • Do not emphasize style; emphasize content

-balance concise with sufficient detail

-have logical flow while still following specified format

-do not bury important points in flowery prose or lengthy introductions

-minimize charts, graphs, pictures unless required or they are truly indicative. Not all people read pictures well. You must also say it.

  • Read all forms and instructions carefully

-outline the proposal sections and what is required for each

-note any areas that are unclear and ask the program officer when you make contact

  • Adapt the language of the proposal to the funding agency

-do not use jargon, but do use terms they have fostered

-define technical phrases unless they are commonly used

-write as if for generalists

-do not use acronyms unless commonly used - always define the first time used

  • Do have someone read the proposal -- in your field, out of your field, successful grant seekers, grant reviewers
  • Start with outcomes. Be specific in achievements and design your project back from these outcomes. This applies also to research questions. Based on your preliminary data and a literature review, what questions do you seek to answer?
  • Carefully match your goals and outcomes with those required by the grant advertisement.
  • Talk to the grant contact person to get specific information about the purpose and goals of the grant.
  • Find research to support your project idea. Programs that have been previously validated have more merit because they have shown success in the past.
  • Get assistance from organization to help with any red tape or information you might need to complete your grant proposal.
  • Make your grant proposal interesting to read through good formatting.
  • Remember people are going to judge your ideas against others and a pleasing and a well organized presentation will get you further. Include charts; use appropriate indentations.
  • Use language to your advantage. Quote from notable sources.
  • As you write your strategies for the grant proposal, keep assessment methods in mind. Think about how you are going to measurably show what you will accomplish.
  • Look closely at any funding rules to make sure you do not ask for items that the grant will not fund. For example, Federal grants do not allow for the purchase of gifts or alcohol.
  • See if matching funds are required and determine where these funds, cash or in-kind, will come from.
  • Do you need outside evaluators? If so, you might have to pay for them out of your funding.
  • Make sure your budget narrative and your budget summary match exactly.
  • Determine what kind of organizational approvals are necessary. For example, for a county grant, the legislature must endorse it.
  • Make a database if one is not currently available to you of important demographic numbers and statistics. Place this information in your grant proposals as requested highlighting special needs.
  • Get to know grant contact personnel. Build a relationship – a good one!
  • If you plan to write numerous grants, create templates for commonly needed forms. This is especially useful for state and federal grant that repeat a lot of the same information.
  • Be honest both in the grant proposal itself and with yourself concerning what you can actually accomplish. Remember, you have to follow through with whatever plans you make.

Office of Sponsored Programs

E230 Thompson Hall
State University of New York at Fredonia
Fredonia, NY 14063
(716) 673-3528 phone