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 “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!

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!

5 Things PIs Need to Know About Uniform Guidance

In case you haven’t heard, the federal government is implementing new Uniform Guidance standards for grants on December 26th.

Merry Christmas! 😀

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All sorts of myths and misconceptions about the “UG” is now floating around as the day looms near. (And yes, I have been referring to the new guidance as “UG,” followed by a heavy sigh!) So, what can we really expect from these new regulations?

Well, despite my sarcastic parenthetical above, I am pleased to report that these standards will actually make research administration easier! (I think) With the exception of a new rule, taking effect July 2016, mandating bids for purchases above $3,000, the changes will probably make your job a LOT easier. The UG seeks to clarify and standardize regulations across agencies.

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So, what are the five hottest topics related to the upcoming UG? Take some time to review this list, and then check with your friendly research administrator to see how your university will be implementing them. (Just as a disclaimer: I am not going to broach the subject of the new bidding requirements – it’s too far off, too much might change – and, okay, okay, you got me – it’s WAY too scary a topic!! 😀 )


  • The cost of child care can now be added to travel expenses! But…the cost is only allowable if your university includes child care in their travel guidelines. If your institution does not typically allow child care costs, sorry, you are out of luck!
  • You can now purchase computers as part of your project costs – even if they are not 100% allocable to the project! But…the computer in question still needs to be “integral” to the project. What does “integral” mean? We probably won’t know for sure until the UG has been implemented. But, safe to say, the computer should be important to the project and the price tag should be reasonable.

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  • Cost-sharing is now not allowed across the board. But…some projects may still require it. Still, the UG will (in theory) forever remove the consternating sentence: “Cost share is recommended” from RFPs. So, cost-sharing will either be “not required” (typical) and “required” (rare).
  • Subaward monitoring will now be standardized. But…that doesn’t necessarily mean it will get easier! Currently, a PI can usually keep track of PIs at other institutions simply by approving invoices and asking for more information on a request-by-request basis. Now, technical reports will be required for invoice approval. While this might be more time-consuming for PIs, it will also mitigate subawardee problems before they start…in theory, anyway
  • Administrative staff can now be added to projects. But…they must be “integral” to the work being done for the project (there’s that word again!). Also, the administrative personnel cannot be paid for with recovered F&A costs. In other words, no double-dipping!