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Strategies for Writing Competitive Proposals


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Title: Strategies for Writing Competitive Proposals

Strategies for Writing Competitive Proposals
  • 7 October 2009
  • Office of Proposal Development
  • Office of Research Graduate Studies
  • Texas AM University
  • http//
  • John Ivy, PhD

  • "How To" Strategies to Find Research Funding
  • Analyzing the RFP Its Role in Proposal
  • Analyzing the Agency Culture, Mission, and
    Research Priorities
  • Understanding the Review Process Writing for
  • Writing a Competitive Project Summary and
    Proposal Narrative

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OPD Member List
  • Jean Ann Bowman, PhD
  • Physical Geography/Hydrology, earth, ecological,
  • Lucy Deckard, BS, MS (Materials) l-deckard_at_tamu.ed
  • New faculty initiative, fellowships,
    engineering/physical science proposals,
    equipment, and instrumentation
  • John Ivy, PhD (Molecular Biology)
  • NIH biomedical and biological science initiatives
  • Phyllis McBride, PhD (English)
  • Proposal writing training, biomedical, editing
  • Libby Pasciak
  • Scheduling, workshop management, project
  • Robyn Pearson, BA, MA (Anthropology) rlpearson_at_tam
  • Social sciences and humanities proposals, editing
    and rewriting

Office of Proposal Development OPD-WEB
  • For an electronic version of this presentation
  • Funding opportunities
  • Junior faculty support
  • Proposal development resources
  • Grant writing seminars and workshops
  • Craft of Grant Writing Workbook
  • Agency Toolkits
  • PI perspectives on competitive proposals

  • There is no amount of grantsmanship that will
    turn a bad idea into a good one, but there are
    many ways to disguise a good one.
  • William Raubformer Deputy Director, NIH

Types of University Proposals
  • Research (basic, applied, mission, applications,
  • Educational
  • Hybrid research and education
  • Small , few PIs
  • Large , multiple PIs, centers
  • Supplements to grants

Solicited Unsolicited Proposals
  • Proposals may be initiated in two general ways by
    the university researcher
  • 1) in response to a published solicitation
    (solicited proposal, RFP, BAA, PA)
  • 2) initiated by the investigator (unsolicited

Unsolicited, Investigator-Initiated Proposals
  • Program Description, Program Announcement, or
    Parent Announcement (NIH) instead of a
  • More general statement of interests of funding
    agency or program
  • Typically the main source of research funding for
    individual researchers funded by NSF, NIH, DoD
  • Majority of external research funded by NSF
    (50) and NIH (80) result from unsolicited
  • Formatting guidelines often in a separate
  • NSF Grant Proposal Guide
  • NIH SF424 Application Guide
  • DoD long-term Broad Agency Announcements

Funding unlikely to pan out
  • Grand visions
  • Ambitious plans to improve the world
  • Administrative infrastructures
  • Bricks mortar
  • Unfocused ideas enthusiasm

If you dont write grants you wont get any
  • Target the proposal at the intersection where
  • research dollars are available
  • your research interests are met
  • a competitive proposal can be written within the
    time available

Search in the right places
  • Talk to funded colleagues in your discipline
  • Read research publications for references to
    funding sources

Focus on your research interests
Searching for research funding
  • Define a general disciplinary domain of interest
    (e.g., science, social science, humanities,
    education, health and biomedical sciences,
    engineering, etc.)
  • Characterize the nature of the research interests
    within the disciplinary domain (basic, applied,
    applications, contract, mission agency)
  • Identify funding agencies whose mission,
    strategic plan, and investment priorities are
    aligned with the specific research interests

Searching for research funding
  • Further align research interests with funding
    agency funding opportunities by
  • reviewing past funding solicitations
  • reviewing agency mission statements
  • reviewing strategic investment plans and related

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  • The web portal serves as a single
    point of access for all federal agency grant
    announcements. New funding announcements from
    federal agency are posted to this site daily, and
    a range of other features allow subscribing to
    email funding alerts, linking to agency web
    sites, and searching for funding among agencies.

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Search Opportunities
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Funding Resource Links
Funding Resource Links
Funding Resource Links
Funding Resource Links
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Solicitation Modifications
  • RSS feeds and email alerts also post
    modifications to program announcements that are
    made prior to the due dates
  • This is particularly important for DoD BAAs that
    have long open periods, or RFPs from mission
  • New/Modified Opps by Agency
  • http//

RSS Funding Feeds
RSS Funding Feeds
Identifying funding opportunitiesSUMMARY
  • Develop search protocols to fit research
  • Know relevant agencies
  • Learn grant cycles

Analyzing the RFP Its Role in Proposal
What is a Solicitation?
  • It is an invitation by a funding agency for
    applicants to submit requests for funding in
    research areas of interest to the agency.

What is in the Solicitation?
  • The key information you will need to develop and
    write a competitive proposal that is fully
    responsive to an agencys
  • submission process
  • research objectives
  • review criteria
  • budget requirements.

What it is what it is not
  • The RFP is a non-negotiable listing of
    performance expectations reflecting the goals and
    research objectives of the funding agency.
  • The RFP is not a menu or smorgasbord offering the
    applicant a choice of addressing some topics but
    not others, depending on interest, or some review
    criteria but not others.

No irrational exuberance!
  • Understand the RFP for what it isnot what you
    want it to be.
  • It is not a speculative investment
  • Invest your time, resources, and energy wisely

The RFP as Treasure Map
  • Follow directions
  • Review step by step
  • Understand it
  • Understood by all PIs
  • Keep focused
  • Dont wander off path
  • Continuously calibrate ideas, objectives, and
    details to the RFP

Map your expertise to the RFP
  • Is it a fit?
  • Is it really a fit?
  • No partial fits allowed
  • No wishful thinking
  • Close doesnt count
  • If you are not a fitdont submit!

Relationship to Program Officer
  • Never be hesitant about contacting a program
    officer for clarifications.
  • Timidity is never rewarded in the competitive
    proposal process, but
  • Ambiguities are always punished!

Reviewing the RFP
  • Clarify ambiguities if unresolved
  • Get clarification from a program officer.
  • Ambiguities need to be resolved prior to proposal
    writing so the proposal narrative maps to the
    guidelines with informed certainty.

Never be Timid!
The RFP as Reference Point
  • Use the RFP continuously through-out proposal
    development and writing as a reference point to
    ensure that an evolving proposal narrative fully
    addresses and accurately reflects the goals and
    objectives of the funding agency, including the
    review criteria.

Role of RFP in Proposal Organization
  • Use the RFP to develop the structure, order, and
    detail of the proposal narrative.
  • Use the RFP as an organizational template during
    proposal development to help ensure every RFP
    requirement is addressed fully.

Keep on Track
  • Copy and paste the RFPs key sections, research
    objectives, and review criteria into the first
    draft of the proposal narrative
  • The RFP then serves as an organizational template
    for the proposal and a reference point to ensure
    subsequent draft iterations of the narrative are
    continuously calibrated to the guidelines.

RFP template ensures a proposal
  • Fully responsive to all requested information
  • Written in the order requested
  • Provides the required detail
  • Integrates review criteria into the narrative
  • Does not drift off topic or sequence.

Address the Review Criteria in the RFP
  • The description of review criteria is a key part
    of the RFP.
  • A competitive proposal must clearly address each
    review criterion, and the proposal should be
    structured so that these discussions are easy for
    reviewers to find.
  • Subject headings, graphics, bullets, and bolded
    statements using language similar to that used in
    the RFP can all be used to make the reviewers
    jobs easier.

Read Material Referenced in RFP
  • If the RFP refers or links to publications,
    reports, or workshops
  • Read the referenced materials
  • Understand how the references influenced the
    agencys vision of the program
  • Cite those publications in the proposal as
  • Demonstrate in the narrative you are fluent with
    the ideas underpinning the RFP.

Analyzing the Agency Culture, Mission, and
Research Priorities
Analyzing the Funding Agency
  • Analyzing the mission, strategic plan, investment
    priorities, and culture of a funding agency
    provides information key to enhancing proposal

Analyzsis of the Funding Agency
  • To better understand key elements common to every
    competitive proposal narrative, determine
  • Who is the audience?
  • How do you best address that audience?
  • What is a fundable idea within the context of the
    agencys research priorities?
  • How are claims of research uniqueness and
    innovation best supported in the proposal text?
  • What arguments are likely to be most compelling
    in communicating your passion, excitement,
    commitment, and capacity to perform the proposed
    research to reviewers and program officers?

Know Your Audience
  • Understanding an agencys mission, strategic
    plan, research culture, investment priorities,
    and the rationale behind them helps you weave a
    compelling and competitive proposal narrative.
  • It helps you better describe how your research
    plan maps to the research goals detailed in the
    RFP and advances the agencys larger research
  • Convincing program officers and reviewers that
    your research advances the agencys research
    objectives is a key factor in the decision to
    fund or not fund your proposal.

Dont Reinvent the Flat Tire
  • Know research currently funded by the agency
  • Where does your research fit in that context?
  • Is your research a priority at the agency?

Search for Competitive Informational Gold
  • Successful proposals represent an accumulation of
    marginal advantage
  • Funding success occurs at the boundaries of
  • Good is not good enough!

What to look for
  • Mission statements
  • Research culture
  • Investment priority
  • Strategic plan
  • Org chart
  • Management
  • Program officers
  • Reports, pubs
  • Workshops
  • Language
  • Web speeches
  • Public testimony
  • Review process
  • Project abstracts
  • Current funding
  • Solicitations

Know the Context of Your Research
Analyzing the Agency Mission
  • Funding agencies have a clearly defined agenda
    and mission.
  • Funded grants are those that best advance the
    mission of the funding agency.
  • If a proposal does not meet an agency's mission,
    it will not be funded.

Map Your Research to the Agency
  • A good idea is required, but alone, is not
  • Agencies only fund good ideas that are clearly
    developed and tightly linked to their mission,
    vision, and strategic plan as represented by the
    research objectives stated in the RFP.

Understand the Research Culture
  • Understanding the research culture of the funding
    agency helps you to more knowledgably embed your
    proposed research plan within the research focus
    and context of the agency.
  • While NSF and NIH both fund research in the
    biological sciences, they often fund research in
    very different areas under that umbrella.
  • Sometimes the differences are clear, and in other
    cases more nuanced, but the distinctions are
    there, and you need to be aware of them.

Understanding Agency Types
  • Differentiate between basic research agencies
    (e.g., NSF, NIH) and mission-focused agencies
    (e.g. DOD, NASA, USDA).
  • Differentiate between hypothesis-driven research
    and need- or applications driven research.
  • Differentiate research at disciplinary
    boundaries, e.g., social sciences, biological.

Basic Research Agencies
  • Independent agency and management
  • Independent research vision, mission, and
  • Award criteria based on intellectual and
    scientific excellence
  • Peer panel reviewed, ranked, and awarded by merit
  • Focus on fundamental or basic research at the
    frontiers of science, innovation, and creation
    of new knowledge
  • Open ended, exploratory, long investment horizon
  • Non-classified, non-proprietary

Mission Agencies
  • Scope of work tightly defines research
  • Predominately applied research for meeting
    near-term objectives, technology development and
    transfer, policy goals
  • Predominately internal review by program officers
  • Awards based on merit, but also on geographic
    distribution, political distribution, long term
    relationship with agency, Legislative, and
    Executive branch policies
  • Classified and non-classified research

Intramural vs. Extramural Research
  • Some agencies fund only research by outside
    scientists (extramural research), while many also
    hire researchers who conduct research from within
    the agency (intramural research).
  • NSF and DARPA are examples of agencies that fund
    only extramural research, while NIH, NASA, the
    National Labs, DOE, and many other agencies fund
    both extramural and intramural research.
  • Furthermore, the proportion of intramural versus
    extramural research funding varies significantly
    by agency.
  • The National Labs and NIST primarily fund
    intramural research, while NIH mostly funds
    extramural research.

Know what was recently funded
  • Learning about recently funded research in your
    area helps you understand what an agency is
    looking for in the review process
  • Review abstracts of funded proposals on agency
    web sites
  • Talk to the principal investigators of funded
    proposals in your area
  • Obtain copies of funded proposals
  • Ask the PI
  • Ask the agency (funded proposals are public)

Know Language of Funding Agency
  • Agencies often speak in a dialect unique to them.
  • Echo the language of the funding agency back to
  • This is important in writing the proposal
    narrative, and helps to frame arguments more
    clearly and make them more easily understood by
    program managers and reviewers.

Analyze Agency Language
  • Once the funding agencys language is learned, it
    allows the appropriate translation to occur
    between the language of the funding agency and
    that of the applicant.
  • It often helps the clarity of the narrative text
    to translate the applicants institutional
    language into that used by the agencys program
    officers and reviewers.
  • This is not an onerous or difficult task, but
    involves being alert to any preferred or repeated
    terms, usages, and meanings favored by the
    funding agency.
  • Fluency in the funding agency language and
    terminology is another factor that will enhance
    the competitiveness of the proposal narrative.

Helpful RSS Feeds
Federal Awards Made Databases
  • NIH Computer Retrieval of Information on
    Scientific Projects (CRISP)
  • NIH Extramural Awards By State and Foreign Site
  • NSF Award Data
  • NASA NSPIRES Past Solicitations and Selections
  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)
    Grants On-Line Database (GOLD)

Federal Awards Made Databases
  • USDA Current Research Information System
  • Department of Defense (DoD) Congressionally
    Directed Medical Research
  • Department of Defense (DoD) SBIR/STTR Awards

Federal Awards Made Databases
  • Department of Education (ED) Grant Awards
  • Department of Energy (DoE) Project Summaries
  • Department of Health and Human Services
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Grants
    Information and Control System
  • Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)
    Grants Awarded

Federal Awards Made Databases
  • National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)
    Recent Grant Awards
  • Federal RD Project Summaries and Awards (NIH,
  • Health Services Research Projects in Progress
  • grants and contracts awarded by major public and
    private funding agencies and foundations.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
  • state by state summaries of awards made

Learn about proposals funded by foundations
  • Foundation Center (Find Funders)
  • http//
  • Foundation Finder
  • http//
  • 990 Finder
  • http//
  • http//
  • http//

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Understanding the Review Process Writing for
You must intrigue the reviewers
If you dont intrigue the reviewers
Two general kinds of review criteria
  • Criteria that are overarching and apply to all
  • e.g., intellectual merit and broader impacts at
  • overall impact, significance, approach,
    innovation, invetigators, and environment at NIH.
  • The second type of review criteria are specific
    to the particular program and may be very
    detailed in terms of expected project objectives
    and outcomes.

Questions common to all reviews
  • Specific review criteria and review processes
    differ from agency to agency, as well as by
    program within an agency, but the core questions
    program officers and reviewers need answered can
    be simply stated
  • What do you propose to do?
  • Why it is it important?
  • Why are you able to do it?
  • How will you do it?
  • How does it contribute to the interests and
    objectives of the agency and program?

Simple but challenging questions
  • Your challenge is to answer these questions in a
    clear, convincing way that is easily accessible
    to the reviewersnot a simple task.
  • You must craft a persuasive argument presenting
    the merit, significance, rigor, and relevance of
    your research
  • You must convince reviewers you have the capacity
    to perform and the institutional infrastructure
    to support your research
  • You must extend your argument to discuss the
    likely impact your research will have in
    advancing the field and creating new knowledge,
    both in your research area and possibly in other
    research fields as well

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How Your Proposal is Reviewed
How Your Proposal is Reviewed
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Addressing review criteria
  • A competitive proposal must clearly address each
    review criterion, and the proposal should be
    structured so that these discussions are easy for
    reviewers to find, compare, and contrast.

The funded proposal
  • The author of a funded proposal has
    accomplished the basic goal of grant writing
  • Ensured the reviewers were intrigued and excited
    about the proposed research
  • Understood its significance
  • Were confident in the researchers capacity to

Makes clear to reviewers
  • Moreover, the successful author has made clear
    to the reviewers
  • What research will be done,
  • Why it is significant,
  • What existing research forms the underpinnings of
    the proposed effort,
  • How the proposed research will be accomplished.

Addressing review criteria
  • The description of review criteria is a key part
    of the solicitation.
  • The description of review criteria is a key part
    of the proposal template.
  • Make the reviewers job easier by using language
    similar to that used in the solicitation.

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Pained by reviewer comments? Get over it!
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Resubmitting proposals
  • Take reviewers comments to heart
  • Somewhere between advisory mandatory
  • Assess next step
  • Start over
  • Major renovation
  • Minor renovation
  • Re-conceptualize
  • Drop the idea

Writing a Competitive Project Summary and
Proposal Narrative
The proposal is the reality
  • A proposal is not unlike a novel or a movie. It
    creates its own, self-contained reality. The
    proposal contains all the funding agency and
    review panel will know about your capabilities
    and your capacity to perform. With few
    exceptions, an agency bases its decision to fund
    or not fund entirely on the proposal and the
    persuasive reality it creates.

Charles Mingus on Grant Writing
  • Making the simple complicated is commonplace
    making the complicated simple, awesomely simple,
    that's creativity.

Writing the proposal narrative
  • Contrary to what some people seem to believe,
    simple writing is not the product of simple
    minds. A simple, unpretentious style has both
    grace and power. By not calling attention to
    itself, it allows the reader to focus on the
  • Richard Lederer and Richards Dowis, Sleeping
    Dogs Don't Lay, 1999.

Albert Einstein on Grant Writing
  • If you can't explain something simply, you don't
    understand it well.
  • Most of the fundamental ideas of science are
    essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be
    expressed in language comprehensible to everyone.

Introductory writing tips
  • Sell your proposal to a good researcher but not
    an expert
  • Some review panels may not have an expert in your
    field, or panels may be blended for
    multidisciplinary initiatives
  • Agencies reviewers fund compelling, exciting
    research, not just correct research
  • Proposals are not journal articlesproposals must
    be user friendly and offer a narrative that tells
    a story that is memorable to reviewers

Narrative iterations
  • If I had more time, I would have written you a
    shorter letter. Mark Twain

Goal of the narrative
  • The goal for the proposal narrative at the time
    of submittal is that it be a well written
    document that responds fully, clearly, and
    persuasively to the research goals and objectives
    and review criteria defined by the sponsor in the
    funding solicitation.

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The competitive narrative
  • Synthesizes ideas and detail
  • Connects ideas to performance details
  • Develops order, logic, transitions, and
  • Integrates research ideas
  • Provides a common structure to meld disciplinary
  • Makes ideas accessible to others
  • Converges on a common language
  • Requires persistence, continuous revisions, and
    many draft iterations to converge on perfection

Key Narrative Elements
  • Project summary
  • Format, topics, and scope often defined in RFP
  • Proposal introduction
  • Format, topics, and scope most often
  • Project description
  • Format, topics, and scope clearly defined and
    ordered in RFP

Role of the Project Summary
  • Captures the interest of reviewers
  • Defines the core idea clearly
  • Describes concisely the connectedness of the core
    idea to specific research activities and outcomes
  • Serves as a conceptual and relational roadmap to
    the proposal narrative

The proposal Introduction
  • Serves as a mini-proposal
  • Connects the vision, ideas, goals, research
    objectives, and outcomes
  • Makes a compelling case for research significance
    and uniqueness
  • Organizes the conceptual framework of the
  • Tells who you are what you are going to do how
    you are going to do it who is going to do it
    why you are going to do it and demonstrates your
    capacity to perform
  • Inspires reviewers to read closely and with
    interest the more detailed narrative

Role of the Proposal Narrative
  • Responds fully to sponsors requirements
  • Incubator of ideas by draft iterations
  • Enforces rigor, clarity, and simplicity
  • Tames excesses, defines boundaries, forces
  • Transforms ideas and anchors them in a common
    reality and research context
  • A reality context shared by colleagues, program
    officers, and review panelists
  • Tests ideas in a language lab
  • What seems like a good idea can be illusory
  • Verbal epiphanies at meetings are illusive

Role of the Proposal Narrative (cont.)
  • Synthesizes ideas and detail
  • Connects ideas to performance details
  • Develops order, logic, transitions, and
  • Helps the timing, logistics, and collaborations
    of proposal development
  • Integrates collaborators ideas
  • Provides a common structure to meld disciplinary
  • Makes ideas accessible to others
  • Program officers, reviewers
  • A competitive narrative requires persistence,
    continuous revisions, and many draft iterations
    to converge on perfection

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Poor planningEverybody has a plan--until they
are shot at, Colin Powell
  • Match the RFP
  • Schedule a timeline
  • Start proposal early
  • Partnerships take more time
  • Collaborator compatibility
  • Let ideas develop slowly
  • No midnight warriors
  • Periodic calibration to RFP
  • Define and schedule development tasks
  • Anticipate the unexpected

Poor Process Planning
  • What do you control?
  • Proposal narrative
  • Collaborators
  • Budget
  • What do others control?
  • Routing signatures
  • Budget approvals
  • Submission
  • Data requests
  • Institutional support

Keep focused on development tasks
  • Define and develop goals objectives
  • Plan narrative iterations
  • Who does what and when
  • Review and assess progress of goals objectives
  • Budget process by task

Anticipate the unexpected
  • Some ideas dont work out
  • Some partnerships dont work out
  • Some budgets dont work out
  • Some proposals dont work out

Craft of narrative writing
  • Good writing lies at the core of the competitive
    proposal. It is the framework for crafting and
    structuring the arguments, ideas, concepts,
    goals, performance commitments, and the logical,
    internal connectedness and balance of the

Good writing is more than mechanics
  • Strong, comprehensive, integrated knowledge base
  • Organizational clarity (stepwise logic,
    connections, sequencing)
  • Structural clarity (integrative logic, logical
  • Argumentative clarity (reasoning, ordering,
  • Capacity for synthesis
  • Connect, connect, connect! (E.M. Forrester)

Good writing is more than mechanics
  • Descriptive clarity (who, what, how, when, why,
  • Clear, consistent vision sustained throughout
  • Establishes confidence in your performance and
    excitement for your ideas by reviewers

Grammar and spelling count
  • Proposals are not graded on grammar. But if the
    grammar is not perfect, the result is ambiguities
    left to the reviewer to resolve.
  • Ambiguities make the proposal difficult to read
    and often impossible to understand, and often
    result in low ratings. Be sure your grammar is
  • George A. Hazelrigg, National Science Foundation

Internal consistency synthesis
  • A competitive proposal must be internally
    consistent by language, structure, and argument
  • All internal ambiguities must be resolved.
  • The competitiveness of a proposal increases
    exponentially with the capacity of the author to
    synthesize information.

Internal consistency synthesis
  • Synthesis represents the relational framework and
    conceptual balance of the proposal.
  • It is the synaptic connections among concepts,
    ideas, arguments, goals, objectives, and

Ideas matter (Slogans are not Ideas)
  • Shaping ideas by language is hard work.
  • Do not confuse slogans, effusive exuberance, and
    clichés with substantive ideas.
  • Show the reviewers something new by developing
    ideas that are clear, concise, coherent,
    contextually logical, and insightful.
  • Capitalize on every opportunity you have to
    define, link, relate, expand, synthesize,
    connect, or illuminate ideas as you write the

Beware of boiler plate
  • Boiler plate refers only to the application forms
    required by the agency, not the narrative
  • Thinking of the proposal narrative as boiler
    plate will result in a mediocre proposal
  • Begin each proposal as a new effort, not a copy
    paste be cautious integrating text inserts
  • Strong proposals clearly reflect a coherent,
    sustained, and integrated argument grounded on
    good ideas

FinallyBe confident
  • NSF Breakout An Overview of Research
    Educational Funding at the National Science
    Foundation (NSF)
  • 4-5 p.m.
  • 601 Rudder
  • NIH Breakout An Overview of Research Funding at
    the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • 4-5 p.m.
  • 301 Rudder