A proposal doesn’t have to be perfect to be funded

Three checkboxes on a piece of paper. Each checkbox has, respectively, a smiley, neutral, or sad face next to it.

We recently updated the proposal writing workshop that we’ve been running for years to include more active learning elements. One of the activities we introduced — small group work to analyze sections of sample proposals — resulted in some unintended consequences.

As anyone who has scoured the internet for publicly available sample proposals can attest, they’re really not that easy find, especially if you’re interested in representing a range of disciplines and funding agencies. And hardly anyone posts the ones that did not result in funding, the ones that –to put it bluntly — failed.

So when we distributed sample proposals to workshop participants, they were all proposals that had resulted in awards. But, as participants soon discovered, that did not mean they were flawless. To be sure, there were good things going on in these proposals. But, in comparing these sample proposals to information we had provided about effective proposal writing, workshop attendees also found that the sample proposals fell short in a range of ways. Some failed to provide necessary context. Others lacked a clear needs statement or didn’t manage to articulate explicit connections between goals, objectives, activities, and evaluation. There were inconsistencies between narratives and budgets. There was tortured writing.

My colleagues and co-presenters, Amy Cooper and Anne Schauer, and I have reviewed countless proposals. We take it for granted that a proposal need not be, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way to be funded. Perhaps to our shame, it didn’t occur to us let the workshop participants know that all of the examples we were sharing were successful in securing funding. I have to admit to having been a little gobsmacked then, to receive this request from a participant about halfway into the six-session workshop: “I wonder if it is possible to also [share] some successful proposals/good examples.” That’s what we’d been doing all along.

It turned out to be a teachable moment for both our team and the workshop participants. The lesson we learned as workshop facilitators was that we need to make our assumptions explicit, especially when providing guidance to beginners. The lesson we were able to share with the developing proposal writers is that there is no such thing as a perfect proposal.

The truth is that there are many of factors in grantmaking beyond what appears on the page. For better or worse, politics, professional reputations, and social networks all matter. Sponsors’ hidden values and practices matter. The need to balance research/project portfolios matters. These factors can all help explain why a flawed proposal might be funded, and many of them are beyond the PI’s control.

Our argument — the very reason we even offer a proposal writing workshop in the first place — is that it’s in every PI’s best interest to control the things they can, and that includes the writing. I don’t remember the source, but someone once put it this way: No amount of good writing will save a bad idea, but bad writing can doom a good idea. In analyzing some less-than-ideal — yet funded — proposals, our workshop participants discovered that the system will tolerate some imperfection. That should come as a relief to anyone who will ever submit a proposal.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office of Research & Innovation, Miami University.

Checkbox photo via Pxfuel. Dandelion photo via Peakpx. Both used under Creative Commons license.