Planning and preparation are vital to a successful project. Strategic planning, comprehensive literature review, and feasibility review are essential to proposal preparation. Production of a fundable research project takes extensive coordination and planning. Internal and external review of proposal drafts by expert peers generally improves the probability of funding. To allow time for peer review prior to submission, the proposal needs to be near final well before the funding agency’s deadline to allow readers time to give feedback and to make necessary adjustments based on comments received. In most cases, a minimum of 6 months is needed to write and submit a competitive proposal for extramural funding, less for an internally funded pilot study. A checklist of essential elements of a good proposal is provided below:

Keys to Success in Writing a Good Proposal

Overall Quality of the Study

  • Good research question
  • Appropriate research design
  • Rigorous and feasible methods
  • Qualified research team

Quality of the Proposal

  • Informative title
  • Table of contents and subheadings
  • Convincing abstract
  • Clear research questions
  • Pertinent and complete background and rationale
  • Relevance of any previous work
  • Appropriate population and adequate sample size
  • Appropriate intervention methods
  • Quality control
  • Sound analysis plan
  • Ethical issues well addressed
  • Appropriate budget
  • Realistic timetable
  • Good schematic diagrams and tables
  • Clear, concise, well-organized

The above text was adapted from Hulley BS, Cummings SR. Designing clinical research. An epidemiological approach. Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, 1988; and from Ogden, TE, Goldberg, IA. Research Proposals. A Guide to Success. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2002

Why Proposals Don't Get Funded

Always read the request for proposal (RFP) to find out what the funders want. They will give you money only if you can help them reach their goals. The goals of funding agencies (public and private) vary dramatically. A successful proposal to NSF looks nothing like a successful proposal to NASA.

Proof read your proposal before it is sent. Submit your proposal on time. These seem simple, but many proposals are rejected because of these very simple things.

  • Guidelines are ignored.
  • Importance of the project is unclear.
  • Hypotheses are not supported by literature and/or preliminary data.
  • Project is technology-driven rather than hypothesis-driven.
  • Required personnel and expertise not assembled.
  • Experimental plan is unfocused and hard to understand.
  • Experiments do not include all relevant controls.
  • Potential obstacles and alternate approaches are not discussed.
  • Problems with methods and data analysis.
  • Work load, budget and/or time-frame are unrealistic.
  • Weak conceptual framework.
  • Inappropriate acknowledgement of previously published research.
  • Investigators and/or consultants named in research narrative but not listed on budget.
  • Institutional resources are insufficient.
  • Letters of support were weak or unrelated to the proposal.