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!


  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!