Paying Attention to Details
You must follow many detailed rules
in writing and submitting a formal proposal.
Failure to do so may lead the granting agency to
reject your proposal without even reading it.
Moursund, D.G. (2002). Obtaining resources for
technology in education: A how-to guide for writing
proposals, forming partnerships, and raising funds.
Copyright (c) David Moursund, 2002.
Section Headings for Chapter 9
This chapter focuses on proposal writing for formal,
competitive situations. However, many of the ideas given
here are applicable to less competitive situations.
You must follow many detailed rules in writing and
submitting a formal proposal. Failure to do so may lead the
granting agency to reject your proposal without even reading
Know the Rules and Follow
The Request for Proposals (RFP) or program guidelines
provided by a funding agency contains detailed instructions
to proposal writers. In addition, the organization through
which you will submit your proposal probably has detailed
rules of its own. You will need to follow these instructions
and rules carefully.
There will likely be a number of absolute requirements
that must be met. For example, if the Program Guidelines say
that a proposal must reach the funding agency office on or
before 5:00 p.m. on a certain date, this means that your
proposal will automatically be rejected if it does not
arrive on or before that day and time. Some organizations
become so concerned about this absolute requirement that
they hand-deliver their proposals to the funding agencies.
Rather than trust a commercial courier service, they will
fly one of their employees across the country to make the
As another example, if the instructions say that a
particular section of the proposal must not exceed 15
double-spaced typed pages, you should follow this
requirement. Moreover, you should not use a tiny type size
and very narrow margins to crowd in more words than would
ordinarily fit in the allotted space. Instead, you should
adhere both to the requirement and the "spirit" of the
Help the reader of your proposal recognize that you have
followed the instructions. Suppose the guidelines indicate
that a proposal must address eight specific issues listed in
the guidelines. The guidelines provide information on
evaluation criteria for each of these eight components, tell
you the appropriate order for the parts of the proposal, and
give the page limits for the various parts of the proposal.
In this situation, your proposal should begin with a table
of contents that shows the eight components placed in their
correct order. The table of contents will also show that you
met the page-limit restrictions. An evaluator reading your
proposal can tell at a glance that you have addressed the
eight issues in the order suggested in the guidelines and
did not exceed the page limit. You're off to a great start
in your interaction with the evaluator!
Other examples of absolute requirements include
signatures of appropriate officials in the Resource Seeker's
organization and letters of agreement between collaborating
organizations if your proposal includes collaborative
An RFP is also is likely to contain some suggested
guidelines. These are not the same as absolute requirements.
A suggested guideline may recommend that the proposal not
exceed 20 double-spaced pages. You may decide to submit a
longer proposal, trusting that the content of your
additional material outweighs the evaluators' annoyance at
having to read a longer proposal.
You may also encounter a suggested guideline stating that
proposal budgets be in a particular dollar range, such as
$40,000 to $80,000. You might decide to write a proposal
requesting funding at higher or lower levels. It often
happens that a well-written proposal with a smaller budget
gains an advantage in the evaluation and funding process
because it stands out from the other proposals. Moreover,
the Program Officer may be able to squeeze in one additional
high-quality, low-budget proposal by making very small
reductions in the budgets of the other funded proposals.
In addition to the rules put forth in the RFP, there are
likely to be rules established by your organization. Who is
authorized to sign off on the proposed budget or entire
proposal? Who is authorized to make commitments about
remodeling of facilities? Who is authorized to make
commitments about in-kind contributions? If your project
involves research on humans, it must be approved by a Human
Subjects Committee. If it involves research on animals, it
must be approved by an Animal Rights Committee.
Less formal fund-seeking activities often face similar
local rules and regulations. As a teacher, are you allowed
to do fund-raising for your class? Can you approach a local
business person and create a partnership? Who is allowed to
make an appeal to the PTO? Who is allowed to solicit and
train parent volunteers? Can your class, grade level, or
school set up a business, such as a consulting or a
parent-training business? Generally speaking, you can get
answers to such questions by talking to school or school
The granting agency wants assurance that your proposal
meets the legal requirements of your organization and that
if your proposal is funded, the organization meets the legal
requirements of the granting agency.
The following statement about nondiscrimination is quoted
from the proposal guidelines for National Science Foundation
In accordance with Federal statutes and
regulations and NSF policies, no person on grounds of
race, color, age, sex, national origin, or disability
shall be excluded from participation in, denied the
benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any
program or activity receiving financial assistance from
the National Science Foundation.
If you are writing a proposal to the NSF, obviously you
should include a section that assures the NSF that you will
follow this nondiscrimination requirement. It may well be
that the organization for which you are writing a proposal
has a similar but somewhat different statement. Your
assurance to the funding agency needs to cover both of the
Depending on the funding agency, a number of other
assurances may be required. guidelines from from the
Department of Education include a list of assurances. For
example, you must give assurance that you will maintain a
drug-free work environment in carrying out the work of the
project. The guidelines form contains the statement that
some assurances may not apply to a particular grant
application. It concludes with space for a signature of a
qualified official from your organization, certifying that
the assurances will be met.
A proposal typically must have the signatures of
appropriate people from the submitting organization. For
example, a proposal from a university may need the signature
of a dean or department head, a budget officer, and a
vice-president for research. Typically, both the submitting
organization and the funding agency have signature
These signatures are part of the overall legal aspects of
the arrangement or contract the Resource Seeker is
attempting to develop with the Resource Provider. The people
providing the signatures may be making a legal commitment
for the organization they represent. The organization may be
legally responsible for carrying out the work specified in
the project if the project team itself does not meet the
obligation. This aspect of proposal preparation should not
be taken lightly!
Letters of Support
Some proposals require letters of support. In others,
letters of support are optional. Letters of support are
essential when in-kind and other matching funds are a key
part of a proposal. Each major in-kind or other matching
funds component of the budget should be backed up by a
letter of support by a person authorized to make this level
As a rule of thumb, you should include letters of support
because they add to the credibility of the proposal and the
organization submitting the proposal. The letters are
testimonials by responsible and well-qualified people saying
they understand your proposal, support what you want to
accomplish, and are confident that you will accomplish the
goals of the proposal. You will need a letter of support
from any person or organization contributing resources to
It is a good idea to have letters of support from
different stakeholder groups affected by or involved in your
project. A well done letter of support has the following
- It should be printed on letterhead or produced in
some other format that clearly identifies the person
writing the letter and the constituency he or she
represents. This increases the credibility of the letter
- It should come from people who are relevant to the
proposed project. For example, suppose you are submitting
a research proposal in an esoteric field. A letter from a
Nobel Prize winner in this area of research, whose letter
indicates familiarity with your work, is more appropriate
than a letter from your first-grade teacher saying that
you were a well-adjusted child when you were in the first
- It should be neat, attractively laid out, and
professionally photocopied. It is undesirable to have a
messy letter copied on a poor-quality copier.
- It should demonstrate that the letter writer
understands the proposal. At a minimum, the writer should
have read an abstract of the proposal and discussed it
briefly with the proposal writer.
- It should be short and to the point. Seldom, if ever,
should a letter of support be longer than one page.
Your proposal will be read by a Program Officer and a
small number of evaluators who are probably working under
severe time pressures. If any one of them gives it a low
rating, it will probably not be funded. Therefore, think
carefully about the design, appearance, and readability of
Here are a few suggestions for making the proposal more
attractive and appealing.
The design should be strong, simple, and direct. The
overall document should have a unity and a "flow." It should
be very easy for a person to pick up the document and find
any particular section or subsection, such as the budget,
vitae, references, and other components.
Cover Page, Title Page,
Abstract, and Table of Contents
The overall appearance of a proposal is enhanced by
having a cover page or title page, abstract or executive
summary, and a table of contents. The proposal pages should
be numbered, and each major section should be included in
the table of contents. You may want each page to have
headers and footers that clearly identify the title of the
proposal and the submitting organization.
Use standard-size paper. Allow margins of at least 1 inch
around the entire page. Allow adequate white space--the
pages should not look crowded. Provide ample section heads,
subsection heads, and other reading aids. Print on only one
side of the page unless you are submitting an extremely long
proposal. (Remember, you are producing only a few copies of
the proposal. It is not worth the risk of inconveniencing
your readers simply to save a few sheets of paper.)
Some RFPs provide strict rules for binding proposals; for
example, the RFP might instruct you to use a single staple
in the upper left corner. Certainly there are much more
sophisticated binding methods. If there are no restrictions
against it, use a binding method that extends over the full
length of the left side of the pages. The binding should
allow the document to open easily and lie flat.
The rule of thumb is to not use more than two or three
typefaces in the document. Use an easily readable serif
typeface for the body of the text. Use a simple, clear, sans
serif typeface for section and subsection heads. Do not use
underlining--this is a throwback to typewriters. Avoid using
titles, headers, and footers that appear in all uppercase
letters. This conveys the effect of shouting--it is
intrusive and is also a throwback to typewriters.
Page after page of text can be hard to read. Tables,
charts, graphics, and other elements that break up the text
can add to readability. Keep in mind that "a picture is
worth a thousand words."
Writing should be simple, clear, and direct. Use short
paragraphs. Remember that the goal is effective
communication to a person who may be tired from having to
read many proposals in a short period of time.
Make a special effort to avoid errors in spelling and
grammar. Be sure that your references follow the style used
by professionals in your field.
Print your proposal on a high-quality laser printer. Use
high-quality paper and make sure that the copying is done to
high standards. Using a subtle shade of off-white paper
might distinguish your proposal from others. Proposals that
include color graphics are becoming increasingly common.
Whether color graphics are appropriate depends on the
intended audience and the nature of the proposal. Justified
text is harder to read than ragged right text, so you will
probably want to use ragged right text in your
- Think about a proposal you would like to write. Make
a list of the stakeholder groups involved with or
affected by the project. Then make a list of names of
people who might be involved with your project, perhaps
as a consultant, serving on an Advisory Committee, or in
some other mode. Which of these people could write
letters of support for this proposal. Analyze how
participation of these individuals might affect your
- Review some well-designed newsletters. Compare and
contrast them with the design and layout of scholarly
research journals. Use this analysis as a basis for
discussing the design and layout of a proposal.
- If possible, look at several different proposals that
have been submitted for funding. Analyze them from a
design and desktop-publishing point of view.
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