Ten tips on how NOT to Write a Grant Proposal

Because I have written a lot of grant proposals and reviewed a lot of proposals, every time that commercial comes on at 3 a.m. saying,

“The government wants to give you free money!”

I want to do an Elvis impersonation and shoot my TV.

TV with bullet hole

The government does not want to give you money. You have to knock the government to the ground and wrest the money from its grubby hands.

Let me give you a few pieces of advice so that the next time I am reviewing grants I am not tempted to drive over to your house and hit you with a stick for wasting my time.

1. Don’t bother reading the instructions carefully. Read the instructions. Yes, the instructions are usually over 100 single-spaced pages. Read all of them. With a highlighter. Everywhere it says MUST or REQUIRED or ELIGIBILITY, high-light that. Read the instructions as you write the proposal and then review all of those highlighted parts again after you have finished the proposal.

2.  Don’t get creative in your proposal organization. If  the instructions say you should have seven parts, for example,

  • Need
  • Literature Review
  • Target Population
  • Program Design
  • Evaluation
  • Personnel
  • Budget

Please have those seven sections in that order. I read proposals pretty carefully but if I have marked you off for not having a literature review and I find that for some bizarre reason you have included it with program design, then I need to change my scores.I’d like to think if I need to change my scores once or twice I will be unbiased about it, but I can’t guarantee everyone will. Also, it is possible that I will miss something if it is not where I expect it.  Keep in mind that I probably have 3,000 pages to read in a week or two on top of other work. If I can give up to 10 points for program design and you have addressed all of the issues, I mark 10 points on the form and skim the rest of the section. If your literature review is in program design and I miss it, oh well.

3. Don’t get cute and try to get around page limits by including seven appendices. You do know that reviewers don’t always read those, don’t you? It is assumed that everything will be continued in the narrative within the page limits.

4. Don’t omit or try to hide information that is relevant to your proposal because it reflects poorly. Fix it! The most common example of this is having a very low amount of time committed to the proposal by certain people. Don’t get cute and leave off the FTE for personnel. That is just going to make me suspicious and I’m going to look in your budget to find it and mark you down for it being too low. If I can’t find it, I’m going to mark you down for not having that information. Same goes with reliability of measures and any other potential red flag for reviewers. If it is not there, I will assume it is bad.

5. Don’t give the names of famous people in the field and then have them in your budget for 1% or 2%. It is nice that famous Dr. Joe works at your institution. You don’t get points for him being in the building.

6. Don’t try to b.s. on the needs section by ignoring covariation. You could say that people with wrinkles are 97% more likely to die in a year than people without, therefore  your cosmetic surgery could improve depression incidence and save 27 million lives. Um, people with wrinkles are old (I should know). Give a more accurate estimate of the number of people who are really depressed due to age-related changes in their appearance.

7. If there are points for inclusion of under-represented minorities, don’t just have a statement saying you don’t discriminate. That’s the law, for Christ’s sake! You don’t get points for that. Other things you don’t get points for are not committing a felony, not embezzling, not sexually harassing your employees and not poisoning the Dolphin Pool at the Mandalay Bay.

8. If there are points for inclusion of under-represented minorities on your staff, don’t mention that there are students in your school, patients in your clinic or staff in other divisions of the university from these groups . That’s interesting but we kind of want staff members to be involved who, say, can read and write Braille, if you are working with people who are blind, or who have connections in the African-American community, if you are recruiting a large sample of African-Americans. So, unless those people you mention are actually working on this project, it doesn’t get you points.

9. Don’t propose a research program that requires a large amount of data analysis and have .o5 FTE for a statistician. That is two hours a week. I don’t care how your budget is. That’s not enough. If you even THINK it might be not insane to propose that, you are required to watch the video in this link three times.

10. Don’t have 40 pages of need, literature review, aims/ hypotheses, personnel, program design and then do some vague hand-waving when it comes to analysis. I have actually read proposals where the analysis section said, “We will do descriptive and inferential statistics.” As opposed to what? Crystal ball gazing?

There are more than ten things not to do, but these are a start. I’d rant more but I need to get back to work AND the rocket scientist is hogging all of the Sauvignon Blanc. Something must be done about this.


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  1. You can get a sample of a project proposal many places and you would be wise to do so specific for the competition to which you are applying.

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