5 ways to take your proposals from “good” to “funded”

If you have been a PI in academia for any substantial length of time, you know this sad truth: Great proposals – even awesome proposals – do not always get funded.

7222825892_e39ff654ff_zAs federal budgets in the United States continue to shrink (and shrink and shrink), even top-rated projects are often rejected. These days, it is not good enough to have a fantastic idea and solid science. Your proposal has to be awesome extra-awesome. Keep in mind that the extra-awesomeness I am about to describe has nothing to do with project content. While it may seem unfair, if a great project is not expressed well, it will probably not receive support. There is simply not enough money, and reviewers are looking for reasons to discount proposals, so they can reach decisions quickly with the limited resources they have available.

[For more on proposals, check out: “The Hidden Costs of Proposals: And How to Save on Them”]

Think your project proposal could use polishing? Then read on!

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  1. Say what you want – as soon as possible. This one is not intuitive to me for some reason. Some people, including myself, struggle with saying precisely what they want from someone, as though they are afraid of sounding rude or demanding. But in Grant Land, it is actually preferable to go ahead and be assertive in your communication. As soon as possible in your project narrative, say what you are asking for. For instance, “We are requesting $10,000 to pay for salary support and fringes, so that we can reach such-and-such objective.” Then bold that statement. And underline it. And put it right up front. If reviewers do not see that sentence on the first page (preferably, the first paragraph), they might not know what exactly you want from them. And you do not want to make reviewers hunt for this information (often, they are reading another hundred of these narratives and have no time to coyly wheedle information out of your proposal).

    State your request clealry - reviewers have too many proposals to read to feel excited about digging through your narrative to find out what you are asking for.
    State your request and objectives clearly – reviewers have too many proposals to read to feel excited about digging through your narrative to find out what you are asking for.
  2. Be clear about your objectives. Reviewers want to see what you are trying to do with your requested funding. Sure, you can describe all you want in 12 pages. But before launching into your lengthy description of all the incredible things you want to achieve, make sure a reviewer can quickly determine how you will meet your overall goal. Such an approach will also aid the reviewer in making their overall assessment on whether or not you can meet your goal, and they will undoubtedly give you better feedback, regardless of whether or not you are funded. (Hint: Bullet points are your friends here)
  3. Be clear about how you will meet your objectives. Break down your objectives into activities, and briefly describe how each connects to the overall objectives (and by extension, the overall goal of the project) Timelines are often an ideal way to go, but in most cases, bullet points will also do just fine. Even if the sponsor requests a timeline attached to the appendix, try to work these into your narrative. This is your opportunity to show the sponsor that you have thought this out and can realistically complete the project in a matter of time. If you scatter this information all throughout the proposal, the reviewer may not see how it all works together.
  4. Include a tangible method of self-assessment. “We will get feedback from participants” is not tangible. That is too vague. Instead, come up with a concrete, multi-faceted plan for determining whether your not your project is achieving success. Again, bullet points are great here, and if space allows, a sample list of participant questions and/or project benchmarks that connect to your overall objectives. Keep in mind that surveys and other forms of participant engagement may require you to get IRB approval (work that into your timeline! see above).
  5. Clearly articulate where the project is now, and where you want it to go. Sponsors like to see that some work has progressed on the project, even if you need additional funds to continue. Need money research? Show that you already familiar with the field. Want to start up a community program? Show that you have already completed foundational work on the project. Then, clearly articulate how the funding is going to build up the project and move things along. Show the sponsor, in the first page of the narrative if possible, how they fit into the larger picture.

Proposal budget matter, too! Check out: The Five Biggest Mistakes PIs Make on Their Proposal Budgets

Got you own ideas/experiences for successful proposals? Leave a comment, let me know what has worked for you!

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5 Costs PIs Most Loathe Putting in Their Budgets…and why they matter

Part of my job as a research administrator is to shine sunlight on the shadowy areas of budgeting that my PIs do not fully comprehend. June is always a fun month for this – my institution has just come out with their updated fringe benefit rates, which lead to a higher amount of costs being moved “away from research” to budget lines that don’t always seem connected to PI’s cutting-edge projects. Think about it this way – a piece of scientific equipment for a project is clearly going to contribute to a PI’s research. But “facilities” costs? What does that even mean? It’s enough to make most PIs terribly cranky. And I get that feeling, I really do! But oftentimes, when I explain the reasons behind these 5 costs PIs most loathe putting in their budgets, we can usually come to a mutual understanding that these costs are a necessary part of research.


  1. Indirect costs. F&A costs. Overhead. “Research Tax.” Dum dum dum…”Indirect Costs” have to be the two most hated words in the world of university research. The general consensus seems to be that greedy research goblins in the sponsored programs office concocted indirect costs to enrich themselves. That’s not the case – trust me on this one! (If it were, I would not be driving a ’97 Toyota!) F&A costs go toward the personnel that help you manage your
    What my PIs think I drive...
    What my PIs think I drive, based on current F&A rates…

    grant, and the clerical staff in your office. They pay for the lights to be on in your lab. Books in the library. Sometimes, F&A recovery pays for entire buildings, focused on research! And want to hear something incredible? At most institutions, F&A recovery goes right back to the dean’s office or the department – NOT the sponsored programs office! Whoa! 😀

  2. Fringe Benefits. If you have salary on your project, odds are, you will need to also request fringe benefits for your personnel. These costs can really add up – and at most institutions, the percentages climb higher every year! But before you get in high dudgeon over fringe benefits, ask yourself: Do you really want your lab assistants, post-docs, graduate students, and fellow faculty to be without health insurance?Retirement benefits? Disability coverage? Unfortunately, these costs go up every year, but they are very necessary!
  3. Overhead charged by your subawardees. I often hear this called the “double tax.” As one particularly annoyed PI once told me: “I think this is a devious collusion among universities.” Your institution takes a piece of F&A costs from 3887095398_aef8697ea0_zyour original grant, and then your subawardee turns around and takes a slice as well! Yikes! I understand the frustration, I really do. But if I convinced you with Point 1, consider that your subawardee’s institution also needs to keep the water running in their labs! And never, ever try and negotiate indirects out of your subawardee’s budget with your counterpart PI. If the sponsor allows them to collect indirects, they are within their rights to do so – even if you waive indirects on your own.
  4. Travel to Sponsor Meetings. When your budget is capped at a certain number, it can be frustrating to see in the RFP that the sponsor requires you to budget for travel to a national meeting every year. (NIFA does this the most frequently, but many federal and non-profit sponsors include such requirements) These meetings, however, are the sponsor’s way of seeing your work first-hand. The contacts you make at sponsor conferences can help guide you toward your next pot of funding, and getting to show your work to representatives from that agency can help you determine what other programs might be suitable for your work.
  5. Tuition. Oftentimes, if your department is not willing to pay the tuition costs for the graduate student working on your
    Tuition is a small price to pay for training up the next generation of scholars
    Tuition is a small price to pay for training up the next generation of scholars

    project, you will need to cover those costs. Sometimes, PIs feel this is an undue burden that keeps them from hiring as many graduate assistants as they would wish. But think about it this way – is not one of the key goals of research to train up the next generations of scholars? Tuition remission might be steep, but it’s a small price to pay for giving a graduate student real-world research experience!…And if that does not convince you, their fringe benefits rates are extremely low and no overhead is taken on tuition at most institutions. Hooray!

5 Things to Include in a Purchase Justification

Ugh…you are a busy professor, checking through your email on a hectic day. There are urgent emails from students, colleagues, collaborators – and then, right in the middle, you see a request from your Sponsored Program Officer. “I see that you are trying to purchase [alcohol? printer ink? a working lunch? etc.] on your sponsored project. Give me a reason why you should be allowed to do this, or I am disallowing this cost right now, causing weeks of clean-up and delays to your research.”

1977134004_7cad062733_zWell, your Sponsored Program Officer will not be that blunt (hopefully). But no matter how friendly and polite this request might be, many PIs see such requests as unreasonable administrative burdens. I recently was forwarded an email from the chair of a department literally said: “Our Office of Sponsored Programs increasingly wants to know how we spent every penny of this money.”

Okay, so maybe that’s not totally fair – but these requests can pile up! That’s why the goal of this post is to fill you in what your friendly research administrator really asking you about the purchase, so you can quickly meet their request and get on with your life. Hit all five of these points, and you will most likely avoid a prolonged back-and-forth tug-of-war with your Sponsored Programs Office.


  1. Is this purchase allowableIck, what does “allowable” even mean? Broadly speaking, an allowable purchase does not violate general federal or specific sponsor requirements for what is permissible on a project. For example, alcohol (for social purposes) is not allowed on a federally sponsored project. Period. Taxpayers do not want to pay for your booze. That piece of equipment necessary for your work? Allowable. This link will take you to a fairly good, abbreviated list of unallowable costs, though everything is a bit up in the air with Uniform Guidance. Was the item in question specifically approved in the awarded budget? Then it is most likely allowable, no matter what the sponsor’s regulations typically are.
  2. Is this purchase allocableIf you buy something on a sponsored project, it should be for that project only. Want
    Beakers as flower-holders? I certainly hope that was part of your scope of work
    Beakers as flower-holders? I sincerely doubt that was a part of your scope of work.

    to buy beakers, to be used by your entire lab on a variety of projects? That will not fly. The sponsor wants to pay for a specific scope of work to be conducted, and is not interested in funding other scopes of work. Are the beakers going to be used exclusively on your sponsored project? You are good to go. Buying a huge piece of equipment right before the project ends? The sponsor will obviously think this equipment is really for other projects, and might not be pleased with the last-minute splurge.

  3. Is this purchase reasonableThis requirement is so vague, but it essentially boils down to this: Would a reasonable person, using their own funds, purchase this item at this price for this scope of work? An obvious example would be two similar supplies, with one being far more expensive than the other. A reasonable person would choose the cheaper supply. Another example? Just because you are using sponsor funds does not mean you should travel first class to a conference.
  4. Is this purchase covered by F&A? Books, clerical salaries, computers, printers, paper, folders – purchasing any of
    Yes, your new computer is snazzy, but is it
    Yes, your new computer is snazzy, but is it “integral” to the project? And I hope that wine wasn’t purchased with federal funds.

    these will raise red flags with your Sponsored Programs Office. All of these items should be recovered by the F&A costs your project is recovering. If you make such purchases, it can look like you are “double-dipping.” Is this an essential purchase, and allocable to the project? Your purchase might be okay, though your Sponsored Program Officer will need to make that determination.

  5. Is this purchase going to overspend the project? Sponsored Program Officers will often ask for purchase approval if your project is over-budget or over-committed (will be over-budget if you continue spending the way you intended to currently). Except in rare circumstances, any costs above and beyond the awarded budget will be disallowed.

Work closely with your research administrator on these justifications – I have actually disallowed very few costs in my time, where the PI could provide a justification answering all of these questions. We want to keep your research moving, but also want to make sure the sponsor has no reason to disallow your purchases after the project has ended! Because that is way worse, in the long run, I promise!

Inaugural Post: 5 Reasons Your Proposal Won’t Even Get Read

Welcome to my blog! I am excited to share and discuss my grant writing/researching/administering experience with you. I hope this advice, which comes from years of wanderings, informs and encourages you.


For my inaugural post, I wanted to tackle some of the reasons why proposals aren’t even read. In this day and age, funding agencies are receiving more and more proposals, even as their funding shrinks. I have literally heard reviewers say that they look for any reason to weed out proposals without spending a lot of time on them. If a proposal is out of compliance – well, that makes it easy to “chuck” – after all, should a reviewer or program officer entrust funds to someone who can’t even follow basic directions?

Don’t let your worthy project go totally unread! Avoid these (non-comprehensive) reasons why your proposal may get thrown out without even being read, and then leave any questions or comments below!


 

  • Your proposal was late.

I know you meant well, when you were revising right up to the deadline. But often, this strategy can backfire, especially if your proposal has to go though a lengthy internal process to be submitted (for instance, if you are working at a university). Also, some agencies (such as the National Institutes of Health), will spit back your proposal if their system detects errors in compliance. By the time you push it back, it might be too late.

A tip from me to you – some agencies, such as the NIH, might still review your proposal, if it is a tad bit late. But they are within their rights to reject your application if it comes in even a minute after the deadline. NSF, NEH, and other agencies will not even consider your proposal if it is late.


 

  • Your proposal was too long.

I know it’s tempting to get every bit of your research on paper for reviewers to experience, but that will not be worth it if they decide to throw out your proposal because you exceeded the page/character limits. Some agencies also put a cap on how many of your publications you can include. Better that you skimp on some of the details than never have your proposal read.

digitando-texto


  • Your narrative did not meet the stated requirements.

Writing your narrative seems intuitive enough – you describe your project and what you want to accomplish. But read – re-read – and re-read again – the exact questions the application is asking. Unfortunately, I have seen many seasoned academics skim over the funding agency’s questions and write their agenda without consulting them ever again. Here’s a tip: Be explicit when you are answering the specific questions required by the funder. Put these sections in bold. Use the same language as the question. Use bullet points. If the reviewer cannot easily find the answers to the RFP’s first question, they will probably toss your proposal without a second glance.

The same goes for your budget narrative. I cannot over-emphasize this. Do not put something in your budget without connecting it to the overall proposal.


 

  • Your budget was off.

Your proposal might never see a reviewer if your budget does not add up, is on the wrong form, or has unallowable costs on it. The program officer might be kind enough to give you a call and ask for a revision. But they are under no obligation to do so. Check and double-check your numbers, and make sure someone else checks them for you.

If you are working at a university with an Office of Research or a Grants Manager, work with them on the budget beginning months before the due date. If you pass along the basic information on what you want to ask for, they can usually take it from there. Who has time to calculate fringes, indirect costs, and tuition increases when you have so much to write, anyway?

calculator


 

  • Your proposal’s format was non-compliant.

The details matter here. Font type, font size, pagination, and margins can become your worst enemy. Before submitting, check to make sure you are meeting the agency’s formatting requirements. Keep in mind that these may be found in the agency’s broad guidelines, and not necessarily the RFP.