Getting Started

Before You Write Your Proposal

Consider your topic. A successful grant proposal starts with an important question or problem, and an innovative, strategic, and creative idea for solving it.

Your project idea should answer the next logical question in your specific field of study. It should also represent a contribution to society at large. Sponsors invest their funds wisely and are seeking projects that will make a difference. You and your idea should be well positioned. To better understand this strategy read the two articles by David Stone under Related Content.

It is also important to consider the logistical needs of your project early in the process, so that you have time to address them.

    • What resources will you need to do the project?
    • Will you need to collaborate with other people or institutions for scientific/programmatic or logistical reasons?
    • How much time will it take to successfully execute the project?

The Facilities Statement and the Developing a Budget sections discuss this in greater detail. The answers to these questions may drive, in part, the funding opportunities you seek to support your idea.

Once you have your idea and have determined basic resource needs, you will need to find funding.

Our Finding Funding pages describe the resources available through SPA to support the search for appropriate funding sources. You can also gain information on potential sponsors by talking to colleagues and researching similar funded work.

Sponsors make investments in scholars and researchers and their lines of work and like to be updated on the progress of the work. In such cases, it may be a good idea to reach out to a sponsor to fill them in on important or exciting developments that occur as the project progresses.

Obtain and read the grant program guidelines. Make sure that potential funding agencies' priorities align with the integrity of your project. If you are unsure, contact SPA or an agency program officer before starting work.

Consider serving on agency review panels.

Reading other proposers' grant applications and being in the room during review discussions provides a unique perspective and informs your ability to write to reviewers as an audience. It also provides additional connections to professionals in your field of study. Check the agency website for requests for reviewers.

Understand how the Division of Research & Innovation Partnerships and Sponsored Programs Administration can support your path forward.

Both SPA and the Division of Research & Innovation Partnerships (RIPS) offer support to faculty and staff pursuing external funding. The Related Content provides information on that support. The earlier you talk with your research development specialist (RDS) about your idea, the better able we are to support your efforts.

Writing the Proposal

A proposal is made up of multiple components that vary according to sponsor and RFP requirements. Regardless of the type of proposal, there are some common elements for planning, organizing and completing the entire proposal. 

  • Develop a timetable for your writing process. Give yourself time to prepare the most competitive package possible.
  • Start your template based on the sponsor's review criteria.
  • Refer to agency strategic plans and writing guides.
  • Follow the sponsor guidelines closely. Know the requirements—and limitations—for all proposal components.
  • Some sponsors suggest writing a proposal is like writing a story.
  • Read successful proposals.


Writing a grant proposal should start about a year before the sponsor deadline, It begins with developing the idea, reviewing literature and preparing a team. At three months, the principal investigator (PI) begins to obtain preliminary data. At six months, preparation of the initial drafts of the proposal begins. At ten months, the guidelines and RFPs should be available so that you can begin to prepare your proposal in response to the sponsor's specific requirements. Within one month of the deadline, have others review the narrative to provide feedback. The PI then has time to consider the feedback and to revise as necessary.

Writing Template

One good way to begin the narrative is to copy and paste the sponsor's review criteria or selection criteria into your document. This will help to ensure that all of the required elements are included and developed throughout the proposal writing process.

Agency Guides

Guidelines and proposal suggestions differ across research projects, program grants and fellowships. Many agencies offer writing guides specific to their needs and general proposal requirements. Take advantage of these resources and see Related Content for additional assistance to appropriately tailor your proposal.

Sponsor Guidelines

When preparing your proposal, be sure to read the sponsor guidelines thoroughly. Requirements for both the narrative and for the budget will be included in the guidelines. Look for webinars of FAQs offered by the agency to clarify important elements of the proposal.

Writing Tips

  • If you are concerned whether your idea meets agency priorities/interests, contact the appropriate Program Officer as identified in the guidelines. The Program Officer may ask you to email them a brief (1 page or less) description of your project. 
  • Search the RFP for words such as “require,” “must,” and “should” so that you are sure to include specific agency requirements in your proposal.
  • Avoid the use of weak words. Instead of “we hope…,” “we might…”or “we may…”, consider stronger formulations such as “we expect…” It is also a good idea to identify contingency plans if a portion of the research does not pan out as expected.
  • Obey the Three Cs—Concise, Clear and Complete (Bourne & Chalupa, see Useful Links)

Successful Proposals

If you are just beginning the grant proposal process, obtain copies of successful proposals. Use agency websites to identify previous awardees and abstracts; contact the PI to ask if they are willing to share their successful proposal.
Abstracts of previous awardees are often available online: