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How to Write a Winning Proposal and Get Those Grants!

A Beginner’s Guide to the Proposal Writing and Submission Process
at the University of Virginia

Please note that this information was accurate at the time of original publication.  For more updated information, please visit the Office of the Vice President for Research and Public Service.

The grant seeking process

Locating funding to explore research ideas is a critical component of a successful academic career at the University for both faculty and graduate students. Yet the proposal writing process, from idea conception through submission to a Sponsor, is often intimidating. First-time researchers can have a difficult time understanding the process of submitting a proposal for sponsored programs at UVa. This adds tension to an already stressful situation.

This document is an effort to decipher the proposal writing process into understandable and implementable tasks for first-time researchers. Larry and Virginia Decker, authors of Grantseeking: How to Find a Funder and Write a Winning Proposal, divide the fund-seeking process into six activities:

  • Developing an idea
  • Organizing for action
  • Establishing contact with a funding source
  • Writing a proposal and following up
  • Administering the grant
  • Evaluating the project

This report focuses on the first four activities, from generating a good research idea to submitting your proposal to a potential Sponsor. Research can be funded by either sponsorship or donations.
What is a sponsored program?

A sponsored program, whether it be funded research, fellowships, exhibition or training programs, is any contract, negotiated grant, or other form of award that is made by a corporate, federal, industrial or professional Sponsor and that contains clauses regarding the financial monitoring of funds and/or technical reporting requirements. A sponsored program has the following characteristics:

  • Sponsor funds a specific project or topic of research.
  • Normally, only teaching or research faculty members may submit proposals and act as Principal Investigators (PIs). Graduate students with projects usually need to work with a faculty advisor.
  • Sponsor requires formal technical and/or accounting reports, possibly special services, special equipment or proprietary interests (often called deliverables).
  • Sponsor makes award to the institution, not to the individual. The institution commits to providing the deliverables and assures that the project will be completed in conformance with the Sponsor’s special requirements.

Most projects are funded by Sponsors. A sponsored program involves a contract between the University and the Sponsor, not between the researcher and the Sponsor. Sponsored funding leaves the responsibility for the financial reporting to the Office of Sponsored Programs at the University. You, the researcher, must take responsibility for all accounting and bookkeeping. Most departments have support personnel to assist you in this process. This includes keeping track of the balances and spending in order to double-check the itemization of expenses on the University budget reports, which are usually current except for open commitments. Normally, you are also responsible for reporting on project activities.

A gift is handled differently than sponsored funding. A gift is usually a check that is provided to a Principal Investigator or school without any financial monitoring requirements or technical progress report. Gifts are often managed by foundations for each school, such as the Virginia Engineering Foundation for the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Check with your research administrator for details on how to proceed with gifts.
Where to find help at UVa (or Research administrators) All sponsored research at UVa is handled through the Office of Sponsored Programs. Each school has a designated office or research administrator for handling the faculty’s proposal writing efforts. The responsibilities of research administrators, as well as guidelines for proposal writing efforts and the submission process, vary from school to school within the University. This document highlights general guidelines which apply throughout. For detailed information on proposal requirements for a certain school, you should contact the appropriate research administrator (see appendix B).

Generating a good research idea The first item essential to the proposal process is a good idea. It is often useful to generate a list of your best ideas from which to work. In developing the list, you, as the Principal Investigator, should take into consideration your professional interests; the state of the art in your discipline; the state of the world, the economy, the environment; and any other factors which will help identify new and important research questions. Brainstorming with a group may aid in this effort as might the CTE handout on Idea Mapping.

Next, identify ideas that are creative or innovative, that build upon the strengths of all involved personnel, and that take into account institutional capability. You need to think in terms of: “What is my product?” and “What am I selling?”. When selecting a product or research idea, you need to make sure it is something with which you will be comfortable for the long-term funding and work.

Once you have generated creative ideas, you need to answer several questions:

  • What problem or need have you identified?
  • Who has the need or problem?
  • What other individuals or groups will be affected by its resolution?
  • Has anyone tried to tackle this problem before? If so, what were the results?
  • How will you tackle the problem differently? Why can you expect different results?
  • Can you implement the idea, given the existing resource constraints (e.g.,time, money, available personnel, etc.)?
  • What difficulties can you expect to encounter in solving this problem?

If you are responding to an RFP (Request for Proposal) or if you have a potential funding source in mind, remember to consider the mission of those sources when developing an idea:

  • Who will benefit from the results of my work?
  • The nation through increased scientific knowledge?
  • The national education system?
  • Federal agencies?
  • The University?
  • State agencies?
  • Industry?
  • Foundations?

By anticipating these questions and solving problems, you can refine your research idea.

At this point, your idea should be fairly well formulated, and you need to address personnel and resource issues. Larry and Virginia Decker suggest asking the following questions:

  • Who is going to do what?
  • How are these persons qualified?
  • What resources will they need?
  • Will they be willing?
  • Who else is likely to be involved and how?
  • Where will the work be done?
  • Are the facilities capable of handling the work or do they need to be modified?

You may also need to address the ownership of the research results. What will be the division of the potential resultant technology? In other words, how will the rights to the results be shared by the University, the funding source, and the researcher? This must be especially clear if a patent is involved.

Once these questions have been addressed, you are ready to tackle the full development of the idea into a pre-proposal or concept paper.
The concept paper

This brief paper, one to two pages that detail the “meat” of the proposal, should include:

  • a description of the research to be performed,
  • how it will be performed,
  • why it is important (in general and, if applicable at this point, the specific funding source),
  • who will be involved and what will their duties be,
  • the resources that will be required,
  • the duration of the project, and
  • the expected costs.

Structure the paper in a way that will help you clarify your ideas and get colleagues’ comments. The final format of this paper will be dictated by the application requirements of the particular funding source being targeted.
Identifying potential funding sources

Although some proposals are written in response to an RFP from a particular funding source, research can first be tailored to meet the interests of the researcher before a funding source is identified. A concept paper can help guide you to a potential funding sources (Of course, if the proposal is in response to an RFP, then you will not need to identify potential funding sources unless submission to several agencies is possible). Primary sources of funding are:

  • the federal government
  • the state government
  • industry
  • foundations
  • professional organizations

Several on-line databases allow a user to search through announcements and RFPs for various agencies. University research administrators can tell you how to access these databases. Available databases include:

  • Federal Information Exchange (FEDIX)
  • Dataline1 by telephone 1-800-232-4879
  • Dataline electronically telnet

DIALOG Provides information about actual grants given. DIALOG is available at Alderman Library. The agencies included in this system are:

  • Department of Energy
  • National Aeronautic & Space Administration
  • Office of Naval Research
  • Federal Aviation Administration
  • Department of Defense
  • Housing and Urban Development
  • National Science Foundation
  • Sponsored Programs Information Network (SPIN) On-line database of federal and foundation funding sources
  • Science and Technology Information System (STIS) NSF program announcements

In addition to the database systems, announcements are displayed in many publications, including:

  • Commerce Business Daily
  • Corporate Yellow Book
  • Federal Contract and Grants Weekly
  • Federal Register
  • Federal Research Report
  • Federal Yellow Book
  • Medical Research Funding Bulletin
  • NIH Guide
  • National Science Foundation Bulletin
  • UVa’s “Opportunities”
  • Science Trends
  • The Foundation Directory
  • Foundation & Corporate Grants Alert

Targeting a specific funding source

When you have found a funding agency, you will probably need to adapt your idea to their requirements. To do so, ask questions such as these:

  • Content: Do you provide enough (but not too much) detail to persuade your audience that you are in control of the necessary resources and ideas? What are the special interests or perspectives of the funding agency?
  • Organization: Do you present your information in a logical and orderly manner? Do the subtitles, the amount of text, and general writing style signal to the reader clearly which are your major and minor ideas?
  • Significance: Do you explicitly say why your project is relevant to the funding agency?

Use this information in your concept paper to work out any focus changes that you think will help target your potential Sponsor. Once this is done you are ready to pull together all of your resources for an effective pre-proposal strategy.
Pre-proposal strategy

Once a funding source has been targeted, a good pre-proposal strategy can insure a better chance of obtaining funding from the funding agency. You can use your preproposal or concept paper to generate feedback from colleagues and your potential Sponsor, thus strengthening the possibilities of an award:

  • Speak to your department chair as soon as you know that you want to submit a proposal. It is important that you have their support and approval for your efforts.
  • Make sure that you have current guidelines, addresses, and contacts for the Sponsor. Guidelines are usually updated annually. Research priorities, formats, and contact personnel change frequently.
  • Some Sponsors (e.g., NSF Engineering Education) require the submission of a preproposal, including a preliminary budget. If you are submitting a formal pre-proposal, you must obtain University approval because such an exchange may be contractually binding. If, on the other hand, you are simply exchanging drafts with program offices, you may proceed without formal approval.
  • Establish personal contact with the Sponsor. Discover the relevant technical program officer in your research area, and discuss the proposal in advance. The agency program officer is the individual most directly interested in your field of research who usually heads a research program directed at those interests. Discuss your submission with the program officer by phone and, if possible, face-to-face. You can find out about funding levels, level of interest and appropriateness of your project, program requirements, and so on. Personal contact may increase the likelihood of your receiving a grant. If nothing else, you will probably receive useful preparation suggestions.
  • Tailor your two-page concept paper to meet the goals of the targeted Sponsor. Direct this paper to a specific audience, mainly the program officer at the funding agency which you are targeting.
  • Following positive feedback on the concept paper from the potential Sponsor, set up a personal interview to get specific comments:
    • Suggestions of content,
    • Timing of submissions,
    • Review methods and likely peer reviewers.

Once you have received feedback from the program officer, you can write the final proposal.
The proposal

A good proposal is:

  • a good idea,
  • well expressed,
  • which clearly indicates:
    1. how to pursue the proposal and ensure a successful outcome,
    2. how to evaluate the findings or outcomes,
    3. how to communicate the results; whether by paper, conference, patent, etc.
A persuasive proposal links you and your ideas with the funding agency’s money and resources as well as with their primary objectives. Your research idea must meet one of the funding agency’s primary needs in order to be worth their implementing it. In order to make this link, you must accomplish three tasks:
  • explain your ideas;
  • connect your ideas with the needs of the funding agency; and
  • convince the funding agency that you can bring together and manage the necessary ideas and resources in order to get results.

Remember: A proposal is a sales document! You must sell your ideas by convincing the funding agency personnel why they should use their scarce resources to fund you! As another option, you might send a letter of inquiry with a prospectus directed to a specific funding source. A letter of inquiry introduces your research idea to the program officer. With such a letter, you seek to discover appropriate funding programs for the intended research as well as specific funding application formats. In some cases, this document is enough to obtain funding; if so, the Sponsor and University must address contract issues before the research can begin.

Suggested proposal format

Although proposal formats will vary by sponsor and by university, we provide below a suggested proposal format that you can use as an aid in discussions with colleagues, department chairpersons, and research administrators.

I. Cover Page: title, to whom the proposal is being submitted, who it is submitted by. The cover page is completed on forms provided by the Sponsor, if available.

II. Title page: (optional) The title page provides contractual information (total funding requested, project period, administrative contacts), and signatures of authorized officials (if not on Sponsor form).

III. Abstract: One-page description of overall project goals and objectives, the significance of the work, and the relevance to the Sponsor’s aims.

IV. Project Description

A. Introduction

  1. Statement of problem
  2. Literature review
  3. Goals and objectives of project

B. Rationale and significance: potential importance of work to the Sponsor, to the academic discipline, etc.

C. Research plan

  1. Methods and procedures (hypotheses)
  2. Tasks and activities to achieve goals and objectives
  3. On-going evaluation plan (if required by Sponsor)
  4. Resources: Special facilities and equipment needed/available to help meet objectives
  5. Investigator Contributions
  6. Research Funding Agreement (should be included if you are dealing with a corporate Sponsor)

D. References

V. Curriculum Vitae: The vitae needs to demonstrate that you have the training and experience needed to meet and complete the research objectives. (Some Sponsors limit the page length.)

VI. Current and pending support (if required by Sponsor): lists the proposals presently funded or under consideration by other Sponsors.

VII. Budget: Needs to conform to format requested by Sponsor. Usually involves three parts:

A. Budget summary
B. Budget detail
C. Budget justification

VIII.Certifications and assurances if requested by the Sponsor.

IX. Appendices

A. Relevant publications
B. Letters of support

Creating a powerful set of allies

The proposal writing and submission process involves many parties beyond the initial researcher or proposal writer. In order to insure effective and efficient processing of a proposal, you should make every effort to assemble a powerful set of allies for the proposal who become a juggernaut of persuasion. How to create a powerful set of allies:
  • Start the proposal writing process early.
  • Study the guidelines and scope of your audience.
  • Write from your strengths.
  • Contact the program officer early and frequently (but not so frequently that you are a nuisance!).
  • When working on final proposal efforts, work backwards from the budget through the abstract.
  • Edit and revise (always) with the audience in mind.
  • Keep in contact with the appropriate research administrator.
  • Seek feedback along the way. Do not wait until the end to solicit feedback.
Submitting the proposalYou need to contact the appropriate research administrator or, for SEAS, the Pre-Award Administration office. If you are approaching a foundation or corporate funder, your proposal must first be cleared by the Development Office before submission. In both cases, see your research administrator for specific procedures. He or she will schedule the proposal in their “processing pipeline,” begin to prepare or refine budgets, and advise you of any special approvals or protocols needed to support the proposal. When contacting the research administrator, have the following information available:
  • A complete proposal to meet Sponsor requirements. A typed copy of the text (project description), figures, bibliography, curriculum vitae, and other required forms and information.
  • Details of budget requirements: personnel and time spent on the project, laboratory supplies, equipment, travel, etc., including a justification for these items.
  • Information on the Sponsor: name of technical contact, address, number of special protocols and approvals if your research involves DNA techniques, if human or animal subjects are used, and if radioactive materials, hazardous chemical waste, or infectious agents are used. Such needs requires a committee review and special paper work which can take up to one to two months for University approvals.
  • A copy of the Sponsor’s guidelines or announcement in case your research administrator does not have them.
Once this review is complete, the research administrator forwards the proposal to the Office of Sponsored Programs. The Office of Sponsored Programs, located in Carruthers Hall, must approve each proposal before it is submitted to a potential Sponsor. This approval process takes approximately three days to complete. In addition, the research administrator works with the Office of Sponsored Programs to insure compliance with federal regulations regarding lobbying, drug-free work environments, etc.

University approval process for sponsored research:

  • The Department needs to review and approve the commitment of personnel, resources, etc.
  • The School must approve the commitment of personnel, resources, as well as the Sponsor requirements, and also insure that any school guidelines and requirements are met.
  • The Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) is responsible for approving proposals on behalf of the University. It ensures that contracts satisfy the necessary state statutes and University regulations, executes contracts, and establishes research accounts.

Proposal review process

Once the proposal has been submitted by the University to the potential Sponsor, the wait begins as the Sponsor reviews the proposed idea. The time frame for the entire proposal reviewing effort, from the submission of the proposal to confirmation of funding from an agency, is agency- and program -dependent. It can take approximately three months to hear from CIT, and six months to hear from NSF, whereas the DOD and DOE can take as long as eighteen months to two years. In addition, the length of funding is variable. For instance, funding from NSF is provided for projects lasting approximately two and a half years. Many state agencies, such as CIT, provide funding for periods of one year.
After approval of funding

After the research funding has been approved by the Sponsor, the University and the researcher are left with the task of administering the grant, conducting the research, and evaluating the project. Research administrators can aid the researcher in maintaining adherence to regulations as well as helping them seeking additional funding or funding continuations. Carrying out the grant-funded project is as important and as difficult as getting the grant. Keep in mind that approval means that the job has just started!

In summary, some helpful hints:

  • Submit your proposals to those most likely to be interested; do not restrict your initial submission to small agencies.
  • Get a mentor, preferably one who has obtained funding from your targeted agency. Talk with your mentor about structuring and writing your proposal, expressing your ideas, and so on. Your chances of receiving funding are enhanced by collaborating with senior faculty. However, you should “get out from under their wings” within two years.
  • During the proposal writing process keep the program officer up to date on any changes in direction and ask for feedback. The program officer can tell you about emerging areas of interest, balance of topics, and the geographic, ethnic, and gender distributions that must be maintained within the program.
  • Whether or not your proposal is funded, ask the program officer for feedback on improving your proposal writing skills.
  • Don’t despair if your proposal does not get funding the first time. Try again!
  • Remember: the probability of success is lower for a first time submission.
  • Publicize your ideas. Contact the University News Service to publish research results. Positive publicity may aid future funding efforts.
  • Think of the entire process as a proposal pipeline; do not submit only one proposal and wait to hear before submitting others.

APPENDIX A – Grant proposal submission schedule

Although the proposal submission process will vary in length, a guideline suggested by Bill McDermott, Research Administrator for the Curry School of Education, follows. Note that this schedule is only a suggestion. Please contact your appropriate research administrator well ahead of time to coordinate your specific schedule.

Suggested Grant Proposal Submission Schedule

  • 40 days before submission date, Sponsor identified
  • 35 days before submission date, Chair approval of concept paper
  • 30 days before submission date, Chair approval of complete outline of: abstract, text, table of contents. Begin coordination with research administration functions.
  • 25 days before submission date, Confirm approval of all procedural, business and research issues AND/OR submit to appropriate UVa official for consideration:
    • Indirect Cost Waivers
    • Chair/Dean verbal approval of cost sharing plans
    • Human Subjects IRB approval
    • Patent and/or copyright issues
    • Eligibility of subcontractors
    • Staffing plan (Draft descriptions and classes)
    • Contracts for subcontractors
    • Availability of space or other space issues
    • Coordination with Development personnel
For joint projects, coordinate with other departments or schools The listed items constitute a business plan for the proposal.
  • 20 days before submission, Proposal finalized
  • 15 days before submission, Receipt of any proposed subcontracts
  • 12 days before submission, Last changes/adjustments in proposal
  • 10 days before submission, Final typing (printing) and typing all application forms
  • 8 days before submission, Preparation of approval package with all attachments and necessary forms
  • 7 days before submission, Department and Principal Investigator formal approval (signature)
  • 6 days before submission, Dean’s approval
    **Insert 3 additional days for joint projects with other UVa schools/departments**
  • 3 days before submission, Reproduction, binding and packaging
  • 2 days before submission, Put in mail or deliver to courier

This schedule typifies the efforts and schedule you will need to keep when answering a Request for Proposal (RFP). Keep in mind that proposal efforts that are not yet targeted at a specific funding agency should precede this schedule. In general, final materials should be submitted to your research administrator at least five working days in advance of the Sponsor’s mailing deadline. You must allow more time if your proposal involves faculty from other schools or institutions, cost sharing, or special approvals.

APPENDIX B – Research Administrators

Research administrators aid your efforts by reviewing the proposal to be sure that it meets the University’s requirements as well as the Sponsor’s requirements. This review includes checking the prepared budget for pertinent details such as inclusion of indirect costs, travel expenses, equipment; noting staffing requirements; and insuring that all documentation is complete. Faculty should contact the grants advisor associated with their school for discipline-/area-specific information. Please also visit the Office of the Vice President for Research and Public Service.

APPENDIX C – Resources The following is a list of potential publications to aid in your proposal writing. All are available through the University library system or at the Center for Teaching Excellence as indicated.

  • Decker, Larry and Virginia Decker. Grantseeking: How to Find a Funder and Write a Winning Proposal. [Center for Teaching Excellence Library]
  • Grant Proposals that Succeeded. (Case Studies) New York: Plenum Press, 1983. [Alderman Library]
  • Holtz, Herman. The Consultant’s Guide to Proposal Writing: How to Satisfy Your Client and Double Your Income. New York: Wiley, 1990. [Darden Library]
  • Kalas, John W. The Grant System. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. [Alderman Library]
  • Krathwohl, David R. How to Prepare Research Proposals. Second Edition, Syra- cuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1989. [Clemons Library]
  • Lauffer, Armand. Grantsmanship and Fundraising. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publishers, 1984. [Education Library]
  • Locke, Lawrence, F. Proposals That Work: A Guide for Planning Dissertations and Grant Proposals. Second Edition, Newburg Park, CA: Sage Publishers, 1992. [Clemons Library]
  • Margolin, Judith B. Foundation Fundamentals: A Guide to Grantseeking. Fourth Edition. New York: Foundation Center, 1991. [Alderman Library – Reference]
  • Meador, Roy. Guidelines for Preparing Proposals. Chelsea, MI: Lewis Publishers, 1985. [Darden Library]
  • ReifLeher, Liane. Going for the Gold: Some Dos and Don’ts for Grantseekers. Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, 1989. [Alderman Library]
  • Sant, Tom. Persuasive Business Proposals: Writing to Win Customers, Clients, and Contracts. New York: AMACOM, 1992. [Darden Library]
  • Schumacher, Dorin. Get Funded!: A Practical Guide for Scholars Seeking Research Support from Business. Newburg Park, CA: Sage Publishers, 1992. [Education Library]
  • Tepper, Ron. How to Write Winning Proposals for Your Company or Client. New York: Wiley, 1990. [Darden Library]


A dataline is accessible only through a computer, either by modem or through a network. Research administrators can help you locate phone numbers of individual program administrators if you need to speak directly with someone.

A prospectus should contain an overall estnnnnnnimate of project costs in lieu of a detailed budget. An informal proposal does not need to be processed through the formal review and approval procedures of the University. However, it is suggested that budgetary matters be discussed with the research administrator for your particular school or department to ensure that the estimated overall cost is realistic for the proposed project. A lack of correlation between the proposed project and its estimated costs may lead to immediate rejection. If you get to know people within the agency or industry (when approaching an industry getting to know a project leader interested in your research can be helpful) from which you are soliciting funds, the lead time can be reduced significantly.

I would like to thank the participants in the proposal writing seminar held in the fall of 1992: William Wulf, Alf Weaver, Bernard Carlson, Thomas Hutchinson, Regina Carlson, and Bobbe Nixon. Their thoughts and insight, along with the information provided by William McDermott of the Curry School, provided the basis of this document. I would also like to thank Julia Pet-Edwards and Marva Barnett for reviewing and editing the pamphlet; their comments greatly added to the value of the document. And finally, thank you to Freda Fretwell, for being a constant source of cheerful support. Jennifer Tyler

A Publication of the Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Virginia
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4136
By Jennifer Tyler, Graduate Student Associate, CTE (1992-93)
Edited by Annamarie Black, Coordinator, CTE (1994-96)
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