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Proposal Development Guidelines

General Advice

The preparation of a proposal is a shared process. OSPR cannot write proposals. That critical task is the responsibility of the faculty or staff member(s) and others involved. OSPR will assist you in meeting all of the sponsor requirements and in interpreting their RFPs or other literature. You should pay particular attention to the deadlines for submitting your proposal and start working with OSPR a number of weeks before that date.

Preparing your application may take weeks or months, and receiving a response could take six months to a year, so get started well in advance of the application deadline. The OSPR will provide assistance throughout the process.

Planning and Developing Your Idea

Sponsored funding is earned through well-crafted and planned proposals and a commitment to conduct the project with interest and enthusiasm.  Funded projects are usually those that are (a) consistent with the interest of the funding source; (b) supportive of the institutional mission of the University; (c) deemed valuable, relevant, plausible, and timely; and (4) presented in convincing and creative proposals.

A competitive proposal may take several months to plan, develop, and submit to a funding source.  The following steps will assist you in developing  your idea and planning your project:

Step 1: Identify a specific problem or need associated with your idea.  Sponsors want to help solve problems, not finance the chasing of ideas. Next, define your objectives; that is, what you want to accomplish. It is important to focus on the product of your project or what it will accomplish, rather than on a need such as equipment or time. Decide which activities are necessary for you to reach your goals.

Step 2: Discuss your idea with others to help clarify it.Discuss the project with your department chair and dean to determine suitability and availability of facilities needed. Discuss your proposal idea with OSPR so we can begin a search for possible funding sources if you do not have a source in mind.

Step 3: Flesh out your idea into a tangible, fundable project. Consider that your talent and expertise are being solicited by government agencies and private foundations to help them reach their goals. You are not asking for money, rather you are presenting a service

Proposal Guidelines

The application instructions or sponsors’ guidelines will usually contain detailed instructions on the document format and required components. Depending on the sponsor, some or all of the following may be required in a proposal. Always follow the agency guidelines when writing the proposal. Not adhering to the guidelines can cause the proposal to be disqualified.

In general, both federal and non-federal sponsors require the following:

Abstract or Project Summary

The abstract is a concise (usually not more than one page in length) summary of the proposed activity.  An effective project summary should include a synopsis of the project objectives, methods to be employed, and the potential impact or significance of the proposed activity to the advancement of knowledge or education. It should be informative to other persons working in the same or related fields, and understandable to a scientifically or technically literate lay reader.

Reviewers will usually read this section first. Interest often can be captured at this point if the summary is written in clear and concise terms. On the other hand, a poorly conceived project summarycan bias the reader against the rest of your proposal.

Project Narrative or Research Plan

The narrative should clearly define what the problem is and why it is worth solving. Too broad a topic can make the investigator appear as if the agency is being asked to support a fishing expedition. Too narrow a problem raises the question as to why funds should be allocated for a trivial pursuit.

An effective project narrative should include a review of the current literature, a rationale for the proposed project, services, or research, a discussion of the potential advances that are expected as a result of the proposed activity, and the specific contributions the proposed work will make toward expanding or developing the knowledge or technology base.


The objectives section details what the investigator expects to accomplish, that is the outcome, product, or service, attendant with the need statement, or central hypothesis. A cardinal rule, when formulating your objectives, is the more specific they are, the better. Whenever possible, provide a metric that allows project results to be measured.

Plan of Action or Methodology

The methodology or project action plan provides the reviewer with a nuts and bolts view as to how the project is to be carried out. Grant reviewers are especially concerned about the relevance of the methodology to the objectives of the project. The writer is advised to justify the selection of a specific method or use of a particular statistical test. The proposal writer may include in this section a description of his or her preliminary work completed on the proposal activity to demonstrate his/her familiarity with the proposed plan of action.


Most sponsors require a list of key personnel being proposed to work on the project, as well as their roles.  A brief description of each team member should be prepared, indicating his or her professional experience and how he or she will contribute to the project. Key personnel include the PD and his/her co-investigators at the University or from a collaborating institution(s) and any consultants or other subrecipients.

Facilities and Resources

The emphasis in this section should be on the institutional facilities and resources that are beneficial to the success of the project. Facilities and resources such as computer labs, libraries, technical support, research instrumentation, laboratories, conference or meeting space, media equipment, established collaborations and partnership(s) may be described in such a proposal. The information provided is used by reviewers to assess the adequacy of the institutional facilities and resources available for performance of the work proposed in the project description section.


A very important part of a project is a well-designed plan for evaluation. All funding agencies highly stress the importance of a proper assessment of the achievement of project goals and objectives. Evaluation can be formative (process) and/ or summative (product). Formative evaluation provides feedback as a program progresses and it facilitates appropriate decision making on a day-to-day basis. Summative evaluation measures program attainments, including the outcome of the project and the achievement of goals

Budget and Justification

The budget is the Project Director’s best estimate of the total cost to conduct the proposed project and of the funding which will be required from the sponsor. All too often, the budget is the next-to-the-last (after the project summary) part of a proposal to be done. In the last-minute rush of proposal preparation, the budget is slapped together using figures that bear little relation to the tasks enumerated in the project narrative. In reality, the budget should be a detailed itemization of all costs allocated to the project and the budget justification should explain and justify each cost item. 

It is important to keep in mind that, upon submission of the proposal, the budget becomes a firm commitment on the part of the University to perform the proposed work at the proposed cost. The budget must, therefore, reflect all of the activities included in the technical proposal, and anticipate all of the costs which will be incurred in carrying it out.

A poorly constructed budget can reflect as poorly on the overall submission as an ill-conceived section on objectives or methodology. Sponsors are not simply shopping for the cheapest proposal, they are looking for the most realistic proposals which offer possibilities for significant advancements within the field. Presenting a pragmatic rather than an overly optimistic budget is no less important than having a brilliant idea.