Office of Research and Sponsored Programs
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Office of Research and Sponsored Programs
Morehead State University
901 Ginger Hall
Morehead, KY 40351
Fax: 606.783.2130

Writing the Proposal

While much attention is paid to funding source research, project development and compliance, writing the actual proposal is a topic that often gets overlooked. The following sections will break down the most common elements required in proposals and discuss ways in which the writer can strengthen them.

Take note that while these are common elements, you may not always be required to produce them, depending on the funding source and its guidelines. Conversely, other funding sources may require additional sections not mentioned here. This discrepancy brings us to a key point: Always follow the guidelines!

ORSP offers a proposal development workshop twice per semester. For more information, call the main office at: (606) 783-2010.


The proposal introduction is where you describe your agency's qualifications and credibility as an applicant for funding. A good starting point is MSU's basic background information, located online at:

When writing an introduction that necessitates an organizational background, it is helpful to write from general to specific, transitioning from the University background to your college/department background, briefly highlighting:

  • Prior and current activities
  • Accomplishments and their impact
  • Any other significant aspects related to the funding source

Problem Statement

The problem statement (sometimes called the needs statement) is one of the most critical components of your proposal - it is the reason for the proposal in the first place!

Strong problem statements:

  • Should be clearly related to the purposes and goals of your organization
  • Should be supported by evidence drawn from statistics/information provided by authoritative sources (don't make assumptions)
  • Should be of reasonable dimensions - something that you can realistically do something about over the course of the project period
  • Should be stated in terms of clients or constituents rather than the needs or problems of the organization
  • Avoid circular reasoning (i.e. The problem in this community is that it has no youth center; thus, building a youth center will solve the problem)


Most grant proposals must include a list of objectives to be achieved within the project period. Program or project objectives are the "outcomes" of your activities - not the activities themselves. If you begin statements with "to provide" or "to create," you are talking about methods, not objectives.

Objectives are the measureable criteria by which you judge the effectiveness of your program. To be useful, objectives must be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time constrained

To put it another way, objectives should:

  • Tell who
  • Is going to be doing what
  • When
  • How much
  • How it will be measured

Statements like the following refer to objectives:

  • At the conclusion of the five-day workshop, at least 20 to 25 participants will demonstrate a pre/post test gain of at least 25 percent on the Evaluator's Competency Test, covering the areas of (1) introductory statistical terminology, (2) measurable objectives, and (3) educational program evaluation concepts.
  • To increase employment in Rowan County by at least 10 percent in high-tech jobs by the end of the 12 month project period as indicated by Chamber of Commerce data.


The methodology is simply a description of the steps to be taken to achieve your desired results.

The two critical points to remember when developing your methodology:

  • Clarity - your methods should be understandable
  • Justification - methods should be accompanied by an explanation of the rationale behind them (why do you think they'll work?)
    • Description of your past related work, or
    • Presentation of evidence drawn from the work of others

Key elements that should be included in most methodology sections (when applicable):

  • Selection of staff
  • Staff training
  • Selection of participants
  • Time charts (or Gantt Charts) can be useful in providing readers with a clear picture of program activities in an organized fashion (some funding sources will specifically ask for this)


Most funding sources will require an evaluation component. Even if you intend to budget for a consultant to conduct an evaluation for you, it is still important to understand what an evaluation is, and why it is important.

The evaluation is something to be considered throughout the program planning process, not something to be thrown together after everything else is done. An evaluation section that reads: "Evaluation will be afforded by a weekly conference of the multidisciplinary team and maintenance of comprehensive records and explicit documentation" shows only that the applicant took little time to develop an evaluative component.

A successful evaluation will answer two questions:

  • To what extent has the project achieved its stated objectives?
  • To what extent can the accomplishment of objectives be attributed to the project?

In designing an evaluation, consider the following:

  • Clarify program objectives - clear, measurable objectives will lead to a clear and logical evaluation plan
  • Determine the potential audience for the evaluation - specific evaluation questions can come from considering who will be looking at the evaluation
  • How will data be collected? This will depend on the nature of your project
  • How will the data be analyzed?
  • How will the results be reported?

Evaluations are important for a variety of reasons. Accountability is critical in managing external grants and contracts. Funders want to see the fruits of their labor, and grantees that do not provide this can negatively affect future grant submissions. Evaluative data helps to strengthen the applicant's credibility. Additionally, designing an evaluation forces you to examine the clarity of your objectives.

When searching for an external evaluator for your project, keep these things in mind:

  • Cost - the more prestigious the evaluator, the more they will charge. Keep your budget limitations in mind.
  • Reputation - does the potential evaluator have a reputation that will enhance the credibility of the application?


While the proposal summary is usually the first thing on a funding source's list of required materials, it is last here because summaries should be the last thing you write. If you have already developmed your concept paper, it most probably will form the crux of your abstract.

Clear, concise summaries include:

  • Identification of the applicant and a phrase or two about their credibility
  • The reason for the grant request: issue, problem or need to be met
  • Objectives to be achieved through the funding
  • The kinds of activities to be conducted to accomplish the objectives
  • The total cost of the project, funds already committed (if applicable) and amount asked for in the proposal

The importance of the summary:

  • It's usually a requirement
  • It may be all that is read (along with the budget)
  • It will probably be the first thing that is read
  • It provides readers with context for what is to follow
  • It's good practice to express your ideas with clarity and brevity!

Scientific Research Proposals

A research proposal is similar in a number of ways to a project proposal. Many of the elements discussed are critical; however, a research proposal addresses a particular project: academic or scientific research. The forms and procedures for such research are well defined by the field of study, so guidelines for research proposals are generally more exacting than less formal project proposals. Research proposals contain extensive literature reviews and must offer convincing support of need for the research being proposed. In addition to providing rationale for the proposed research, the proposal must describe a detailed methodology for conducting the research – a methodology consistent with requirements of the professional or academic field.

The article “Understanding Research Proposals,” published by The Grantsmanship Center, provides an excellent framework for designing a scientific research proposal.

NSF: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is unique in that it asks applicants to discuss the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the proposed project.

According to NSF, intellectual merit is how the proposed project will advance knowledge and understanding within a particular discipline. An in-depth description of intellectual merit is available online at:

Broader impact refers to how the proposed activity will advance NSF's mission of advancing learning, broadening participation of underrepresented groups and enhance research and education infrastructure. An in-depth description of broader impact is available online at:

Final Points

  • Read and understand the agency guidelines! Agencies may ask for more, less or different content than what is outlined here.
  • Avoid jargon and industry-specific lingo.
  • Because writers usually tackle proposals by sections, it is important to make sure each section flows logically into the next.
  • Solicit colleagues to review your proposal.
  • Become a reviewer - seeing other proposals helps to strengthen your own writing.
  • Always contact the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs before you begin - we're here to help!

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