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Narum's Notes

Writing Winning Proposals

I am often asked to advise faculty on how to develop a competitive proposal and for suggestions about the total process of seeking grant support for professional development as teacher/scholar.

After almost fifteen years in this area, my file on 'how-to' of proposal writing is full to overflowing. But my experience in working with faculty is that the most beneficial approach is not to give answers or advice, but rather to challenge faculty to ask themselves questions at each stage of proposal development. The following are some questions I have asked.

  • Have you researched the funding agency for whom you are preparing the proposal?

      To whom have they awarded recent grants? Do you know, have you contacted any of those people? Have you determined any anticipated new directions? Do you know how the review process is undertaken? (Specialists, Generalists etc..) Have you studied annual reports and guidelines carefully? Do you know if staff are receptive to personal visits or phone contacts?

    Have you made use of every possible resource on your campus to develop a competitive proposal?

      Have you asked a colleague (preferably some one who had success with proposals) to read a draft? Have you discussed the process with the college grants officer? Do you have the necessary institutional commitment for time, space, computer, additional personal?

    Does your proposal clearly articulate a specific activity designed to address a specific issue to be undertaken by a specific individual?

      Have you 'sold' yourself, established your credibility, as a person competent for the task? Do you have a sense of the proper parameters for the project - or are you about to save the world? Can you tell this is a proposal written by a person - to a person?

    Is the proposed project significant? To whom? To you as a teacher/scholar, to your students , to your institution , to your discipline, to society?

    Is there a direct relationship between the identified problem/need and the activities you have outlined and the support you are requesting?

      Does the budget present a clear picture of the resources needed? Have you asked for too much or too little?

    Is it clear how this project fits into you personal plans for growth as a teacher/scholar?

      Is it appropriate for this point in your academic career? Is it a logical 'next step' for you, building on previous research, classroom responsibilities, professional goals? Why now?

    What will happen after the grant period? How will you know if you have succeeded in what you set out to do? What will you have to show?

      Will a specific course, or the departmental curriculum, new changed/strengthened? Will you be able to present your results to your peers, in a scholarly journal/book or at a professional meeting?

    Is this seed-money, a pilot project, or interim stage of a larger project? Does this project have wider application, is it replicable in similar settings? To whom will reports be submitted, on-campus, off-campus?

      Is it clear from the beginning of the project how you intend to evaluate- during the grant period, at the end? Is there an implicit long-range plan for your growth as teacher/scholar, for strengthening your institution, for advancing your scholarly field? What do you intend to do next?

    Does the very presentation of the proposal reflect the quality of your work?

      Have you followed the guidelines precisely? Does it make inviting reading - good margins, sections (outlines) clearly marked? Is it a good reproduction? Are the appendices appropriate, clearly labeled and referenced? Are there no misspellings, rhetorical ramblings, vague assumptions?

    A Final Question: If you were teaching Freshman English and this proposal was presented as a weekly theme, what grade would you give it?

      Is it well-written, is there a logic in the flow of the argument? Is there a thesis coherently stated and cogently argued? Does the introduction give an implicit for what follows and the summary remind the reader of each pertinent point? Is it jargon-free, in the active voice, as succinct as possible? Does it follow basic rules of good writing?

    Many of these questions are similar to those by proposal reviewers, who, whether they are intelligent lay persons or disciplinary experts, must be able to recognize several key points without difficulty:

    1) that the request is an appropriate one for the funding source they represent;

    2) that the proposed project has significance beyond the individual circumstance/situation;

    3) that the principal investigator demonstrates clear understanding of the issue and of reasonable and creative (and replicable) approaches to addressing the issue.

    Hopefully by now you are convinced that proposal writing takes work, creativity, work, imagination, work, persistence, and more work. That is all true. But the very process can be integral to the on-going process of development as a teacher and a scholar. The process of developing a proposal requires you to do some intentional institutional planning, to put your dreams on paper, and to claim that your ideas merit support. This is a risk. But it is a risk worth taking. I wish you all success.



    Proposals: How to…

    Preparation of the Research-Grant Application: Opportunities and Pitfalls

    Selected Reviewer Comments

    A Proposal Development Checklist

    Advice for Submitting a CCLI Proposal

    Proposal Writing

    Some Reasons for Faculty to Think Ahead

    What Deans (and Development Officers) Can Do

    What Development Officers Can Do

    What Faculty Can Do

    Writing Winning Proposals


    Narum's Notes Categories

    Grants Administration

    Public Policy

    Proposals: How to…

    Other Notes


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