How to Develop a Successful Proposal

  1. Proposal development is an iterative process, and perhaps three-fourths of the work involves getting ready to write. Plan to spend more time planning and thinking than you do writing, but allow plenty of time for both pursuits.
  2. You may have more funding options if you can be flexible about aspects of your project that may be attractive to some foundations or agencies. For example, perhaps some work that you planned to do on the St. Olaf campus can be partially accomplished in the Twin Cities, which may create an opportunity to work with a Twin Cities foundation.
  3. That being said, don’t change the core aspects of your project to fit the guidelines of a foundation or government opportunity; don’t chase the money.
  4. Start with a one- or two-page concept draft. This can be a very informal document or outline. The goal is to focus attention on key aspects of the project and to help you shape the case you’ll make:What is the opportunity or problem you want to address?
    Why is it important? To whom?
    How are you or St. Olaf prepared to address it?
    Why now?
    Over what period of time?
    What is the context?
    What will we know that we don’t know now?
    How does this project advance your professional goals and respond to St. Olaf priorities?
    What resources are needed to complete the project (time, money, access, collaborators, library materials, software, space)?
    What are we proposing to do? Many proposals do not adequately describe activities: Who? When? How? How many?
    What else has been tried?
    Why do you think this project will succeed?
    What will success look like?
    How will it be measured?
    How will you disseminate results?
    Can this project be replicated?
    Will the project continue once grant funding ends?
  5. Circulate your concept draft to colleagues who know the work and those who will help by asking you good questions, including staff in GFR. Consult with your chair, associate dean, associate provost, IIT staff and others. They want to help your project succeed.
  6. Be creative in searching for potential funders.  Use online search tools and consult with staff in GFR. It is to your benefit to participate in the search for grant funding, and not completely delegate this task to GFR staff. You are the expert in your field. As you read about funders’ priorities and programs, you may see possibilities and connections that others less familiar with your research goals may miss.
  7. Begin the search for funding as early as eighteen months prior to your sabbatical.
  8. If the funding organization permits, be in touch with program officers to get advice on the suitability of your request. Foundation or agency staff are there to help you, and many welcome calls or emails.
  9. Read the guidelines. Read them again. Follow all instructions. Proposals may be rejected for failure to observe page limitations, type sizes, deadlines, CV formats and other requirements.
  10. Give careful attention to the organization of your proposal. Use subheads, transitions, summaries and other tools to help the reader. Remember, yours may be one of dozens or hundreds of proposals under review at the same time.
  11. Know your audience and write accordingly. Will your proposal be reviewed by peers or by other professionals who may not know your field? For many private foundations, a good rule of thumb is to write clearly for the non-expert.
  12. Anticipate reviewers’ questions and address them in your narrative. Don’t make reviewers guess why you are asking for a research assistant or whether your language skills are good enough to do research abroad or why you require this software.
  13. Show rather than tell. Use data to support claims. Write with nouns rather than adjectives. Use concrete language.
  14. In most cases, you can submit proposals for the same or nearly the same project to more than one foundation or agency. But be sure to tailor your proposal to each organization to which you apply. Foundations and agencies have distinct missions and goals. Be sure the proposal reflects what the organization wants to accomplish as well as what you want to do.
  15. Start the Proposal Clearance process early.
  16. Be careful of what you ask for, because you may get it.
  17. gfr@stolaf.edu