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Chapter 9:
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

Know the Rules and Follow the Instructions

Assurances and Signatures

Letters of Support

Desktop Publishing


Cover Page

Document Layout





Other Considerations



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 it.

Know the Rules and Follow the Instructions

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 delivery.

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 requirement.

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 activities.

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 district administrators.

Assurances and Signatures

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 proposals.

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 nondiscrimination statements.

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 requirements.

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 of commitment.

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 the project.

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 characteristics:

  1. 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 writer.
  2. 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 grade.
  3. It should be neat, attractively laid out, and professionally photocopied. It is undesirable to have a messy letter copied on a poor-quality copier.
  4. 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.
  5. It should be short and to the point. Seldom, if ever, should a letter of support be longer than one page.

Desktop Publishing

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 your proposal.

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.

Document Layout

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.

Other Considerations

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 proposals.


  1. 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 proposal review.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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