Proposal Development in Ten Steps

General guidelines to the process from idea to funded project.

Why do you need a grant? Spell out the detail as much as possible.

  • What is the rationale behind your project?
  • What is the theory and organizing frame for the work?
  • Who will be involved?
  • How long will it take?
  • How much will it cost?
  • What is the project’s relevance in research, policy, or practice?
  • To what larger field of inquiry does your project belong?

Mapping out and strategizing the parameter and structures early on will help you streamline the development of your proposal.

Proposal Development Prompts

Explore and get familiar with the universe of faculty funding, then begin researching potential funding sources to find a good fit for your project.

Look for a funder whose objectives and strategies match your project. Gather a list of currently funded or recently funded projects.

  • Does the source fund projects like yours?
  • Does your work fit their interests?
  • Can you do it in their timeframe?
  • Are you competitive enough in terms of your experience, publication background, your collaborators/team members?
  • Can you match the level of innovation they are interested in? (For example, are they looking for “revolutionary” or “evolutionary”? “Breakthrough” or “incremental”?)
  • Are they concerned with interdisciplinarity? Mentoring of junior faculty? Publicly accessible data sets?
  • Can you tweak your project to fit their funding priorities? Try to be broad-minded and creative about how your project fits into funding priorities.

Before you reach out to a potential funder, do everything you can to learn about the organization and its programs and processes. If the source offers webinars on how to apply, watch them. If there are guidelines, FAQs, etc., review them very carefully. Read the foundation’s “annual letters.”

Take note of

  • Their fields of interest, types of support, geographic focus, and key words.
  • The guidelines for letters of intent, application procedures, and funding criteria.
  • The appropriate contact information for particular stage of your proposal development and relationship with the potential funder.
  • Names of foundation trustees, review panel/committee members: what do those names and profiles tell you about what this funder prioritizes?
  • Abstracts or descriptions of currently funded projects: what do they tell you about the viability of your project?

Read the funding announcements thoroughly and carefully. Analyze calls for proposals for

  • Funding priorities
  • Agency goals
  • “Audiences”
  • Deadlines and application process
  • Requirements, including page and form limits
  • Past recipients
  • Proposal examples
  • Program officer contacts

Do you know anyone who has received funding from this potential source? Talk to them for insight. Likewise, your institutional professionals can help with local knowledge of a foundation and its priorities and procedures—critical but sometimes elusive insight.

Note whether the potential funding source requires letters of support from particular offices within the institution and set those requests in motion early on. Letters of support often require talking to your school’s dean of research (if your school has one); if you’re not sure who to contact, check with your department chair or your dean of faculty.

Also, make sure the research administration team in your school are on board with your proposal. All proposals must be routed through your school’s Research Administrative Services unit (RAS) whether the proposal is for a private foundation, a federal agency, or otherwise. Contact them early to learn more about what the RAS will need from you to get your grant submitted—but also to understand what help they can provide for submitting the grant. For example, Emory College faculty should visit the College and Professional Schools Research Administrative Services website and complete the "intent to submit" form there.

If you are writing a grant to a private foundation, be sure to reach out to the Office of Foundation Relations for their excellent guidance and support.

And remember that some key funding opportunities for faculty are "Limited Submission Opportunities" (LSO's), meaning the sponsor has placed a limit on the number of applications that may be submitted from an institution. The contact person for internal selection processes can vary but, in general, federal funding opportunities are administered by Holly Sommers of the Office of Sponsored Programs, and private foundation funding opportunities are administered by Kristin Anderson of the Office of Foundation Relations. Read more about LSO's at Emory here.

Make a note of how your potential funding source prefers to communicate with applicants. The styles and approaches vary widely from one organization or agency to another. Check their website for any clear and direct language about contacting program officers.

  • Many federal funders have program officers who are happy to talk with you about your research.
  • On the other hand, many private foundations do not accept “cold” proposals or even letters of intent, or they may function as “limited submission opportunities” through your institution.
  • Then again, some funders require a “letter of intent” and have a specific set of rules for the format and procedure for submitting one.

If it is appropriate for you to reach out to a program officer, be prepared to talk about your research. You will want to demonstrate that you have done your homework, so don’t ask questions about submission details that are easily found on the source’s website.

Whether you call or email, be prepared for some delay in response. Wait a few days before re-contacting. When you do hear back, schedule a time for a more detailed conversation about your proposed project, unless you feel very confident about your ability to talk about your project concisely and according to the foundation guidelines right away.

Ask whether the program officer would like some information on your project before the call. If so, send them a succinct overview that corresponds to the organization’s funding criteria.

Likewise, be prepared for your conversation with a two- or three-sentence description of the project’s purpose, research questions, prior funding, why it’s a good fit for this source, the populations involved, timeline, methodology/data analysis, implications of work. Remember that the program officer makes many of these calls every day.

Your goal is to get interest. If it's appropriate, you might ask, “Do you think a letter of intent for this project should be submitted?” 

For more tips on crafting a strong Letter of Intent, we recommend the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity webinar series on “Everything You Need to Know About Grant Writing”.

For more tips on making the most of a meeting with a program officer, see these resources:

Begin with your proposal development prompts and the funder's proposal guidelines. Every funder is different, but there are some common qualities in a strong proposal:

  • Clear and concise communication about your research and its potential results and impacts. Page limits especially require effective, efficient communication. 
  • Writing that makes your work accessible and compelling to non-specialist audiences (this also means avoiding jargon and spelling out acronyms).
  • The case you make for your project matches the funder's goals. 
  • A detailed, concrete, explicit, and persuasive set of arguments:
    1. that there is a problem, issue, discovery that needs to be addressed;
    2. that you have an idea for how to solve the problem, fill the niche, etc.; and
    3. that you are the person to do it.
  • All the parts of a proposal (supporting materials included) come together to make build that case.

Although the format and style will vary, more or less, here are the questions your proposal will need to answer:

  • Why does it matter? Why is it important and relevant? 
  • How are you going to do it? What are your methodology, approach, and objetives? 
  • How will you know you’ve been successful? 
  • What is new, innovative, and creative about it? 
  • What is special about the people and the institution involved?
  • What is the context of the work? The resources, environment, and populations?
  • What is the potential impact?
  • What are the financial resources required? Your budget?

Be sure to take advantage of the support available to you, through your school's research development team, the Office of Foundation Relations, and others. They can provide helpful feedback on drafts and can advise on timing and strategy. 

Studying successful proposals can also help. A website called Open Grants, for example, includes more than 200 grants, both successful and unsuccessful, that are free to peruse.

See Proposal Preparation Tools for more.

Allow yourself ample time to collect attachments, acquire letters of support, make sure your budget is accurate, proofread everything several times, ask others to read it for you, etc. Read and reread the directions. Every funder is different. If you’re using the same information for multiple applications, customize it for the funder in front of you. If your proposal will be submitted online, check into the online system early. Sometimes crucial application instructions (word limits, attachments) are hidden behind the log-in.

The deadline is approaching. You have proofread and had a couple of other trusted eagle-eyed colleagues proofread your proposal. You have checked and double-checked your budget figures. You have all the supporting documentation compiled. It's time to put your application packet in the mail or click the "submit" button. If you are applying to a federal agency, make sure you understand Emory's processes and systems for submission

For example, in many cases, your school’s RAS unit will work with Emory’s Office of Sponsored Programs to submit the proposal. You personally won’t be the person to click the “submit” button, so this step becomes giving the RAS your permission for them to submit the proposal. Be sure to allow 24 to 48 business hours for them to do any final checking of your proposal that they may require (see step 5, ensuring Emory support!).

If you are submitting by mail, pay attention to postmark versus received deadlines. If you are submitting online, it’s smart to turn your application in early and stay out of the last-minute rush.

If your proposal is funded, congratulations! Pay close attention to reporting requirements and tend to your relationship with your funder. And consider your communications strategy: a press release from your school's communications team about the award and your project, for instance, and sharing the story of your project and its impact via both social media and major media.

If you did not receive funding this time, take heart. This is your time to learn from the experience. See about getting reviewers' comments on your proposal, so you can identify its strengths and weaknesses on the next try.