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Preparing and Writing the Proposal

A proposal is a formal request for financial support from a specific sponsor for a research, instructional, or public service project. It identifies a need or a problem and offers a persuasive plan to resolve it. A good proposal recognizes and addresses the values and goals of the funding agency, and justifies the claim with appropriate data. A well-crafted proposal presents a detailed, systematic plan for implementing the idea, which usually includes specific and measurable goals and objectives, a work plan and timeline, biographical sketches of the key personnel, an appropriate, transparent budget, and a strong evaluation plan.

Preparation begins with a thorough understanding of the sponsor’s mission and goals; and it includes communicating with OGSR from the earliest stages onward in order to tap all available resources.

Initial Contact with a Sponsor

Contact with a sponsor prior to the submission of a formal proposal can be beneficial. An investigator may initiate contact to confirm research interests by e-mail, a telephone call, office visit, letter of intent (a brief outline of the project emphasizing the methodology, objectives, and importance of the project), or preliminary proposal. Initial contact can help an investigator determine a sponsor’s funding interests.

A sponsor may request that a letter of intent or a preliminary proposal be submitted. These introductory submissions give the sponsor enough basic information about a project to make preliminary recommendations to the proposer, without having to make a formal commitment. The letter of intent or preliminary proposal goes through the regular TCNJ Routing process so that the chair and dean are informed.

Application Guidelines

Proposal format is usually determined by a sponsor’s guidelines. The major federal agencies have general guidelines available in print and online (see the list below with links to common sites). An investigator should download the online version or request a print copy of the application guidelines from the sponsor.

Requests for Proposals

Most federal and state agencies, and many private agencies, in addition to their general funding areas, solicit proposals on predetermined areas of need through publication of Request for Proposal (RFP) or similarly named document (RFA). The RFP requirements normally take precedence over the generic requirements for a funding agency; however, often, both must be followed. It is very important that the guidelines be followed precisely. Most agencies will not even consider a proposal that is incomplete or late.

In addition to basic proposal content and format instructions, most RFPs include a section outlining the review criteria that will be followed by reviewers. To ensure a competitive proposal, carefully review and respond to every item in the review criteria section of a proposal preparation guide.  This will help you to target your proposal directly to the concerns of the reviewers.

At this point, the PI should provide OGSR with information to complete an internal early notification, which will give provide preliminary information needed to support your proposal submission.

If no guidelines or application forms are available from the sponsor, the proposal format in the Proposal Components section below can be used as a guide.

Developing the Proposal


A budget is best developed along with the concept of the proposal and during the writing of the proposal narrative. When a prospective PI keeps the budget in mind while writing the proposal narrative, the budget is more likely to adhere closely to the intentions of the project.


The prospective PI develops the proposal using his or her own word processing files. Upon completion, the proposal file(s) is attached to the Proposal Routing Form for review by the chair, dean, and OGSR. We strongly recommend that the prospective PI works with the OGSR who can provide assistance in reading the manuscript for consistency, clarity, and responsiveness to funding guidelines. Early drafts are encouraged.

The Proposal Components Outline can be used as a template to create a proposal when specific guidelines have not been provided by the funding agency, or as a guide in completing parallel sections when using specific agency guidelines. For those working from agency guidelines and/or an RFP, first and foremost, we recommend a careful reading of the application and instructions. The language is usually thoughtfully chosen to guide the applicant in a specific way. It is crucial to pay particular attention to page limitations and budget instructions.