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How to Develop a Successful Proposal

Go to the funder’s website, research their goals, and review their grant making philosophy. Review their list of recently funded proposals, as this list is usually the best indicator of whether or not the external funding source may find your project appealing. Unless the funding agency or organization has supported projects of a similar size and scope to your own, they may not be a good fit, and this is true even if you are working within an area directly related to the funder’s mission.

If you are encouraged by your research into an organization’s previous funding history, download or request the funder’s proposal guidelines, and carefully note any deadlines. It is important to read and reread these guidelines and to highlight key words and phrases. For grants, determine if the submission requires a Letter of Intent (LOI), preproposal, application, or a full proposal.

Read the proposal guidelines, and if applicable, obtain application materials and carefully review the instructions. Create a checklist of everything the agency or funder requires. Consider writing a one- to two-page concept paper that addresses the idea, its academic merit, and any broader impacts:

  • What is your idea, and why is it important? To whom it is important?
  • What will you be doing? What specificactivities will you undertake?
  • What is the potential for the project to advance knowledge and understanding?
  • Will project activities benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes?
  • Will proposed activities create or explore potentially transformative concepts?
  • Are proposed activities organized and well-reasoned?
  • Does the project incorporate a mechanism to evaluate success?
  • Why are you the ideal person to address this topic or lead the proposed activity?
  • How qualified is the individual, team, or institution to conduct the project?
  • Why is now the right time for the project, and what is the project timeline?
  • Are adequate resources available to complete the project?
  • How will you disseminate or share the results of the proposed activities?
  • Can the proposed activities or researchbe easily replicated or carried forward?
  • Will the proposed activities or researchcontinue once grant-funding ends?
  • How might the proposed activities or researchbe sustained into the future?

An important step in developing a successful proposal is to define the purpose, potential impacts, and outcomes. External funders will show greater confidence in applicants who sharply define a question or problem and have planned thoroughly for how to address all stated needs. Strong evaluative methodology statements or properties within proposals are valuable to funders in determining the award of funding toward projects.

Develop a realistic timeline by working backwards from the application deadline and contact grants staff in Advancement to determine if it would make sense to contact a program officer at the foundation or funding agency. Schedule time to work on your grant budget and get approval by the university’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO). The foundation or agency may have an official budget form; otherwise, contact grants accounting staff in the Finance Office for information related to drafting a project budget.

Request letters of support or letters of commitment. Ensure recommenders are aware of all deadlines. Some competitions allow reviewers to submit letters after the deadlines, however, most do not. Share your concept paper with your letter-writers, so that they may write more persuasively on your behalf.

Complete the Grant Proposal Processing Form. Notify your academic dean(s), academic unit chair, program director, grants staff in the Office of Advancement, and the Office of the Provost/Office of Academic Affairs to the fact that you intend to submit a proposal.

Submit the grant proposal processing, accompanied by a copy of the proposal and budget, to the Senior Grants Specialist at least two (2) weeks prior to the deadline to secure required approvals.

NOTE:   External funders may require “cost-share” or “matching funds.” If a match is required, the university must contribute or raise a portion of the money or provide a contribution of “in-kind” (equipment or other property or services) that is equal to the award according to funding agency guidelines. The Office of the Provost/Office of Academic Affairs and the CFO must approve all cost-sharing agreements and matching fund commitments.


  • A cover letter or letter of institutional support;
  • An executive summary with measurable goals and outcomes;
  • Background information about the university, program, or project;
  • A discussion as to why the program or project is important;
  • A description of your project methodology;
  • A description of what will be done and who will do it;
  • The expected program or project results and how they will be evaluated;
  • A plan for sharing results and potential for project replication;
  • A case for sustainability of the project after grant funds are expended; and
  • A program or project timeline, budget, and budget narrative.

Ask colleagues to read your proposal. Forward drafts involving grants to staff in the Office of Advancement for additional feedback. Ensure that all costs described in the proposal narrative are reflected in the budget and that all costs listed in the budget are discussed in the proposal narrative. Make revisions and finalize the proposal. Complete, sign, and submit the required Grant Proposal Processing Form and receive all necessary approvals prior to forwarding your completed application or proposal to grants staff for submission.