How To Write A Successful Proposal


A successful grant application/funding proposal is an exercise in communication. Its chief purpose is persuasion, not description.

A funding proposal needs to achieve the following functions:

  • A request: May I have money to do something?
  • An argument: What I propose is important because..?
  • A blueprint: This is how I will do it.
  • A promise: I will be able to do it.

Typically, the quality of the research proposed in the 10% below the cut-off for funding is not significantly different from the 10% above the cut-off.

What makes the difference is 'Grantsmanship'

Grantsmanship is all about revising and re-revising your application to make it well-focused, clear, well-organized and accurate.

Understanding the Reviewers

  • Always remember that the reviewers of your proposal may not be experts in your precise area of research. You are just as obligated to communicate with the non-expert as with the leading researchers in your field who know all the techniques and jargon
    • They may not fully understand the significance of the research area without a clear, compelling argument presented in the application
  • They may not know you personally or professionally and will need to be convinced of your level of independence, knowledge of the field, ability to design experiments with appropriate controls, ability to decide what to do if proposed experiments don't work out, etc.
    • It is your job to convince them

What are Reviewers Looking for?

  • Reviewers want answers to the obvious questions:
    • Who, What, How, How much, Will it fit the funding agency, Why is it worth doing, Why are you doing the work, Where is the work going, Will you be able to do it?
  • Reviewers look for evidence of sound reasoning:
    • Formulating hypotheses and testing them, good ideas, focused writing, and evidence of productivity and knowledge of proposed methodologies
  • Reviewers like attention to details:
    • good grammar, correct spelling, no typos, following the instructions, an easy-to-read format, neatness.
    • If you can't write the grant carefully, how carefully will you do the research?
  • Reviewers don't like surprises:
    • altered format, instructions ignored, information missing or abandoned to the appendix rather than placed in the body of the proposal

Key Tip: Think like a Reviewer

  • You want the reviewers to be your enthusiastic champions and advocates. Generate confidence — a luke-warm review is usually fatal
  • Your proposal needs to be inviting and interesting to read from the very start (ie. a very well written abstract). The Reviewer shouldn’t groan and avoid reading the proposal. He/she should want to find out what it is about, find it easy and interesting to read
  • Remember that the reviewers are doing the reviews as a task over and above their daily mandated activities, and are often unpaid
  • They may be overwhelmed with applications and manuscripts requiring reviews
  • They often carry out the reviews under less than ideal conditions (evenings, weekends, holidays, at meetings, or even on the way to review committee meetings). They may wait until the last minute to begin their review
  • Reviewers often do their reading in bits-and-pieces

Successful Applications

Key Tips

  • Read the Applicants Guides, FAQs, terms & conditions and any other relevant documentation (including Funding Agency priorities, mission statements, Government Policy documents etc.)
  • Make an outline to ensure application follows agency instructions meticulously and includes all information requested by the agency
  • Ensure your writing is accurate, clear, brief:
    • Include appropriately designed & labelled tables, figures, images to support text if possible
    • Ensure they agree with the text (e.g. units, legends etc)
    • Include relevant references
    • Don’t underestimate the importance of project abstract/overview/summary
    • Clarity – Do not overcomplicate proposal. It should ‘flow’...
    • Construct your proposal with assessment criteria in mind
    • Give your proposal to 3 people to review:
      • Someone who understands your specific research – to check accuracy
      • Someone who is not in your specific research area – to check clarity
      • Someone who can edit
    • Most agencies ask for suggestions regarding reviewers:
      • Make sure you can rely on those you suggest
      • Make sure you give their correct current contact details

Successful Proposals Usually……

  • Excite the reviewers
  • Are easy to read and understand
  • Have an appropriate literature review
  • Have clear rationale & objectives that fit the funder’s program priorities
  • Have Collaborators
  • Clearly state hypotheses or research questions
  • Clearly state learning objectives and expected outcomes/impacts for education and extension portion of the project (What will be different as a result of the proposed work?)
  • Have specific objectives, methods, work plan, etc. for research, education, and extension components – for integrated proposals
  • Have communicated the importance of the topic and the potential contributions of the work
  • Contain a detailed project description - methods, sample selection, analysis, educational program delivery, instructional materials development, etc.
  • Include a strong discussion of expected outcomes
  • Address all potential pitfalls, including short-comings of data and amelioration plans
  • Contain a good plan for dissemination of results and use of research results in education programs, economic development activities
  • Have applicants with the required expertise and track record
  • Were critically reviewed by colleagues before submission
  • Follow the proposal submission rules ‘to the letter’

Proposals with Lower Ratings Usually….

  • Describe research project that are of little or no relevance to funder’s mission and/or programme priorities
  • Exceed page limits, are poorly written, and have unclear objectives or hypotheses
  • Describe objectives that are not cohesive or integrated
  • Have low academic merit, basic flaws in logic, and demonstrate a lack of understanding
  • Lack innovation with little in the way of new information being gained (‘fishing expeditions’)
  • Use inappropriate methods or the proposed methods are too vague
  • Have issues with the track record of the applicant
  • The proposal includes a lifetime’s work and is unrealistically ambitious
  • There are no clearly defined priorities and the timetable (if present) is unrealistic, with no sense of what can realistically be accomplished during the term of the grant
  • The literature and background reviews are uncritical. They read like an undergraduate review
  • There are no results of pilot studies or other preliminary data
  • The budget is unrealistic

To Avoid these Pitfalls….

  • Learn from successful grant applications submitted by researchers in your field
  • Learn from experience: Incorporating constructive criticism from the reviewers of previous submission(s) can make a big difference.
  • Give yourself enough time: Start application as soon as possible and know your capabilities and limitations
  • Know the funding body, their motivations and how they are assessed.
  • Know your subject
  • Be prepared to write several drafts
  • Ask colleagues for help and listen to their critique

Research and Innovation

Taighde agus Nuálaíocht

Office of Vice President for Research & Innovation 4th Floor Block E, Food Science Building UCC