Research Development

Sponsored Research 101

Natural & Social Science Proposals

Winning Grants Starts with Well Written Proposals

Researchers spend many years honing their craft in writing scholarly papers, but grant writing is a different animal altogether. Understanding the differences will make you a more successful grant writer and result in less frustration when you get reviewer feedback.

1. Know your audience

Whether a proposal is in direct response to a government or foundation solicitation or it is an unsolicited application, having a clear understanding of the goals and objectives of the funder is still a major factor in how you write your proposal. A grant application is not written to your most expert peer; it should be written in more general laymen’s terms—with an educated but not expert reviewer in mind—and designed to convey your ideas in the context of solving a problem or advancing the state of the science. NIH is more focused on clinical advances and NSF is more focused on educational advances, but they both want to know why your research is necessary to move their research agendas forward. In other words, you should write your objectives with the following idea in the back of your mind: If my research is not funded, this is why that would be a huge mistake and have an impact on science and the human condition.

2. Sell your ideas

Proposals are sales documents. Your language should be clear and concise and demonstrate your passion for your work and its benefit to humanity. Try to capture on paper how you describe your research to your non-expert family and friends. That is the tone you want in your proposals. Then be sure to have an editor, like your research development partner, and some peers you trust who have had success winning grants from your target agency, review your proposal and offer feedback. Consider this your grant proposal peer review, just like you would have for a journal article.

For an excellent overview of good grant proposal writing vs. good academic writing, please see this article by Dr. Robert Porter of the University of Tennessee: Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grant Proposals.

Program/Project Officers: Your Partners in Research

Success in sponsored research is not only about great research ideas. It’s also about building and nurturing relationships, managing and meeting expectations, and helping your funders meet their objectives and goals on time and within budget.

1. Talk to program officers before you submit your proposal.

Many researchers do not take the time to share project ideas with government officials before they submit them. While it is true that once a solicitation has been released, many government officials will not/cannot discuss the competition with applicants, many agencies welcome discussions throughout the process (e.g., defense and intelligence community sponsors). But EVERYONE welcomes and encourages these conversations before solicitations are released. In fact, Program Officers are excited to talk to researchers and offer feedback on project ideas. Most Program Officers are fellow scientists. They want the best research funded. That is how they are evaluated and how they build their research portfolios. Help them be successful by viewing them as collaborators and partners. In the Defense community, there are many examples of long-term partnerships between program officers and researchers where research is funded over decades because it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

Schedule some time to talk to your Research Development specialist today about your research plans to determine best funders and the right strategies for reaching them.

Dr. Robert Porter of the University of Tennessee offers some great guidance on how to talk to program officers pre-award. See: Can We Talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers

2. Follow up regularly with your Program Officer post-award.

Government Program Officers rely on their researchers to communicate not only according to contractual or established deadlines and methods about traditional project management topics (personnel changes, budget, deliverables, etc.), but also in informal ways throughout the research programs. Consider contacting your program/project officer with:

  • High-quality graphics or photographs of compelling results
  • Copies of publications that resulted from their funding
  • Notification of conference presentations, posters, or invited talks discussing funded work (ask if your PO will be attending those conferences and be sure to thank them for their support in your presentations and posters!)
  • Ideas about future research possibilities stemming from current funded research or new ideas altogether.

The message is that you are thinking about and standing by to meet their needs.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has  provided guidance on pre- and post-award communication with their Program Officers in this presentation.

Humanities & Interpretive Social Science Proposals

Most foundations are mission-driven entities that seek to make a difference in society, whether at the grass-roots level or through policy change. Since foundations generally seek to address a specific set of issues or unmet needs, your proposed project should be presented as the best way for them to attain this end. 

Foundation staff seek the best projects to meet the foundation’s goals, and it is in their best interest to present well-thought out, well written, feasible, and focused proposals. Many will answer specific questions from applicants, review proposal or budget drafts, and help with the increasingly required evaluation segment of a project.

Grant-seekers sometimes fail to listen carefully to program officers, and the result may be a rejected application.

What to do first?

Have a very clear understanding of what is planned: 

  • What do you want to do?
  • Why? 
  • How long will it take? 
  • Who will do it? 
  • How much will it cost? 

What do foundations support?

Usually foundations fund projects and programs, while corporations fund efforts that provide tangible returns to them and individuals tend to support programs and operating funds, endowment, and construction projects.  Visit the funder’s website and review:

  • grant-making philosophy
  • deadlines
  • application guidelines
  • recent grant descriptions

If your project is not a close fit, don’t apply.  Look for another funder.

Who Can Help?

  • Trinity's Office of Research Development
  • Senior colleagues
  • Departmental chair
  • Other administrators
  • Duke’s Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations
  • Funder’s program officer 

Funders often require letters of support from the university, and these are best sought early in the process.  The Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations can clarify what assistance you can expect, who to keep in the loop, and what procedures to follow.

Before contacting a potential funder:

Before contacting a potential funder, Duke faculty and staff should contact the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations.  Duke University has a priority-driven agenda with selected funders and has special processes in place for proposals to the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, The Duke Endowment, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Josiah Charles Trent Foundation.  Our office can help you negotiate institutional policies and submission sequencing concerns for these and other foundations.

Preparing a proposal:

  • Review the funder’s guidelines.
  • Consider your audience, which will range from an expert panel to a group of educated generalists.
  • Provide “white space” in the document for ease of review:  1-inch margins and a 12-point font.
  • Write clearly, and assume that some part of the proposal may be read by non-experts.
  • Internal project descriptions often need to be reconceptualized for an external funder.  Arguments needed for internal approval are not necessarily the same ones needed to persuade an outside funder to make a grant.
  • For questions not answered on the funder’s website or by colleagues, call the program officer and listen carefully to his or her response.
  • If you find no submission guidelines, most proposals include:
    • executive summary
    • background of the institution and project
    • discussion of why the project should be pursued
    • methodology—what activities and steps you will undertake to address the issue or need
    • description of what will be done and who will do it
    • expectations and how they will be evaluated
    • timeline and budget
  • See proposal elements (below) for more detailed information on proposal preparation.

Obtaining budget approval and signatures:

Budgets and grant reporting are directly linked.  Duke has recently experienced changes in what funders expect at the reporting stage, which in turn impacts how we prepare budgets.  Please contact the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations (beth.eastlick@dev.duke.edu) and the Office of Research Support (919-684-3030, http://ors.duke.edu/) when developing your budget.

Before submitting a foundation proposal, these two offices will need to approve your budget and obtain official university signatures.  The Office of Research Support requires the proposal and budget 5 days in advance of the funder’s deadline to obtain Duke approval and signatures.

If your proposal is accepted:

Notify and send a copy of the award letter to:

  • The Office of Research Support (Box 104010)
  • The Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations (Box 90600)

The Office of Research Support will obtain any official university signatures required by the funder and will request the fund code.  That office will also forward the materials to Duke’s post-award office (the Office of Sponsored Programs), which will set up automatic internal financial reporting procedures.

Reporting and Stewardship:

The Principal Investigator is responsible for preparing narrative reports and for coordinating submission of the financial report in a timely manner.  Many funders ask that you coordinate submission of the narrative and financial report, which is prepared by the Office of Sponsored Program.

Significant changes to the original grant agreement, such as a change in leadership or major delays, should be communicated to the funder as soon as possible.  The Office of Research Support should be involved in budget negotiations. 

The Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations can advise you in this process.  Our office also sends email reminders to Principal Investigators when grant reports are due and asks for confirmation that reports have been submitted.  Timely submission of reports is essential to maintain strong relationships with funders and to avoid delays in payments for your grant as well as others.

If your proposal is rejected:

Many program officers are willing to provide advice after a proposal is rejected.  A call or letter to thank them for considering the proposal, with an inquiry as to how it might be improved, may result in helpful information for a resubmission or for revision for submission to another funder.

Don’t be discouraged. Successful grant-seekers do not receive every grant they seek, and building a good track record at a low dollar level may lead to greater success in the future.