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!

5 “hidden” costs to a proposal – and how to save on them

Sometimes, you have to spend money to make money. But doesn’t this feel anti-intuitive when it comes to grant funding? After all, you are asking for money, which usually means you don’t have any to spend, right?overhead-costs

But to seek funding and prepare a competitive proposal, you should be aware of the “hidden” costs. I have included five below which, in my experience, have been the most surprising to my PIs. And in case you are really strapped for cash, I have included some ideas for saving a little on the way!

  1. Database Memberships
    • Why the cost? While it’s free to search Grants.gov for federal grants, to look through lists of foundations, you might need to pay for access to a database. Companies such as Foundation Directory Online and GuideStar are good places to start. (Click here to read a great article that goes more in-depth on these databases)
    • What’s the cost? Premium packages can run as much as $2,000 per year, and can be paid for on a bi-yearly, yearly, or monthly basis. Some databases charge per list.
    • How can I cut costs? If you are a professor at a university, talk to your development office about free databases that you might have access to. Visit your local library and see if they subscribe to databases that you can use. Otherwise, save money by researching databases thoroughly, and making sure the one or two you select will be proper for your organization, and not waste money on those that aren’t (you can take many on a free-trial test drive!).

      If you work at a university, you might have access to a database like Grant Forward
      If you work at a university, you might have access to a database like Grant Forward
  2. Grant Writer
    • Why the cost? After all, you can write yourself – or call in a favor from your cousin with the English degree – or ask your administrative assistant to write the narrative in her spare time. But unfortunately, grant-writing is just one of those things that you have to do (and fail at) for at least a year before you get the trick of it.
    • What’s the cost? Freelance grant writers charge anywhere from $20-$200 per hour, and professional grant writing agencies usually charge over one thousand dollars per proposal. If you work at a university, your research office may have a proposal development office, though these services often have an associated fee. (Click here for an article on questions to ask before hiring a grant writer)
    • How can I cut costs? Paying for grant writing on a commission basis is unethical, so that is definitely not a cost-saving solution. But if your institution simply cannot afford a grant writer, try and work with universities to see if you can offer an internship to non-profit management or technical writing students who are studying grant-writing, and might appreciate the opportunity to contribute to their portfolio.
  3. Startup for Project
    • Why the cost? Many sponsors (especially on the federal and state level) want to see work being done on the project, before they get involved. It’s a way of showing that the institution is committed to the project, and increases the chances that work will continue once sponsor funding ends.17123254699_c2f412c9ee_z
    • What’s the cost? However much it takes to get things rolling. Usually, costs consists of personnel, preliminary supplies, and associated overhead.
    • How can I cut costs? Instead of using up your own time beginning the project, work with your volunteer or intern pool, and see if there is someone who would be interested in beginning the project. Work with community collaborators on fundraising efforts for preliminary costs.
  4. Cost-Share
    • Why the cost? Though cost-sharing for federal awards is growing rare (yay!), many foundations and state sponsors still want to see a cash or in-kind commitment. This way, the project seems more like a collaborative effort that is supported by the university and/or community. (Don’t know anything about cost-sharing? Click here for a good Power Point presentation on the topic!)
    • What’s the cost? Anywhere from 10% of the total project costs, up to and beyond a 1:1 match. (Always be sure to note whether the cost-share requirement is a percentage of the request or a percentage of total project costs)
    • How can I cut costs? Carefully assess what you are certainly going to put into the project, whether the grant funds it or not. Is overhead not allowed to be charged to the sponsor? Ask the sponsor if you can cost-share with the unrecovered overhead. Will your graduate student, who is paid by the department, be working on the project? That sounds like cost-share to me!
  5. Overhead
    • Why the cost? You usually cannot help paying overhead when applying for grants. You will work on the proposal on your computer, use your phone system to call collaborators, schedule meetings in a conference room with lights…so on and so on.
    • What’s the cost? Overhead is hard to calculate, but they are real costs to the institution, and proposal-development overhead costs are almost never allowed to be recovered in the case of an award.
    • How can I cut costs? There’s no way to go without these costs – but make sure and request full overhead recovery from the sponsor for the award period! Your research overhead helps to pay for proposal development systems and general research costs. (Did you just balk at my suggestion? Click here to find out why overhead is so important!)

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5 grant proposal tips you can take from “Shark Week”

Hooray for Shark Week!

What is Shark Week? Well, if you have been living under a rock, let me tell you: Shark Week is an awesome week-long event that takes place on the Discovery Channel. It has been going strong since 1988, amidst some controversies over “fake” documentaries, bad science, and shark fear-mongering. As one ecologist has said: “I don’t necessarily think that it’s their [The Discovery Channel’s] job to inform people about sharks in a scientific matter.”

So maybe Shark Week won’t actually teach you a lot about sharks. But can it teach us something about…grant proposals?

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Okay, okay you got me – this post is a little ridiculous! I just really like Shark Week! But I will take this opportunity to point out some proposals tips to keep in mind as you continue your quest for research excellence – and these tips may include some loose connections to Shark Week-related topics. 😀

An-encounter-with-a-Great-0011. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. In other words – don’t propose something that you cannot actually implement. After submitting a proposal, I have literally heard PIs and grant administrators collapse in weariness and say the words: “Wow, I really hope that doesn’t get funded.” Yikes! Can’t provide the cost-share? Don’t submit the proposal! Can’t pull together the personnel? Don’t submit the proposal! Already working 80 hours per week, your sanity hanging by a thread? Take a lesson from this shark and go find some smaller grants. There are plenty of fish in the sea! (FYI, that will be the last shark-related pun. Probably.)

2013-08-06-shark-thumb2. Stand out from the crowd. With the impacts of government cutbacks being felt across agencies, it is more important than ever to be different from the hundreds of other proposals being submitted to federal agencies, state governments, and private foundations. How can you pump up your proposal? Work across disciplines. Insert a plan to disseminate research results to the community. Get in touch with your program officer ahead of time and make sure your project is a good fit. And be sure to write a well-written, error-free proposal. Make yourself a shark among the minnows!

279522-shark-week3. Be aware of your surroundings. Who has been securing funding from the agency you are proposing to? What do their proposals look like? Where is your field moving in terms of research trends? Do your homework before submitting a proposal – read successful narratives and study funded projects. Oftentimes, agencies will provided funded proposals, which usually are part of the public domain. You could also contact funded institutions directly and see if they are willing to discuss their success. When you submit the proposal, show how much you know about the field by providing detailed, complete references in your narrative (NSF infamously will return proposals that use “et al”, and this is also a no-no for NIFA).

fcevjnezhc9gvv78ppsl4. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! Apparently, sharks like to hunt together in packs from time-to-time (although I heard that on “Shark Week” so who knows if that’s true). And researchers should also play with others! One impact of less government funding is a new appreciation from reviewers for cross-discipline collaborations. Some agencies even provide special grants for those who are collaborating across departments, institutions, and borders (here is an example from NEH). Yes, collaborating can be like herding cats (or sharks), but it substantially increases chances of funding – and enhances your project in the process!

George Mombiot blog on sharks : German submarine and shark5. Never, EVER fabricate information in your proposal. Most academics never set out intending to engage in research misconduct – but it happens, so be careful! Usually, funders want to know what progress has been made on the project thus far, which is sometimes…nada. After all, you don’t have funding yet, right? That’s why you’re asking! Some PIs feel panicked at such requests for information, and exaggerate efforts thus far. Avoid inflating the work that has taken place – it will come back to hurt you if the proposal is funded and you are expected to have reached a certain point.

What do you think? Any more proposal tips or shark puns? Please share below!

The Five Biggest Mistakes PIs Make on Their Proposal Budgets

Ugh…budget crunching and adding countless cells in Microsoft Excel – and you have better things to do! As a university professor, community organization leader, or president of a non-profit, you are always pulled in a thousand different directions. You may be tempted to rush your proposal budget.

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But take it from me – this is not a great way to cut corners! Mistakes on that spreadsheet or web form might lead to wrangling with sponsors at a later date – emails and phone calls back and forth, countless hours spent trying to sort things out. And your proposal may be docked in review – or even thrown out entirely – if you crunched your numbers incorrectly.

So take your time, and make sure to run your budget by your organization’s fiscal officer, a representative from a sponsored programs office, and/or someone who understands the grant world. Before you get started, here are five major mistakes I see PIs make on their budgets. Avoiding these will save you headaches in the long run!

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  • The fringe benefits rates are missing or incorrect. In all likelihood – particularly if you work for a university – your institution has a fringe benefit rate. If you have personnel on a project, or are including some of your own salary, confirm that you add the correct percentage to the salary rate. If you skip this important step, you will most likely have to reduce the requested salary. Think about it this way – your institution will take out funds for fringe benefits, whether you like it or not. And if your department does not agree to cover these unexpected costs, they will come from a slice of your award.
  • The “Materials and Supplies” numbers do not add up. Few budget categories seem to disorient PIs like this broad category. Though this seems like a simple addition problem, at least 25% of proposals I see do not add these correctly. Think about it: You are probably adding and detracting supplies as you write the narrative, and before you know it, the numbers do not add up. Make sure you double-check these figures before sending them along to the sponsor.

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  • The salary being requested is excessive. Though I see this happen rarely, salary inflating is a serious problem. Regardless of how much the sponsor awards for personnel salary, your organizations will not – and should not – give you or your graduate student a huge raise. If you honestly want to start paying one of the people working on the project a bit more, create a new position with a new salary, and suggest them for it (leave it “TBD” on the proposal). Applying to the NIH? Don’t forget the salary cap!
  • There are unallowable costs on the projects. These unallowable costs vary from sponsor to sponsor, but there are a few standard “no-nos” as far as federal funding goes. (FYI – the new Uniform Guidance may change some of these slightly – a post on UGG coming soon!) The top offenders: Administrative costs and personnel outside of federally-negotiated indirects, food and drink, receptions, and common-use supplies.
  • The Facilities and Administrative base is Incorrect. If you work at a university or large organization, you probably have to include a standard F&A rate. In all likelihood, your “Total Direct Costs” (everything you are asking for outside of F&A) is not the number you work from to calculate that percentage. You most likely have to subtract specific costs like tuition, subcontracts, patient costs, and equipment. Check with your research foundation to make sure you are asking for the correct amount of F&A. Like fringes, it will probably be taken from your award whether you like it or not, so better to get it right at proposal time, instead of having to go back to the sponsor to ask for rebudgeting authority.

5 Myths About Voluntary Cost-Sharing

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So picture this: you’re reading through your “Request for Proposals” from a sponsor and you find this sentence:

“Cost sharing not required”

Sounds great, right? Cost sharing, or, matching a percentage of sponsor funds, can be incredibly difficult to come up with. Especially in this era of tight budgets! You breathe a sigh of relief and move on.

But then you start thinking: “But what does ‘not required’ really mean? Will cost sharing make my proposal more competitive? Will it make me look like I have departmental support?”

But not so fast! Before committing yourself, do yourself a favor and review these 5 myths about voluntary cost sharing that are becoming increasingly prevalent in university culture.

Have additions to this list? Questions or comments? Leave them below!

Myth #1: “Voluntary cost share will make my proposal stronger!”

For federal grants? Nope. Local and foundation grants? Not necessarily. Some agencies, like NSF, straight-up prohibit cost share (because of how burdensome it is to track). The moral of the story – if the sponsor says cost sharing is not part of the scored review, piling it on will not help. If anything, gathering the third party pledges and convincing your chair to commit a percentage of the department’s budget will distract you from the required parts of your proposal. When a sponsor – like the NEH – says cost share is “recommended” talk to your department’s research administrator or grants manager to see what that has really meant for past proposals.

Myth #2: “I can just use the project expenses that weren’t allowed in the budget as easy cost share.”

This is a great way to get your proposal rejected without even getting read. Unless the sponsor says differently, costs that are unallowable for the proposed budget are unallowable for formally proposed cost share – even if it’s voluntary. The biggest exception sponsors make are unrecovered Facilities and Administrative (indirect) costs. So if the sponsor is only allowing a small percentage of your institution’s rate to be charged, you might be able to use that as match. But be sure to get that from the sponsor in writing.

Myth #3: “If the cost share is voluntary, I won’t have to report it back to the sponsor.”

If cost sharing appears in the agreement’s approved budget, you have to track it, regardless of whether your match was required or not. That means you must report it on fiscal communications, post it to the project, and make sure you meet the match. If, at the end of your project, you still have cost share to report, you could endanger future funding for yourself and your university, just as you would with a required match.

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Myth #4: “Voluntary cost share is the best way for me to show that I have support for this project.”

Even if PIs don’t say this out loud, most of them believe it wholeheartedly. Thankfully, there are many effective ways to show that your proposed project enjoys widespread support. Most federal applications have sections in the narrative where you can list equipment, laboratories, community resources and departmental assets that will be available to you (for NIH, there are a few sections specifically designated for this information). Some smaller sponsors allow for letters of support to be attached, even if no cash amount is specified. But be sure not to include specific dollar amounts or effort percentages – these could appear in the agreement and you will then be required to track them. The NIH is particularly picky about this.

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Myth #5: “Voluntary cost share is not ‘real money’.”

If my points above have not convinced you, let me reiterate – There is a real, tangible administrative cost to voluntary matching. These funds must be tracked and reported. They also commit you to fulfilling requirements that could become onerous and distract you from your research – the reason you asked for funding in the first place! 🙂

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.

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  • 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?

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  • 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.