Tips for Writing Successful Grant Proposals

Tips for writing successful grant proposals

For six years, I developed and ran international scientific research programs for the US Government. A big part of that job was evaluating grant applications and I quickly learned there are a number of key features that set the good proposals apart from the rest.

Unfortunately, most researchers never receive much formal training in grant application writing, so what works and what doesn’t is gleaned from trial and error. Even really good ideas can be rejected early because of critical errors in grant applications, and that is a shame for everyone involved.

My advice is mainly geared towards grants provided by organizations that have program managers (or committees) that make funding decisions. Examples include many of the US Department of Defense science organizations (DARPA, ONR, AFOSR, ARO) as well as a lot of nonprofit foundations. Although the dynamics for peer-reviewed proposals (NSF, NIH, etc) are a bit different, most of the advice is universal and certainly won’t hurt your proposal.

With these tips, your novel research idea stands more than a fighting chance:

Tip #1: Know your customer

This tip should come as no surprise, but many researchers lose sight of this guiding principle far too often. It’s easy to get really excited about your own idea and forget that the people you are asking money from have their own needs. Instead of viewing them simply as a source of funding, if you look at them as a customer, you will be able to develop proposals that will resonate with them. It’s a mindset.

So how do you get to know your customer? Start with websites and anything you can find on the internet. If there is a program manager associated with the project, see if you can find any publicly available presentations online. Frequently, a program manager will point out specific pain points they are looking to address.

If not otherwise restricted, try to talk to them to find out more about their program. Although reaching out via email or phone can sometimes work (some program managers are too busy to field every call or email), conferences/workshops/technical meetings are great venues for picking a program manager’s brain. In these situations, the key is to make sure you are not switched on “transmit only” mode. Too often a researcher is so eager to talk about their new research ideas that they forget to ask any questions or figure out where their ideas fit into the bigger picture. On the other hand, very few program managers are going to walk you step-by-step through their entire program so that you can figure out where to direct your own research. The conversation should be a fine balance of getting the program manager interested in your ideas and letting them help you understand where those ideas might fit in (and where you might need some extra work).

Even if you can’t get any face-to-face time, think about the underlying goals and motivations for a particular program or organization and tailor your proposal around those needs. It may mean that a specific organization is not a good target for your proposal – that may sound defeatist, but it may save you from spending a lot of time preparing a proposal that would never be accepted.

Aligning your research goals with a specific funding agency could be the first step to establishing a long term relationship. Money is just one part of the equation, and correct alignment could expose your research to needed equipment, testing facilities, other groups or even eventual commercial partners. By understanding your customer, you gain a higher probability of getting your proposal accepted and expose yourself to countless other opportunities.

Tip #2: Follow the rules / format

Another very obvious tip, but it’s surprising how many times it becomes an issue. Simple errors such as missing a deadline or omitting a piece of information can be devastating, completely eliminating a proposal from consideration. It may seem a bit draconian, but especially for government-funded competitive grants, the rules exist to create an even playing field and cannot be bent, even for seemingly reasonable causes. (Bending a rule could result in a violation, in which case the whole process may have to be repeated from step one – a program manager’s nightmare!)

Deadlines can be particularly problematic, as grant submission can sometimes be less than straightforward. A website might be down; you may need an extra piece of financial information from your institution’s grants office; you may need to get sign-off from a collaborator – there are countless things that can go wrong in the minutes before a submission is due. So please do yourself a favor and just submit your proposal early.

Formatting was always a pet peeve of mine when reading through a proposal. Make the proposal as easy to read as possible. Although most program reviewers probably won’t dock you significantly for formatting issues, it does show a general lack of regard for those who have to review the proposal (remember, they are your customers!) and leaves a bad taste in their mouth.

One very common offense is inconsistent formatting when combining sections from multiple collaborators (likely to occur on larger multi-team proposals). Beyond the aforementioned issues, when parts of a proposals are poorly pasted together, it indicates to a program manager that, if funded, the resulting program will be disjointed and poorly integrated. Spend the time to go through each section and make the formatting and language consistent throughout – the effort will seem much more unified and organized.

Tip #3: Write a good introduction / background

This section is normally glossed over, but it sets the stage for the whole project. Being able to put research in the appropriate context is an important skill for a principal investigator and shows an overall appreciation for the field and the direction in which it is headed. More than that, it is an invaluable tool for reviewers, who may not be well-versed in the precise field the proposal is geared towards.

In an ideal world, reviewers would already have a very good background in exactly the narrow segment of science or engineering that a project is aimed at, but many times, that’s simply not the case. In fact, there are very good reasons for having experts from adjacent fields act as reviewers: multidisciplinary projects/program demand expertise from multiple sectors; new research directions commonly veer into disparate fields of study. Proposal writers who adopt the egotistical view that these reviewers “should already know the background” of their particular field, do so at their own peril. Without the appropriate context, reviewers may miss the impact of research or get lost in the “how” (rather than the “why”).

Writing a good background / introduction is an important skill as it shows that the researcher understands the big picture and the context by which their own research helps progress the field in important ways. The most intelligent people have a way of explaining difficult challenges, ramifications and rewards in a way that everyone can understand. Being intentionally obtuse has the opposite effect – it simply shows that you are difficult to work with and probably don’t care about the overarching goals of the organization that you are asking for assistance.

Tip #4: Use appropriate references

Appropriate references go hand-in-hand with writing good introductions. A good proposal creates momentum for research by citing the relevant papers that have inspired / led to the work being proposed. They show awareness of the state of the art as well as alternative approaches – even those that are at odds with the work being proposed. (For more advanced technologies / commercial proposals, reference competitors and do not act as though you are the only entity working in the space, as this is rarely true.)

By appropriately acknowledging the ecosystem around you, you show that you understand the state of the art and can actually tell if you are pushing the boundaries of your field / technology. An absence of references can lead reviewers to question whether you really understand the field. The last thing a program manager wants to do is fund someone to ignorantly pursue a line of research that has already been proven.

A corollary to this tip is to not simply reference research conducted by you or your collaborators. This happens far too often and is an instant turnoff for most reviewers. There are very few fields that only have one active group, thus almost every proposal should reference a number of contributors to the field in order to create complete picture. Selective referencing shows either ignorance or arrogance. If there is work in your field that is at odds with what you are proposing, simply state why. This is especially true if some of this work is already being funded by the program manager (assuming you know). Although the program manager may have a vested interest in the other work succeeding, it does not mean they won’t necessarily fund your alternative path. Program managers frequently hedge their bets, so you may have a chance. However, that chance could disappear if you don’t even acknowledge other research in which they have already heavily invested.

Tip #5: Don’t pitch already an already completed project

This sounds obvious but unfortunately, this happens all too frequently. In order to write a really strong, detailed and seemingly risk-free proposal, a researcher submits research that is already 80-100% complete. The motivations are usually benign – the researcher wants to make sure they can really deliver what they are proposing and / or provide very detailed plans. However, in addition to being dishonest, it sets a bad precedent for the future.

Generally, a project proposal to a program manager is not a one-off. They are the start (or continuation) of a relationship, but just like all relationships, a bit of dishonesty can ruin things quickly. If the project is awarded, but the research is already completed, to what pursuit should the money be directed? There are a number of reasonable possibilities – extending the research already proposed, starting a new / related project, completing other projects – but they are all outside the scope of the proposal. Deciding on any of these paths tells the program manager that you don’t care about or consider their opinion and will freely spend their money on whatever you believe is important. Obviously, that’s not the relationship most program managers would seek, so you might as well forget about future grants from that organization.

A gray area comes up with respect to the waiting time between when a proposal is submitted and when the money shows up. What happens if the research was started and completed (unexpectedly) during the delay between the two actions? The best advice is to be honest and consult with the program manager to determine a new set of milestones and goals for the project. There is a risk that funding could be pulled back, but if the long term relationship is worth it, it is best to be honest.

Tip #6: Be honest about risks

Most research proposals suffer from the same basic fundamental flaw: they present the research success as a foregone conclusion. There is no room for failure.

Everyone knows that with big risks come big rewards, but too frequently people forget that you can’t have a big reward without a big risk. Unfortunately, that’s how life works.

So when a proposal comes along without any risks, it can only mean one of two things. Either, a) the researcher doesn’t know what the risks are, b) there is no reward (and therefore funding the research is a waste). Of course, more than likely, the real answer is: c) there are risks, but the researcher didn’t want to include them because they were afraid if the proposed project appeared too risky, it would not be funded.

Rather than downplaying risks, the best proposals identify key risks, justify them with commensurate (or better yet, outsized) rewards, and discuss mitigation strategies. This shows the program manager that you are aware of the hurdles and are prepared for adversity should there be problems. Poorly designed projects hit one pot hole and are completely derailed, with little to show for the investment (which is especially painful if there is a big upfront capital purchase). Better projects can find true value and insight even when things don’t go according to plan.

Tip #7: Adopt realistic project management strategy and avoid the evils of the Gantt chart

When I come across Gantt charts (a project management tool that illustrates start and end dates of critical elements of the project) in research proposals, I generally shudder. It’s not that they don’t belong in the proposal (many times they are required), but too often they are completely unrealistic or uncharacteristic of how the project will actually be worked and were only constructed and included as an after-thought (or to fulfill a requirement). Once submitted, they are quickly forgotten – until a midterm review, when political acumen is applied to spin the work history to portray previous efforts as approximately matched to the original plan.

The problem with most Gantt charts is that they present very linear, sequential paths that can be easily predicted. In more advanced or applied research (product development), they are very useful for aligning resources and predicting the length of time needed to complete sets of tasks. In fundamental research where timescales (and sometimes even resources) are much less predictable, they quickly lose their functionality. For small projects with only a few basic steps, these limitations probably don’t really matter, but for larger projects with multiple groups using specialized equipment, the flaws are magnified exponentially.

If you are going to present a project management plan in a proposal, it should be useful. Gantt charts can be improved: including uncertainty bars that provide the likely range of time a particular step may take; representing possible alternative flows, such as in the case of a critical piece of equipment breaking down and requiring extended servicing. A good management plan should give your team a realistic idea of when human capital or critical equipment will be called upon, such that they can plan and budget their time accordingly. It should help them understand the flows (of samples, code, etc) from one group to another. It should allow them to make tough prioritization decisions, if and when certain parts of the project are delayed. This type of plan gives a reviewer / program manager a good idea of when milestones are likely to be achieved and when projects are likely to enter critical stages. It can help them better plan the larger program and perhaps provide your project additional resources, should they be necessary. Most of all, it helps assure them that the project will actually be able to deliver what it proposes.

Tip #8: Make sure the sum is greater than the parts

Some of the best and most exciting research is performed in multidisciplinary projects. By combining diverse expertise from multiple groups working in disparate areas, truly game changing discoveries can be made and technologies developed. This is what all program managers hope for when they put out a multidisciplinary call for proposals.

What is far less exciting is multiple groups working on their own thing, occasionally engaging in conference calls or passing samples, and hoping that by the end of the project someone has independently come across something that will bring all groups a bit of glory. Unfortunately, many projects are doomed to this fate right from the start and this is reflected in the proposal.

Poor multidisciplinary proposals resemble a Frankenstein of projects: they are hastily assembled, lack coordination between the various contributing groups, are missing a strong overarching theme or mission and make it impossible to tell what success for the involved groups would look like.

There are a number of tell-tale signs of this type of well-intentioned, yet poorly constructed projects:

  • Sections are obviously written by separate team members and simply cut-and-pasted together and submitted – striking changes in formatting, tone and voice between different sections (as mentioned before) are all huge warning signs for program managers. Even though multiple individuals drafted the proposal, one person should be responsible for making sure that the proposal has one coherent voice and goal.
  • Multiple alternative approaches with non-interacting groups working in parallel – there are often multiple approaches to solving a difficult problem, and attempting more than one can increase the odds of success. Thus, proposal writers often try to de-risk a major project by including multiple, disparate paths. Each path may leverage the expertise of a specific group, so it is reasonable that they lead that part of the effort. However, generally there are synergies between even divergent approaches, and this is hard to predict at the outset of a project. By encouraging cross-pollination (even shared-testing) between groups, each path is likely to be strengthened, but all too often (and very unfortunately) proposals instill (or reflect) a territorial nature between approaches. If each approach is in virtual isolation, most program managers would prefer to fund the paths separately. Keep that in mind when constructing the proposal. You don’t want to force unnatural and inefficient collaboration, but completely segregating paths from the start will make it difficult to gain any synergy.

Remember that the strength of multidisciplinary (and even just multiple group) proposals is the benefit gained from engaging multiple viewpoints that otherwise would not interact (at least at that level). Make sure that the project is designed to harness the power of bringing those voices and viewpoints together in an organic fashion. You can’t force too many unnecessary meetings (people will just stop attending after the first few months), but that makes the initial construction of the project all the more important.

Multidisciplinary proposals are inherently more difficult to put together than normal proposals, so make sure to give your team a lot of extra time to work on it and always keep the end goal / mission at the forefront of your thoughts. An organized and unified team is easy to spot.

Tip #9: Be clear what the grant is buying…

Any customer wants to know what their money is buying and program managers are no different.

Researchers often have grants from multiple organizations for similar (and many times) related projects. Although in the mind of the researcher, each of these projects are part of a collective that sums into one entity, it is very important that the projects are individually meaningful.

Put yourself in the shoes of the program manager and try to answer his/her boss’s question: “why are we funding this specific project when organization X is already funding the researcher for this other project?”. If you can clearly and concisely answer this question, you have just made your program manager’s day. (As long as it is obvious in the proposal.)

Tip #10: …and why it won’t happen without the money

Remember that a grant is a monetary investment in your research but also an emotional investment for a program manager. It’s important that you be able to make them feel like they are playing a critical role in the development of something special.

A danger to which researchers can fall prey is insinuating that a line of research would go ahead (and be successful) regardless of whether the grant is awarded. Program managers want to push boundaries and unlock new areas. That means affecting the course of science and technology, not simply being along for the ride.

Of course, the story should be in line with the overall goal of the program / organization (Tip #1). Even if you succeed in showing a program officer why their funds are instrumental to your research, if the goals of the research are not in line with the program, they are unlikely to rally behind you.

Tip #11: Provide some nice visuals

Good visuals are always a nice bonus, but are not always necessary for a successful proposal. That said, program managers live in a world of presentations and reporting, most likely with powerpoint slides acting as the lingua franca between a wide array of stakeholders.

Program managers may spend more time defending and justifying investment in your project than you will, so as a token of courtesy, provide them visuals, pictures and illustrations that capture the essence of your project. It will allow a program manager to quickly construct a professional representation of your work for their bosses and garner support for your work.

Some of the most important exposure for your project may actually occur at these meetings, so spending some time on the front end to build visuals that you would be proud to present yourself could end up paying huge dividends down the line.

Tip #12: Be honest about who is going to do the work

Having a big name attached to a proposal is great, but there are cases when it is just for show. Too often a notable researcher’s time commitment is over-emphasized in a proposal and it simply leads to disappointment in the long run. It may help the team win the grant, but as the project moves along and it becomes obvious to the program manager that the big name isn’t really committed to the project (at least to the extent that the proposal indicated), it may make it difficult to receive follow-on funding.

My recommendation is to be honest about the work from the start. If the lion’s share of the effort is going to be performed by a upcoming postdoc or graduate student with occasional consultation of the star researcher – I would make that clear. When I was running programs, I was constantly looking for rising talent. If a program area is important, as a program manager, you want to create opportunities for good people so that they stay focused and don’t get drawn into a less important field. Identifying a talented newcomer from the outset helps program managers understand who they are really supporting and what would happen if that opportunity goes away.

Tip #13: Make sure your financials are accurate

It seems obvious to pay attention to the money part of the proposal, but it is not easy to be accurate when projecting costs years in advance. Unfortunately, the challenge of forecasting costs and expenses can sometimes yield inappropriate or unsubstantiated financials. This is especially true when it comes to travel or other miscellaneous expenses, but bloated numbers in these categories are likely to draw the eye of a program manager or reviewer.

When dealing with hard-to-estimate expenses, the best practice is to be clear what the number represents, especially if it is an aggregate (e.g., three trips from San Francisco to Washington, DC, roundtrip) and what assumptions you are making (economy class tickets at today’s prices and the GSA per diem rate for four days per trip). Be conservative about your estimates and give yourself some breathing room – saving a few hundred dollars on the initial proposal is not worth having to go through the process a second time – but make sure don’t commit a cardinal sin and create a “slush fund”. Even when done with the best intentions of saving time and money in an uncertain world, even the hint of a slush fund raises a huge red flag that someone will eventually have to answer for. Accounting for everything upfront saves a lot of questions later.

At the end of the day, remember that good program managers and reviewers want to fund quality research. Make their job as easy as possible by following these tips and you will find your success rate go up – leaving you a lot more time to focus on what’s important: the research.

If you have questions or feel like I missed something, leave a comment or drop me an email.