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Guide to Successful Proposal Preparation


Preparing a Successful Proposal

The development of successful proposals takes time.   Begin the search for funding early.  Plan to spend more time planning, brainstorming and researching your idea than actually writing the proposal.  However, allow plenty of time for writing, review and editing. 

Something to keep in mind - If it were your money, what would you want to know about how it will be used?

Regardless of your discipline or the funding agency, certain rules of grantseeking apply to all grant proposals.

If you are applying to federal government sources, certifications and regulations will apply and you should be familiar with that division’s most current policies and procedures.(e.g. National Science Foundation , National Institutes of Health ).

It all starts with an idea!  Every successful grant project began with someone’s idea.  Below are some general tips for turning your idea into a successful proposal.

Questions Your Proposal Must Answer

What do you want to do?
You should be able to summarize your proposal in a few sentences. Avoid jargon. Provide a short project summary even if it's not required. Make it easy for reviewers to find the answers to questions they might have.

Why do you want to do it?
Why is it important that this project be done? Convey your enthusiasm. There must be a better reason than "it hasn't been done before."

How are you going to do it?
When and where? Provide a specific timeline. Demonstrate that you have the necessary equipment and other resources.

How much will it cost?
In addition to a basic budget (or required budget forms) provide a "Budget Justification" -- detailed information on each budget item. Show how you arrived at your figures.

Why are you the one to do it?
What special credentials do you have?  How are we uniquely positioned to do the project at IWU?

What good will come from it?
Your answer will depend in part on the goals of the funding source. Typically you will need to describe the contribution to the discipline and to society in general. You may also need to address the benefit your project will have for your career or for Illinois Wesleyan University and/or its students.

How will you show that it's been done and evaluate its success?
This answer also depends on the goals and requirements of the funding source. At a minimum, indicate how you plan to disseminate the results of the project.  Assessment is critical to the proposal as well as the project itself.

Steps for Proposal Development: See the Faculty Checklist as well.

1.      Start with a one paragraph abstract or one- or two-page concept draft, outlining your goals and needs.  Provide concise answers to the questions above. This can be a very informal document or outline. It should outline the key aspects of the project and to help you shape the case you’ll make.

2.      Share your idea and concept draft with external and internal colleagues, the Grants office, Department chair, Provost, Associate Provost, etc.   Consider the context of your project; in terms of your own professional path, your department/division’s goals and plans, and the University’s goals and plans.  Look at how your project fits into these areas over the next 3-5 years. 

3.      Make revisions to your draft as needed, continue researching relevant data and research that speaks to the need for your project and start listing the resources you will need to complete the project.

4.      Research your potential funding sources:      

         a.       Databases – free and paid subscription.  See find grants portion of the web page.

         b.      Closely read the guidelines and funding priorities of potential sources.  Non-profit organizations’ 990 IRS    forms are available for free at .  The Grants office can check their financial status and what types of projects or organizations they have funded in the past.  Also check their website and those of projects they have funded for clues about their priorities.

         c.       Meet with Grants office staff to identify other potential sources.

         d.      Keep up to date on opportunities that may be shared within your field.  You are the expert in your field. As you read about funders’ priorities and programs, you may see possibilities and connections that others less familiar with your research goals may miss 

A note about funding sources: You may have more funding options if you can be flexible about aspects of your project that could be attractive to private foundations or government agencies. For example, perhaps some work that you planned to do on campus can be partially accomplished in the City of Bloomington, which may create an opportunity to work with a local foundation or government body.  That being said, don’t change the core aspects of your project to fit the guidelines of a foundation or government opportunity; don’t “chase the money”.

5.      Identify funding source and appropriate deadlines.  Does your project fit with their priorities?  Is the deadline realistic?  Read the guidelines. Read them again. Draft a timeline/action plan for both the project and the proposal preparation process.  Meet with the GFR office to assist in creating or to share your action plans and to mark deadlines.

6.      Forms and documents: Complete an IWU Grant Proposal Review Form and get signatures.   Read over funder guidelines again for other documents that are necessary: letters of support from collaborators, tax-exempt status proof, Certificate of Good Standing, etc.  Include these documents in your timeline for proposal preparation.

7.      Prepare proposal budget.  Make sure to use any forms or templates the funder provides, exactly the way they instruct.  If they do not provide a format for the budget, use the Budget template and Creating a Budget for Your Proposal instructions.  Contact the Grants office for assistance in creating a proposal budget.     

8.      Prepare a first draft of entire proposal, following all instructions. Read the guidelines carefully and follow them exactly to be sure you answer all the questions.  Proposals may be rejected for failure to observe page limitations, type sizes, deadlines, CV formats and other requirements.  Share with at least one colleague who will provide constructive feedback and the Grants office. If the funder does not provide an outline or headings, make sure to give careful attention to the organization of your proposal. Use subheads, transitions, summaries and other tools to help the reader.  A listing of typical proposal component headings are available on the grants web page.  Remember, your proposal will be one of dozens or hundreds of proposals under review at the same time  

      a.  Know your audience and write accordingly. Will your proposal be reviewed by peers or by other professionals who may not know your field? For many private foundations, a good rule of thumb is to write clearly for the non-expert.

      b.      Anticipate reviewers’ questions and address them in your narrative. Don’t make reviewers guess about anything.

      c.       Show rather than tell. Use data to support claims. Write with nouns rather than adjectives. Use concrete language.

      d.      Address assessment and evaluation (if not in application format).  What will success look like?  How will it be measured?  How will you disseminate results?

      e.       Address context of project within own research, department or division plans, University’s goals, strategies, larger community.  Will the project go forward or continue if grant funding is not received?

      f.       Address the larger impact on the discipline, students, teaching.  Can this project be replicated?  Organizations may want to know how they will benefit from the study or how society in general will benefit.

9.      Review the funder’s guidelines, feedback from first draft, your professional development plan, and make revisions to the proposal. 

10.  Send the revised draft to a trusted reviewer who will offer clarity and suggestions.  Remember to have thick skin!

11.  Make any revisions from trusted reviewer(s) and have your final draft proofread for typos or errors. 

12.  Submit the proposal!  Whew!  Relax and take a short break!

13.  Outline your next steps; waiting can be frustrating, so think about what you will do if you get the funding.  Go back over the project timeline.  What if the answer is “no”?  Get access to the reviewer comments if possible and get ready to revise and submit the proposal elsewhere.