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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Appendix D

Appendix E


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Chapter 5: The Proposal Business Is a Human Endeavor

People write the proposals. People evaluate them. People decide whether a highly rated proposal will be funded.

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 5

A Heartfelt Need

The Resource Seeker's Organization

The Organization's Mission

The Main Participants in Proposal Writing

Dialogue--Proposal Writer and Program Officer

Preliminary Proposal


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A formal proposal is usually submitted by or through an organization such as a school, college, university, nonprofit organization, or museum to an organization such as a foundation, funding agency, or corporation. Thus, superficially, you might think of the proposal business as involving transactions between two "faceless" organizations.

However, people write the proposals. People evaluate them. People decide whether a highly rated proposal will be funded. The overall process of the proposal business is a human endeavor. This chapter explores grant writing as a human endeavor.

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A Heartfelt Need

A proposal often begins with a person acting upon a heartfelt need. Motivated by deep personal convictions, people experiencing this heartfelt need often recognize that solving a pressing problem, performing critically important research, or achieving a particular goal can make the world a better place. The person with the heartfelt need is willing to devote his or her personal time and energy to satisfy this need. However, additional resources are needed to achieve the desired goals.

Writing and implementing proposals can be very hard work. Often it is the heartfelt need--perhaps verging on passion and extreme dedication to a cause--of the proposal writer and Project Director that not only inspires a proposal but also sees it through to completion.

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The Resource Seeker's Organization

Passion is all well and good, but a heartfelt need is not enough. In the proposal-writing business, the backing and support of a reputable organization is almost always necessary. Think of the process from a Resource Provider's point of view. As a Resource Provider, you are going to invest your resources in achieving some goals that interest you. You are going to enter into a contract with a Resource Seeker.

Clearly, as a Resource Provider, you want assurances that the Resource Seeker is reputable and will be able to fulfill the contract. In most cases, you will feel much more comfortable dealing with a partnership between the people who propose to do the work and a reputable organization on behalf of which these people work (see Figure 5.1). The reputable organization adds a level of assurance to the overall business transaction.

Figure 5.1. The Resource Provider contracts with the Resource Seeker and the Resource Seeker's organization.

Thus, a proposal typically is submitted by an organization. It may be a very large, formal organization such as a university, school district, school, or nonprofit science and technology museum, or it may be an informal organization such as a group of parents, teachers, or students.

Some organizations have a better chance of obtaining resources than others. Generally, a Resource Provider is more comfortable dealing with a well-established organization than with an individual seeking resources to advance his or her own agenda. Many public and private foundations have very strict eligibility requirements for organizations that apply. For example, a private foundation may require that applications come only from certain types of nonprofit organizations. A public funding agency at the state or national level may only consider applications from public and private schools, school districts, colleges, and universities.

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The Organization's Mission

The act of writing a proposal is usually driven by a combination of the heartfelt needs of the proposal writer or the implementation team, and the mission and purposes of an organization. This is illustrated in Figure 5.2.

Figure 5.2. Mission of organization versus heartfelt needs
of proposal writer.


You are probably already familiar with the missions of many organizations. For example, consider the March of Dimes. This is a large organization that has existed for many years. The current mission of the March of Dimes is to prevent birth defects, which is a complex and multifaceted mission. It uses a wide range of approaches to accomplish its mission. This, in turn, leads it to use many different approaches to obtaining resources.

For example, the March of Dimes may work with a research group studying the possibility of reducing birth defects by administering daily multivitamin pills to pregnant women. This team of researchers may need substantial resources to conduct a large-scale study. Funding for such a project may be sought from a federal agency or private foundation.

The researchers have a heartfelt need to obtain solid answers about the effect of this treatment. The research goals are consistent with and supportive of the mission of the March of Dimes. Thus, the researchers might write a proposal submitted under the auspices of the March of Dimes, which will provide fiscal oversight and other assurances to the Resource Provider if the project is funded. Because the March of Dimes has a long history and good reputation, this may well help the research team achieve the funding it seeks.

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The Main Participants in Proposal Writing

In proposal writing, it is useful to consider three distinct groups: the people writing the proposal, the people who will carry out the work of the proposal, and the people in the organization submitting the proposal. The Venn diagram in Figure 5.3 suggests how these three different groups may overlap.

Figure 5.3. The people associated with a proposal-writing project.

The proposal writers will often be part of the proposed project staff. Also, the proposal writers and the proposed project staff may already work for the organization submitting the proposal.

Of course, there are certainly proposal situations in which these assumptions do not hold. An organization may contract with a professional proposal-writing organization to write a proposal or do fund-raising. (Fund-raising is discussed in Chapter 12.) The organization may require a direct payment or a percentage of the funds received.

Another possibility is that the people writing a proposal will not be involved in implementing it, even though they work for the same organization. The proposal writers are professionals--their job is to write proposals. This situation is illustrated in Figure 5.4. Many organizations employ professional proposal writers.

Figure 5.4. Proposal writers who are not part of project staff.

Many people who have the knowledge and skills to carry out grant-supported work also have what it takes to write successful proposals in their field. Thus, it is quite common for a proposal's author to serve as the Project Director or Principal Investigator if the project is funded.

This is significant because the Resource Provider needs as many assurances as possible that its investment will be wisely spent and that the project will be carried out appropriately. The reputation of the organization through which the proposal is submitted is important to its success, but the reputation and track record of the proposed Project Director or Principal Investigator is usually even more important. A research proposal from a Nobel Prize winner tends to have a much greater chance of being funded than a research proposal from a person who has few published research papers and who has never won any grant support. And, of course, if the Nobel Prize winner is a faculty member at a prestigious university such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the odds are even more in his or her favor. The beginning faculty member at a small state college is at a severe disadvantage in competing for research funding with the MIT Nobel Prize laureate.

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Dialogue--Proposal Writer and Program Officer

Figure 5.5 illustrates the general structure of the dialogue between representatives of the Resource Seeker and Resource Provider. The representative of the Resource Provider is often called a Program Officer. In this example, the Resource Provider is a foundation or granting agency set up to review proposals from a large number of Resource Seekers.

Step #

Resource Seeker (Proposal Writer and/or Project Director)

Program Officer (Representative of Resource Provider)


Does some initial thinking on a project that relates to someone's heartfelt need and is consistent with the mission of the Resource Seeker's organization.


Identifies Resource Providers that have a history of funding projects like the one the Resource Seeker is conceptualizing. Requests general information from these Resource Providers.


Note: Increasingly, the Resource Provider information is available electronically and can often be obtained without direct interaction with a Resource Provider. Although this may cut costs, its impersonal nature deprives the Resource Seeker of beneficial human-to-human dialogue.

Responds to the request for information by sending materials that describe the overall purpose and accomplishments of the Resource Provider, as well as details on how to interact with the Resource Provider to obtain funding.


Develops a project purpose and some specific project goals. Decides which potential Resource Providers are currently most closely aligned with these.


Unless a Resource Provider specifically prohibits it, interacts with potential Resource Providers both informally (via phone, and personal meeting, or e-mail).

Responds to informal interactions and to a formal preliminary proposal. Helps to shape the project purpose and project goals so that they align with the purpose and goals of the Resource Provider.


Prepares and submits a preliminary proposal if is is required and/or allowed. (See the next section of this chapter.)

Responds to preliminary proposal. Note that any Program Officers have a tendency to provide encouragement. The Resource Seeker should not become overly confident that a proposal will be funded merely because the Program Officer has provided encouragement through the interactions in Steps 5 and 6.


Prepares a formal proposal. If questions arise that require more information from the Resource Provider, interacts with the Resource Provider via phone, e-mail, or in writing, as appropriate.

Answers questions in a manner that will contribute to a stronger and more appropriate proposal.


Obtains needed cover-sheet signatures from the Resource Seeker's organization. Makes the required number of copies and submits the proposal.

Nowadays, the needed forms are usually available electronically on the Resource Provider's Website.


The activity described in the right column may take a number of months.

Acknowledges receipt of the proposal and has it evaluated. Reports the results to the Resource Seeker. If the proposal is not funded, provides detailed feedback to the Resource Seeker.


If the proposal is approved (tentatively), celebrates success! If the proposal is not funded, studies feedback on why it was not. If appropriate, revises the proposal and resubmits it to the original or some other Resource Provider.

If the proposal is (tentatively) recommended for funding, begins budget negotiations with the Resource Seeker. Funding may be contingent on the Resource Seeker making significant changes (usually, decreases) in the proposed budget.


Negotiations continue until the Resource Seeker and the Resource Provider come to mutual agreement.

Negotiations continue until the Resource Seeker and the Resource Provider come to mutual agreement.


Awards the grant that funds the project. Probably provides some regional or national publicity.


Implements the project; provides periodic progress reports and fiscal reports to the Resource Provider as required.

Reads the progress reports. Interacts with the Project Director as appropriate.


As the project proceeds, explores with the Resource Provider the possibility of getting additional resources to extend the project work or do work on new ideas that have arisen during the project.

Responds to informal and formal requests for additional resources, extensions in the timeline of the grant, and other details.


As the project work is carried out, spends time planning the next project.

Throughout the project, provides appropriate acknowledgment to the Resource Provider. Shares the public relations and publicity successes of the project with the Resource Provider.


To the fullest extent feasible, widely disseminates the results of the project. This is an ongoing activity but has special importance as the project nears its end.


Submits final fiscal report and project activities report.

Reads the final reports. Requests additional information if needed.


Closes the books on the project.

Closes the books on the project.

Figure 5.5. Dialogue between proposal writer and Program Officer.

Figure 5.5 gives a sketchy outline of the dialogue between representatives of a Resource Seeker and a Resource Provider. The dialogue leads to a relationship between the two. As a Resource Seeker, you will want to quickly change the dialogue from an impersonal, somewhat anonymous interaction into a personal, human-to-human exchange. You will want to develop a personal knowledge of the Resource Provider's organization and specific people working for that organization. This knowledge can help you to shape a proposal that is more apt to be funded.

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Preliminary Proposal

A preliminary proposal is required in many situations. In other situations, it is optional, or perhaps merely suggested. In still others, there is no provision for preliminary proposals. An example of a preliminary proposal is given in Appendix A.

A preliminary proposal serves several purposes. From the point of view of the Resource Provider, it serves as a screening mechanism to discourage people who appear unlikely to be able to write a competitive proposal; it also provides a feedback mechanism to help proposal writers shape their proposals to better meet the goals of the Resource Provider.

Thus, a preliminary proposal and the responses to it are an important part of the dialogue between the Resource Provider and the Resource Seeker. In cases where a preliminary proposal is required or strongly recommended, the Resource Provider gains an early indication of how many formal proposals to expect in a particular funding cycle or program. This allows the organization to set up the necessary mechanism for full reviews.

Finally, a preliminary proposal helps the Resource Seeker interact with the organization and potential project staff and further clarifies the general ideas of the project.

You can think of a preliminary proposal as a shortened and simplified version of a full proposal. Thus, before you begin writing preliminary proposals, you should read Chapter 8, which describes the contents of a full proposal.

The length of a preliminary proposal usually ranges from one or two pages up to five or six pages, with about 250&endash;300 words per page. This is very little space in which to present the needed information.

Resource Seekers often try to cram too much into a preliminary proposal. Think about this from a reviewer's point of view. If the information is not too technical, a person reviewing a preliminary proposal probably can read a page a minute. This means that a reviewer might spend 5&endash;10 minutes reading, analyzing, and responding to a two-page preliminary proposal. A reviewer might spend 15&endash;20 minutes on a five-page preliminary proposal.

A preliminary proposal provides you with an opportunity to interact with a professional consultant. The professional consultant is going to give you perhaps 10&endash;15 minutes of free consultation time. In some circumstances, a preliminary proposal will be read by two or more Program Officers or consultants for a funding agency. In that case, you are getting still more free consulting!

You probably have spent many hours conceptualizing your project. Moreover, you are an expert in the specific content area and ideas of the project. You are seeking feedback from a person who is a professional in evaluating and funding proposals and in negotiating details of proposals with Resource Seekers. How do you most effectively use this free consulting? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Express the problem and your proposed solution in simple, direct, easy-to-understand language.
  2. By your choice of words and proposed project, make it clear that you understand the goals and concerns of the Resource Provider. Don't waste the Resource Provider's time by submitting a preliminary proposal describing a project that is clearly outside the Resource Provider's areas of interest and funding authority.
  3. Describe the types of feedback that will be useful to you. You might do this in a cover letter that accompanies the preliminary proposal. Alternatively, you may insert a few particularly important questions in the body of the preliminary proposal.


  1. Write a very brief summary of a proposal that you would like to have funded. Then answer the following questions. What organization would submit the proposal? What is its mission? Does it have a track record of grant proposals that have been submitted, funded, and carried out? Analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the organization from both Resource Seeker's and Resource Provider's points of view.
  2. A sample of a preliminary proposal is given in Appendix A. Based on the discussions in this chapter and your current knowledge of proposal writing, analyze this preliminary proposal in terms of its strengths and weaknesses. Pay particular attention to ways that this preliminary proposal could be improved.
  3. If you have been involved in writing a funded proposal, compare and contrast your experience of the dialogue between the proposal writer and Program Officer with the one outlined in Figure 5.5. Make some suggestions for ways to increase and improve the dialogue.

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