Preparing Grant Proposals

Consider editing lengthy sections. It is critical for grant managers and developers to understand the basics of preparing a successful grant proposal and avoiding the pitfalls of not clearly defining goals and implementation.

The following suggestions are prepared by Mary A. Brumbach, Ph.D., CFRE, Executive District Director of Strategic Funding for the DCCCD Development/Foundation Office. View the sections below for an overview of developing a winning proposal.  

Where to invest time, energy, and pages
Suggestions on writing
Proposal presentation suggestions
Basic Proposal Writing: Section by Section

Where to Invest Time, Energy, and Pages

Somewhere in the application package, there is usually a proposal evaluation form that the reviewers will use. Evaluation criteria are also included in the regulations related to the application. Look carefully at the points assigned to each section of the proposal.

The point ratio clearly indicates where the funder is placing its emphasis, with two exceptions. The evaluation plan and budget, even if counted for only a few points, can affect the review of the entire proposal. Seasoned readers frequently review both first. The budget will demonstrate the reasonableness of the request, often considered in terms of the cost per participant. The evaluation plan illustrates the sophistication of the applicant in determining the success of the project’s intended outcomes.

If, for example, the needs statement is worth 30 of a possible 100 points, it is obvious that a well-researched and documented statement of the problem is required. If methods count heavily, the funder is looking for the proven ability of your college to complete the project successfully. More details in planning and in describing the sequence of the project will be required to be competitive.

Suggestions on Writing  

It is important to remember that people like you will read the proposal, no matter how detailed and restrictive the application is.  As with any good writing, keeping the audience in mind will yield a more focused narrative. In preparation for the task, consider the individuals typically selected to review the applications. The conditions for the review will have an impact. More frequently, applications are being submitted and reviewed on-line, particularly for large programs for larger funding agencies. Adherence to the guidelines and space limitations are critical. In paper-based reviews, readers often face the daunting task of reading multiple proposals in a matter of a few days. In all cases, a memorable proposal that is well-conceived, engages and captures the imagination of the reader and is well-written stands a better chance of succeeding.

Write in plain English and in varied, but not complex sentences. Define meaning for jargon and acronyms and keep explanations brief but complete. Use acronyms judiciously and sparingly and use your college’s name throughout the document instead of an acronym—its less confusing. MCC, for example, could be Macon Community College in Georgia or Madras Community College in India. Use action verbs, active voice, and “telling statistics” that illustrate the point clearly without numbing detail. Try to create a vivid picture in the mind of the reader. Visualizing the project “up and running” as if it existed and were fully implemented helps to provide the clarity and strong images that are persuasive.

Never assume that the readers know anything about your college. Describe the institution, the service area, the students, programs of study, and services concisely but with sufficient information that the reader has the context for the requested funding. This descriptive information, with appropriate variations, becomes a standard insert into many proposals once it is well-crafted. This same approach is also needed for partners in a project confirming their credibility and suitability.

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Proposal Presentation Suggestions


Repeating section headings from the application package and following the prescribed order of the proposal are standard procedure. If the evaluation document for the application used by the reviewers has language that differs from the section headings, insert the evaluation language and set it apart from the narrative with bold face, color, or italics. The purpose is simply to make it easier for readers to award full point value to that section of the proposal without having to search the narrative and draw inferences.

Proposals for paper-review are generally double-spaced on standard 8 1/2 by 11 inch white paper. Most applications call for an original and a number of copies and nearly all prefer staples to binding. Repeating the college’s name in the upper right hand corner of each page assures that the proposal will remain together if it becomes disassembled at some point in the reading process. Pay careful attention to the page numbering requirements specified in the RFP (Request for Proposal)—some agencies specify the format and location.

Using Graphics

Inserting tables, graphs, charts, photographs and other desk-top publishing features into the proposal should be done judiciously and with a combination of aesthetic and informative appeal. Often a well-designed illustration can replace blocks of text, but it must be easily read and quickly understood. Color can be helpful, but should be used in moderation. Verify that the agency permits the use of color text and images—some do not.

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Basic Proposal Writing: Section by Section

Detailed requirements for proposal content will vary from funding source to funding source. In all instances, follow the guidelines provided by the funder. The components discussed below are common in virtually all public or private requests for proposals. Lengthy applications required for major funding from government agencies may require many pages in any section.  A letter proposal to private foundation or donor will treat these elements less formally, perhaps, and certainly in fewer words, but the content will be similar.

  1. Introduction/Institutional Background: Answers “Where.” This section describes the institution in terms of location, demographics, organizational relationships, student data, basic mission, and relationship to the service area.  It establishes the college’s credibility and qualifications. It should be concise, complete, and rarely more than two pages in length. Information included in the introduction should be selected with careful attention to the overall thrust of the proposal. This section is usually written last. It will form the very first critical impression of the project and the college for the review panel.
  2. Problem Statement/Needs Assessment: Answers “Why.” This section identifies the need to be met or the problem to be solved. The need must be documented with hard data linking the problem to national, regional, and local information. Information must be specific, not broad general statements such as “teenage crime” or “literacy in America.” The problem must be brought home to the college and service area, i.e. “Thirty-five percent of area residents are concerned about the availability of youth after school activities according to a survey conducted with 900 household in spring 1999” or “According to the Census 2000 data, 60 percent of the service area population over 21 is non-English speaking.”
  3. Objectives: Answers “What will happen to what level.” Objectives identify outcomes and benefits in measurable terms. They often include percentages of gain or  reduction over past performance. Statements must be specific in terms of the target audience and the results expected.
    For example:
    a. By March 2002, retention of non-native English speaking nursing students will increase by 5 percent over the fall 1999 semester retention rate.
    b. By April 2003, to design and implement a computer assisted tutorial lab in developmental math that will increase the GPA of high-risk students enrolling in the program by a minimum of 25 percent over the fall 1999 GPA’s
    c. By May 2004, complete a job analysis for web developer with a validity rating of 90 percent or better.
    d. By June 30, 2004, the failure rate in developmental mathematics will decrease by 10% over current rates.
  4. Methods/Procedures: Answers “How.” This section describes the activities that will directly support and carry out the objectives. It often includes a timeline and frequently can be reported in chart form. Enough detail must be provided to convince the readers that the applicant knows what the project requires and how to accomplish it. Frequently a comparison of the selected approach with other possible methods is required. Watch application language: sometimes “performance evaluation measures” are required rather than the processes employed. The difference is apparent in language such as “convene the advisory committee” (process) and “advisory committee completes project recommendations” (outcome). Methods for recruiting and selecting eligible participants are often included in the procedures section.
  5. Time Frame: Answers “When.” The time frame, if separate from the procedures, usually includes a table or a chart that lists by month, quarter, or benchmarks the tasks to be accomplished. Sometimes the charts include “who” will be doing the task and “what” will be accomplished as well. Time frames must be realistic and correspond to the funding period. Check for “start-up” periods allowed by the agency, but be certain to include measurable accomplishments early in the project period. Savvy readers are alert to projects that must hire new personnel and that do not allow for the time required for institutional processes for search and hiring to be accomplished.
  6. Personnel: Answers “Who.” This section includes job descriptions for each key position where support has been requested or where matching funds have been designated as a portion of salary. It describes reporting relationships and indicates the amount of time any position or individual will spend on the project. In the case of existing personnel, the assignment must be new or redirection and expansion of existing services. Duties that are displaced by the assignment must be documented with information on where those duties will be assigned if they are continued. Sometimes it is helpful to insert an organizational chart of the project. Usually resumes are condensed in the proposal and full resumes included as references in the appendices. Condensed resumes should direct the reader to recent relevant experience and the qualifications of the individual for the proposed project. If a position is to be filled, a job description should be summarized and the complete description included in the appendices.
  7. Evaluation: Answers “How well.” The evaluation section presents a plan for determining the success of the project at interim points and at the end. The plan should include both in progress (formative) and final (summative) measures. Measures used may be internal and external, qualitative and quantitative, or a combination of these elements. It should assess the products of the process and the process used to implement the project. Evaluation plans must be directly tied to the project and should not be “included in the on-going evaluation cycle of the college” or rely on an external evaluator unless that evaluator’s role is clearly defined described and qualifications and outcomes specified. Consider inserting a matrix to summarize the evaluation indicating the objectives, evaluation methods and instruments, personnel involved in data collection and analysis, and estimated date of the evaluation.
  8. Budget: Answers “How much.” In summary and in detail, the budget spells out the costs to be met by the funding source and the methods used to determine the costs in the following categories: personnel, fringe benefits, supplies, travel, equipment, consultants, and other (postage, telephone, printing etc. depending on the agency). Indirect costs that cannot be tied directly to the grant project (accounting, utilities, etc.) are sometimes allowed. Often consultants and consultant travel are separate line items and sometimes they are lumped under “other.” The budget total should be in the range of the average grant award for the competition unless there are unusual circumstances such as large numbers of participants or particularly hard-to-serve clients.
  9. Other Components: Abstract, Letters of Support, Appendices.  The abstract is a brief statement of one page or less that recaps the proposal elements and summarizes the need and the amount of the request. Letters of support must include any cooperating institution whose contributions are critical to the success of the project. They must be current, on letterhead, and contain precise language detailing agreements reached, the specific roles the supporting partner will play in implementation of the project, and any resources committed (cash and in-kind). These build credibility, particularly when the project is a new venture and when important points can be quoted in the text of the proposal. Appendices are useful for background information or for documents too lengthy to include in the proposal. Applications may limit the number of pages or have requirements for appendices. Like the letters, important data should be quoted in the text and the full document cited.

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