Steps to Writing a Successful Grant

There are eight key elements in the successful writing of a grant proposal.

Consider first, the reviewer. Many competitive programs utilize review panels (especially for the Program Director. The more competitive the program, the more reviewers will look for reasons to reject proposals early on.

Verify the program/proposal match. Develop your funding search skills to find the most appropriate funding programs for your proposal. Study the program goals and eligibility, and make contact with the program officer before starting your proposal. Send a brief (2-3 short paragraphs) overview of your proposed project. Always inquire about alternative, more appropriate funding sources. Always remember: the program should fit your current funding priorities!

Organize/structure the proposal. Build your case by assembling the proposal in distinct sections:

  • Abstract (consider writing your abstract last; it will allow for more concise, project specific information)
  • Problem Statement or Significance of Research
  • Project Purpose (overall goal and specific objectives)
  • Research Design or workplan (activities and timelines)
  • Applicant qualifications and capabilities
  • Evaluation Plan
  • Budget (summary and justifications - refer back to the research design/workplan) - See Budget Preparation for more detail.
  • Appendix (everything else)

Prove the Importance of Your Project. State your purpose and case for need up front; build a compelling argument. Cite an authoritative source in support of your project/program.

Assume and Uninformed but Intelligent Reader. Use clear, accessible language. Stick with direct statements and an active voice. Avoid insider jargon and acronyms.

Illustrate a Detailed Project Plan. Specify major tasks and timelines. Use flow charts, calendars, etc. to visualize the project on a single page.

Pay attention to all Review Criteria. Read the evaluation standards carefully, then reference them in the project narrative. Touch all the bases, not just the ones you're comfortable with. Reviewers will use the criteria to score your proposal.

Follow the Application Instructions Exactly! Avoidable mistakes often include: late submission, narrative too long, fonts, margins, spacing too small, signatures or certifications missing, budget narrative missing, insufficient number of copies, inappropriate binding. The Grants and Contracts Office is here to help you with this. Remember: the sooner you contact us, the sooner we can help you submit a competitive proposal.

Structure/Formatting of the Proposal

The funding source will usually specify the contents and exact order in which the proposal should be submitted. Please do not be creative or improve on the funder's procedures. Some common components are described below.

Cover Page
Most funders specify the format for the cover page and provide special forms to summarize basic administrative and fiscal data for the project. The cover page must have the authorized administrative official signature.

The following items are typically included on the cover page, but always follow the prescribed format if one is provided:

  • Project title
  • Project summary
  • Total cost of project
  • Funds requested from sponsor
  • Name, position, address, phone number, email, and fax number of PI
  • Signature block for PI
  • Signature block for authorized administrative official
  • Name, position, address, phone number, email, and fax number of authorized administrative official

Abstract or Project Summary
Proposals often have an abstract or summary. Funders often use the abstract in their compilations of research projects funded or in disseminating information on successful projects.

Although the abstract often appears at the beginning of the proposal, the abstract should be written as a concise summary of the proposal.

Table of Contents
The convenience of the reader is the guiding consideration of producing a table of contents. Proposals should list all major parts and divisions including lists of illustrations, tables and appendices.

The introduction sets the tone of the proposal. The introduction outlines the goals of the project, how long it will take, and give enough background to enable the reviewers (who might not be experts in your field) of a particular project in a context of common knowledge.

Project Goals and Objectives
Goals and objectives are different and are clearly separated in the proposal. The goal of the project is what one hopes to accomplish as a result of the project. Objectives are statements of precise outcomes that can be measured in support of the goals. Objectives are SMART (specific, measurable, allocable, reasonable and time sensitive).

Review of Literature
Discussions of work done by others gives the reviewers the impression of how this project will build upon what has already been done by others. The literature will also highlight how the proposed project is different and unique from other projects. This is more prevalent in public proposals.

Description of Proposed Project
The project description is the heart of the proposal and is the primary concern of the technical reviewers.

  • Establish the need for the project and the benefits derived
  • Be realistic. Distinguish between long-range goals and the short-range objectives for which funding is being sought. Our eyes are often bigger than our stomachs and we take on more than is possible within the time or funding constraints.
  • Develop a clear timeline for your objectives
  • Clearly define the focus of the project, including its limits
  • Clearly identify the means of evaluating the data or the conclusions
  • Clearly describe the connection between the objectives and the methods to show that the approach is carefully developed and thought out

Plan of Action, Methodology and Design
While the description outlines in more general terms what the project is about and how long it will take to complete, the action plan spells out in specific steps and procedures how the project will take place.

In determining the total length of the project, it is important to remember to incorporate the hiring schedules in the total time needed to complete the project.

Current and Pending Support
Many funders request that applicants supply information on any active and pending support. The potential funders review the faculty/staff time allocations and other potential resources for funding in the pending section.

Evaluation represents the logical conclusion to the proposal and sends a clear message to the sponsor that the project is clearly thought out and that the PI is concerned that the stated goals have been achieved. A well developed evaluation process can create more carefully articulated project objectives.

(Some of the information on this page was adapted from Virginia Tech's "Writing Successful Grants" at http://www.research.vt.edu/ )