Writing a grant proposal can be an intimidating project, especially for those who are doing it for the first time. Whether you are writing a proposal for the first time or are a seasoned writer, the State University of New York College at Cortland Research and Sponsored Programs Office has a wide variety of services to assist you in the development of your proposal. Our goal is to demystify the process.
Several how-to books on proposal writing which you may find useful for acquiring some of the jargon of the trade—the difference between goals and objectives, the difference between formative and summative evaluations, etc—are available in the RSPO office. However, there is no mystique to writing a successful proposal. Once one has found a match between his or her research interest and an agency interested in supporting that kind of research, the important thing is simply to read and to write carefully. An agency’s proposal guidelines demand clear and explicit responses.
There are other important sources of help on this campus. Many Cortland faculty have served on SUNY-level review committees and several have served on federal agency review panels. Each department has at least one experienced researcher and proposal writer who is willing to provide a critique of a colleague’s proposal. The Research and Sponsored Programs Office will also organize a Quality Circle Review to evaluate proposals prior to submission. RSPO QCR Information
The College Research Committee (CRC) is composed of faculty from all areas who are committed to the enhancement of research on this campus, and any one of them should be considered a resource person. All federally-funded research projects are matters of public information, and you may come to RSPO and review these successful proposals to see what “works” with a specific funding agency.
Both the RSPO Assistant Vice President and the RSPO Associate Director have extensive experience in the preparation of grants and are eager to help, especially in the areas of proposal organization, evaluation, and budget preparation.
In many cases, particularly among federal agencies, preliminary inquiries are essential. Our experience has been that most sponsors will provide useful information and considerable guidance during the preparation phase of your proposal. They can share detailed review proceedings, scoring rubrics, backgrounds of readers and forward copies of successful proposals.
Proposals to prospective sponsors may have a better chance of succeeding if they are preceded by an informal telephone call or a brief (not more than two-page) letter outlining the proposed project. Such a contact accomplishes two purposes: 1) it allows investigators to determine if their project fits within the scope of what the sponsor supports; and 2) it gives sponsors a chance to offer suggestions prior to the receipt of the formal proposal. The initial inquiry should demonstrate that the investigator is acquainted with the work and purposes of the sponsor and should make a clear connection between these and the proposed project. The discussion should include:
If a letter of inquiry is sent, it should be followed up with a telephone call. The investigator should offer to send further details if the sponsor wishes, or, if possible, visit the sponsor to discuss the project in depth. Program staff at federal agencies generally are willing to provide as much assistance as they are legally able. Some are willing to review and comment on drafts of proposals. You will not encounter any legal constraints to foundations providing assistance but often they have staffing limitations. In any case, ask for as much assistance as you can or need.
Proposals for sponsored activities follow a similar format, although there are variations depending upon the sponsor and the type of project proposed. The following outline and explanation concern the typical components of a proposal.
The first and most important advice possible is to READ GUIDELINES carefully, at least twice, and to tailor the format of your proposal as closely as possible to the guidelines. The second is to make contact with the funding source and gain additional insight into the funding process. Third, familiarize yourself well in advance with the requirements for electronic proposal submissions. Many of the electronic systems require prior data entry for information on the investigator and institution. RSPO can assist you. The major parts of a typical proposal are discussed below:
Most sponsoring agencies specify the format for the title page, and some provide special forms to summarize basic administrative and fiscal data for the project. Generally, the principal investigator, the department head, and an official representing the University sign the title page. At SUNY Cortland the authorizing officials are the President, the Provost (Vice President for Academic Affairs), the Vice President for Finance and Management, the RSPO Assistant Vice President and the RSPO Associate Director.
A good title is usually a compromise between conciseness and explicitness. Although titles should be comprehensive enough to indicate the nature of the proposed work, they should also be brief. One good way to cut the length of titles is to avoid words that add nothing to a reader’s understanding, such as “Studies on....,” “Investigations...,” or “Research on Some Problems in....”
Every proposal, even very brief ones, should have an abstract. It provides readers with their first impression of the request, and, by acting as a summary, frequently provides them also with their last. It is the most important single element of the proposal. Some readers read only the abstract, and most readers rely on it initially to give them a quick overview of the proposal and later to refresh their memory of its main points. Sponsors often use the abstract alone in their compilations of research projects funded or in disseminating information about successful projects.
Although it appears first, the abstract is written last, as a summary of approximately 200 words. To present the essential meaning of the proposal, the abstract should summarize all the issues mentioned in the introduction except cost, which is excluded because the abstract is often subject to a wider public distribution than the rest of the proposal. Certainly the major objectives of the project and the methods used should be mentioned.
The table of contents should list all major parts and divisions (including the abstract, even though it precedes the table of contents). Subdivisions do not usually need to be listed; convenience of the reader should be the guiding consideration. Long and detailed proposals may require, in addition to a table of contents, a list of illustrations (or figures) and a list of tables. If all of these are included, they should follow the order mentioned.
The introduction to a proposal should begin with a capsule statement of what is being proposed. You should not assume that your reader is familiar with your subject. The introduction should be comprehensible to an informed layperson. It should give enough background to enable the reader to place your particular research problem in a context of common knowledge and should clearly show how its solution will advance the field or be important for some other work. Be careful not to overstate, but do not neglect to state very specifically what the importance of your research is. The general tone should reflect self-confidence. A touch of enthusiasm is not out of place, but extravagant promises are anathema to most reviewers.
If the detailed description of the proposed project will be long or complex, the introduction may well end by specifying the order and arrangement of the sections. Such a preview helps reviewers begin reading with an orderly impression of the proposal and the assurance that it contains what they need to know.
This section may not be necessary if the proposal is relatively simple and if the introduction can present the relevant background in a few sentences. If previous or related work must be discussed in some detail, or if the literature on the subject must be reviewed, a literature review section is desirable. For some sponsors, it is required.
Literature reviews should be selective and critical. Reviewers do not want to read through a voluminous working bibliography; they want to know the pertinent works and your evaluation of them. A list of articles with no clear evidence that you have studied them or have opinions about the work described may be detrimental to the proposal.
A review of the literature should lead the reader to a clear understanding of how your work will be building upon what has already been done and how it will differ from previous efforts. The following questions should be addressee
What is the research problem and exactly what has been accomplished?
A review of your own previous work is usually limited in detail and should include only that work that is relevant to the proposed project. The primary concern is to demonstrate your own competence in the field. Establishing credibility is particularly important if this is your first proposal. For some proposals, the rationale for the project, as outlined by the literature review, may be written in a more explicit justification known as a needs assessment. For example, a policy-oriented childcare research project might use statistical information to support arguments concerning lack of accessibility to childcare at the workplace.
This section, which may need several subsections, is the heart of the proposal and is the primary concern of the technical reviewers. Keep in mind that it is important to adhere to any restrictions specified by the sponsor, e.g., section titles, length, spacing, font sizes. These guidelines will determine the format and content of a particular proposal, but the components listed below are contained in one form or another in most proposal narratives. Research proposals may be described with a different nomenclature than curriculum development or community-oriented projects, but contain the same essential information. General guidelines to follow when writing the narrative description are listed below
The writer should limit the number of goals. Some proposals will have just one goal, others several, but purpose or goal statements are the broadest descriptions of outcomes. Proposals with too many goals are often viewed as lacking focus or unrealistic.
Methods or strategies describe the approach taken in undertaking the project. For scientific investigations, this section will describe research design, data collection and analysis. For other projects, such as curriculum development or action-oriented research, strategies such as institutes, consortia or partnerships become methods of reaching project goals.
Objectives enable the proposal writer to provide more project description and detail. There is often confusion about the differences between goals and objectives. It may be useful to think of objectives as “mini-goals” delimited by the sequential stages or “milestones” of a project, or components of a project that might be undertaken independently and have separate outcomes. For example, a survey research project could have separate objectives for design, testing, data collection, analysis and interpretation of results. For complex projects, objectives can often be linked not only to goals, but also grouped under activity areas.
Tasks are at the most specific level of description. They are the individual steps to be taken in pursuit of an objective. Again, depending on the scale of the project, tasks can be quite complex or relatively simple. The usefulness of a task description section is the opportunity it provides to convince the reviewer that the project is well conceived and “doable”.
Outcomes or Deliverables. Goals, objectives and tasks can be combined with outcomes or deliverables to create a project timetable. A Gantt Chart format is a good choice as it organizes the information in a familiar and simple format. The timetable is important because it:
Evaluation and Dissemination Plans provide the opportunity to describe the impacts and significance of a project. Evaluations are important to sponsors because they offer tangible evidence and answer the fundamental question of why the project should be funded. The landscape of evaluation methodology is as broad as that of possible projects; the goal is to develop and implement evaluation methods appropriate to the project.
Scientific investigation may require the researcher to make only the small conceptual jump to an experimental design model supported by significant literature in evaluation theory and practice. Other projects will require significantly more creativity in developing performance measures linked to project activities. For example, exploratory qualitative research will require a quite different evaluation methodology than a field test of a new pharmaceutical drug.
As noted, the spectrum of evaluation theory, terminology and practice is voluminous. Nonetheless, practitioners tend to agree that project evaluation consists of two broad categories of activity both of which aim at examining effectiveness of effort. Winning proposals provide reviewers with confidence that proposed methods and tasks will be effectively implemented and specified goals and objectives will be achieved.
As a note of caution, quantitative measures of program performance are often useful in identifying and “getting a handle” on project outcomes; their excessive use can sometimes drive the evaluation to minutiae and irrelevance. “Fuzzier” measures such as participant satisfaction expressed in surveys and even anecdotal reports have a place in good evaluations. An eclectic and balanced evaluation plan has a better chance of reaching your reviewer.
Dissemination of results is increasingly important to all project proposals. Sponsors are interested in getting the results and their support of projects into broader public view. Refereed journals and professional conferences are familiar venues for academic researchers, but practitioner meetings, training and publications are additional outlets to wider audiences as are Web pages. Assessment of the sponsor’s interests and track record of support will provide the best guidance for developing a dissemination plan. If your proposal is for support for development of a curriculum, a conference, a summer seminar or a training activity, the following sections should be included.
This section details the resources available to the proposed project that make it possible to carry it out. If possible, show why the sponsor should wish to choose this College and you to carry out this particular effort. Some relevant points may be:
This list is desirable only if the proposal contains six or more references. The references can be inserted in the text within parentheses.
If a list of references is included, it is placed at the end of the text and before the sections on personnel and budget. Items should be numbered and should be in the order in which they are first referenced in the text. In contrast to an alphabetical bibliography, authors’ names in a list of references should not be reversed. The style of the bibliographical item itself depends on the disciplinary field. The main consideration is consistency; whatever style is chosen should be followed scrupulously throughout.
This section usually consists of two parts and is sometimes contained in the budget justification section of the proposal. This section should include:
If the program is complex and involves people from other departments or colleges, the organization of the staff and the lines of responsibility should be made clear. Any student participating, paid or unpaid, should be mentioned, and the nature of the proposed contribution detailed. Specifically state if any staff, students or consultants must be hired for the project and explain why.
The biographical sketch(s) should follow immediately after the explanatory text of the “personnel” section, unless the agency guidelines specify a different format. For extremely large program proposals with eight or more participants, the data sheets may be given separately in an appendix. All biographical sketches within the proposal should have the same format.
These sheets should be confined to relevant information, usually no more than two pages in length. Data on marital status, children, hobbies, civic activities, etc., should not be included unless the sponsor’s instructions call for them. The list of publications can be selected either for their pertinence to the proposed work or for their intrinsic worth. All books written and a selection of recent or important journal articles written may be listed in a section labeled “Selected Publications,” “Recent Publications,” or “Pertinent Publications,” whichever best fits the specific case and complies with sponsor instructions.
RSPO will assist investigators in budget preparation but certain general information may be useful in outlining your costs.
Faculty Salaries. Generally, full-time faculty members may not receive grant money in excess of their salaries for work done during the academic year, but may receive summer salary. Occasionally extra-service payments are authorized within grants or contracts but must have administrative approval. With administrative approval, however, a grantee may be allowed released time from certain departmental, division, or college duties to devote a percentage of time to the grant during the academic year; the College can be reimbursed for this time by the funding agency. The policy "Salary Recovery Charged to Sponsored Agreements" provides further guidance on directly charging faculty salaries.
Faculty members may be paid for work performed on sponsored projects during the unobligated summer months. Salary is calculated as a portion of the academic year salary subject to ceilings imposed by the various agencies. As a rule of thumb, you may receive 1/9th of your academic year salary for each of the two months’ summer work. Remuneration beyond 2/9ths of the academic year salary or employment for more than 8 weeks during the summer months must be approved by the President. Fringe benefits should be added to the base salary using the summer benefit rate. Please check with RSPO for current rates.
Student Assistants. Student assistants may be hired at wages established by the Human Resources Office. Fringe benefits are also added to graduate and undergraduate student salaries. Full fringe benefits are required if the employee is a part-time SUNY or non-SUNY student. Please check with RSPO for current rates.
Clerical. If the project requires substantial clerical services, such salaries should be included and fringe benefits should be determined. Be very clear about the nature of clerical services needed so an accurate budget can be prepared. Federal sponsors consider clerical support to be part of the indirect cost recovery. If you are applying to a federal sponsor, and clerical support is requested, a special budget justification is required substantiating why these costs are direct charged to the sponsor. RSPO will assist investigators with the justification, if needed.
Other Staff. If your project requires the hiring of additional personnel it is very important that you check with RSPO or the Human Resources Office regarding titles and salary levels. It is essential that you develop a comprehensive job description for each position required. Proposal preparation should include job descriptions of all positions — clerical, professional, instructional — that must be forwarded through RSPO to the Human Resource Office for classification and compensation determination, as required by the Research Foundation. Upon mutually acceptable classification and compensation determination, the specific position titles and funding may then be incorporated into the proposal budget.
Consultants. University policy (in accordance with IRS regulations) prohibits payment from state funds of honoraria or consultant fees to SUNY professionals performing consulting activities at their home campus. Under most circumstances, SUNY employees serving as consultants to a grant must be paid salary and fringes. University policy also limits payments for travel to other SUNY campuses for the purpose of giving lectures or colloquia or for performing consulting services to $40 per day plus state travel costs, if services do not require an overnight stay, or to $100 per day plus expenses if an overnight visit is required.
The use of non-SUNY consultants must be clearly justified as essential and cannot be provided by persons receiving salary support under the grant. A selection process should be employed to insure that the consultant is the most qualified person available. Finally, the consultant’s charge must be appropriate to his/her qualifications, the normal rate for the service, and the nature of the service rendered.
Travel. Travel costs are calculated at the prevailing state rates for personal car mileage and per diem. Please check with RSPO or the Research Foundation Fiscal Officer in the Business Office for detailed information.
Equipment. Applications should provide requests for equipment categorized in accordance with the definitions below.
Materials and Supplies. All expendable materials and supplies, including equipment costing under $5,000 with a useful life of less than two years, and their estimated costs should be listed. Include project specific supplies, when necessary, using the storehouse catalog to determine costs. The Purchasing Office can quote prices on additional items available on state contract.
Publication Costs/Page Charges. The budget should request funds for the cost of preparing and publishing the results of research, including costs of reports, reprints, page charges, and other journal costs.
Other Direct Costs. Be sure to include in the budget all costs to administer the grant. Departmental/divisional funds may not be used for sponsored projects unless a cost-sharing arrangement has been approved by the chair/dean.
Indirect Costs. The total cost of a sponsored project consists of direct costs and indirect costs. The direct costs are those expenditures incurred and directly attributable to a particular project and are so itemized in the budget submitted by the project director. They include salaries and wages, fringe benefits, equipment, consumable supplies, travel, publication expenses, and others.
Indirect costs are those costs incurred that are not readily identifiable with particular projects or activities but nevertheless are absolutely necessary for the maintenance of the day-to-day operations of the institution and the conduct of the activities it performs. The cost of operating and maintaining buildings and equipment, depreciation, general and departmental administrative salaries and expenses, and library costs are types of expenses considered as indirect costs.
For recent federal contracts the indirect costs have been 56.5% on campus and 20.7% off campus on modified total direct costs. Modified total direct costs are total direct costs, consisting of all salaries and wages, fringe benefits, materials, supplies, services and travel and subcontracts up to the first $25,000 of each subgrant or subcontract (regardless of the period covered by the subcontract) but excluding equipment, capital expenditures, charges for patient care, tuition remission, rental costs of off-site facilities, scholarships, and fellowships as well as the portion of each subcontract in excess of $25,000. If your contract is going to run for several years you should estimate future indirect costs at the same rates. Please check with RSPO for changes in rates.
The State Education Department generally bases indirect costs of 8% of modified total direct costs, and some programs permit no indirect costs at all. To accept a contract with a lower indirect cost, the Research Foundation requires that the rate to be used reflect a standard policy of that institution. Please discuss this with RSPO before adjusting the indirect cost rate. As always, you should check the requirements of your funding source carefully to determine allowable expenses. At SUNY Cortland, only the Assistant Vice President of RSPO, Provost, or Vice President of Finance and Management may waive indirect cost recovery.
Cost Sharing, Matching Funds and Released Time. Legislation effective March 1, 1966, requires the grantee institution bear a portion of the cost of research grants from federal agencies. A fixed percentage of the project cost is usually assigned the grantee as its responsibility in cost sharing. A cost sharing statement in a proposal consists of a declaration by the institution that it bears the stated costs of the project’s activities. Generally, cost sharing is restricted to the unreimbursed percent of effort devoted to the project by employees of the institution (including fringe and associated indirect costs). Be sure to check with your department chair and RSPO in making this determination.
Matching Funds are different from cost sharing. Matching funds consist of cash specifically earmarked for project activities in writing by an individual who has fiscal authority over the committed funds. Such a written commitment provides strong evidence to the sponsor that the applicant has solid support for successfully achieving proposed goals and objectives.
Released time involves the institution’s permission for teaching faculty to be released from their departmental/divisional, college-wide obligations to carry out the grant. This may involve reduced teaching load and/or release from committee or faculty governance commitments. The faculty member will need to work out and document percentage of released time and nature of reduction with administrative offices during the proposal development.
Any commitment of cost sharing, matching funds or released time in a proposal becomes a legal obligation to actually provide at least the amount committed during the period of performance if the proposal results in an award for the requested amount. If the institution does not provide documentation of these expenditures during any subsequent audit of project financial activities, undocumented cost sharing, matching funds or released time commitments must be repaid to the funding source in cash. One of the functions of RSPO is to prevent such debts from accruing. This is a central reason for the routing and submission procedures and signature authority controls discussed below.
This part of a proposal will vary greatly from sponsor to sponsor and from funding opportunity to funding opportunity. In general, follow the sponsor’s explicit instructions. In any case, use this section to clarify other elements of your proposal and increase reviewer understanding.
The Research Foundation must be named on the cover sheet as the applicant. The phrase to be used is “The Research Foundation for SUNY on behalf of and in conjunction with SUNY Cortland.”
If a sponsor requests a location such as a county or congressional district, the location where the project will actually be carried out should be used. If that location is this campus, we are in the 24th Congressional District. The Research Foundation is located in the 21st Congressional District. Some applications require the Research Foundation’s IRS Employee Identification Number, which is 14-1368361. If the sponsor requests the Research Foundation’s telephone number it is 518-434-7000. The DUNS Number for SUNY Cortland is 09-019-0591.
Because it is the institution and not the individual project director or principal investigator who applies for external funds, no application from SUNY Cortland or the Research Foundation for SUNY on behalf of and in conjunction with SUNY Cortland will be submitted without the signature of a duly authorized individual. University policy prohibits the Research Foundation for SUNY from processing any application without an authorized endorsement. The following individuals possess Institutional Signature Authority relating to grants, contracts, subcontracts, proposals and related documents in accordance with the Research Foundation for SUNY: the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs; the Vice President of Finance and Management and SUNY Cortland Operations Manager for the Research Foundation for SUNY. In most cases, either the Director or Associate Director of the Research and Sponsored Programs Office signs proposal documents on behalf of the institution.
The Internal Academic Approval of Sponsored Programs (routing sheet) requires faculty and staff to identify any compliance issues mandated by the federal government for the acceptance and administration of federal funding. Please be sure to check with your department chair, dean, and RSPO with regard to released time, support services, equipment, cost-sharing, and use of facilities. If your proposed project involves any curricular changes or additions, you must go through the normal procedure for curricular approval. In addition, each person must complete information on cost share, as well as percentage of effort expected on the project (either direct charged or cost shared).
After investigators have completed the internal routing form, they must obtain the signature of the department chair. It is then the project director’s responsibility to deliver the proposal to the dean for approval. Upon the dean's approval, the proposal should be delivered to RSPO. The project director’s routing responsibility ends at that point. The routing sheet is a local form and remains in a campus RSPO file. The authorizing official’s signature cannot be affixed to the final proposal until the local campus approvals are obtained.
P.O. Box 2000
Miller, Room 303
Cortland, NY, 13045