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When you’re writing a funding proposal, it’s important to consider the people who will read and judge your proposal. Most people who read funding proposals are volunteers who read as a form of service to their professional community. The work is usually unpaid, and it is often completed late at night after the rest of the day’s work is done. Readers may be very tired when they start to read, and they may have a stack of over 100 proposals to read in a short time. They may read and rate your proposal very quickly, and they will naturally compare it to other proposals in their stack. To help your proposal make the best possible impression on these readers, follow the recommendations in this handout.

Qualities of Good Proposals

Ideally, your proposal will be…


Your proposal must be understandable to a reader who has knowledge of your field but does not necessarily have expertise in your subject area. Describe your project clearly, and organize information in a way that’s easy to follow. Ask someone with expertise in your field to give you feedback on the clarity of the project itself. Ask someone with no expertise in your field to give you feedback on how easy it is to read and understand your proposal. Remember the volunteer reader at midnight: if your proposal is too difficult to understand, the reader is likely to give it a low score and move on to the next proposal in the stack.


Describe your work in enough detail to show that your project is well motivated, well designed, and meaningful, but not so much detail that your reader is overwhelmed or bored. Keep strictly to the word or page limit set in the application instructions.


A proposal is an argument, a persuasive piece. The funding agency must be convinced that your work is important, that it is well thought out, and that you can do the work with the time, resources, and skills you have available. Don’t make the mistake of proposing a project that is much too large for the available funding, just to make your project seem important. This hurts you. It makes you look less qualified because you can’t accurately assess how much time or money your project will really need. Get feedback from an expert on the design and feasibility of the project you’re proposing.


Your proposal must be compatible with the goals of the funding agency. The funding agency might admire your work in its own right, but they are paying you to help them advance their own agenda. They are hiring you to do a job they believe needs to be done. Read the CFP carefully for the kind of proposals the agency is looking for, read the agency’s mission statement, and read the instructions very carefully. The agency may require you to comment specifically on how your project aligns with their mission. If you can’t make any connection between your project and the goals of the funding agency, look for a different funding source.


FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS. This is your first impression. If you don’t follow the instructions, you look either careless or untrustworthy. Common mistakes are reducing the margins or font size for extra space (yes, this is a really big mistake!), not following other formatting instructions, not including required documentation, not correcting typos, etc. Use the instructions to create a checklist of required materials. Write your proposal exactly as the instructions specify. Refer to your checklist carefully, then have someone else proofread the final proposal.


Consult the many guides and resources available at UNC Research. Spend your summer working in a writing group with other funding proposal writers. Get feedback from experts and from novices several times over the course of drafting. Consult the funding agency’s program officers–their job is to help the agency receive high-quality proposals and they’re happy to answer reasonable questions. Make an appointment with a friendly Writing Center tutor, who can help you learn strategies for more productive proposal writing at any stage of the process.

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