The Researcher's Tool Kit

Resources for working smarter

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Free resources for Nonprofits…

Need grant writing tips or resources for managing volunteers?  Check out the links below for free resources available to nonprofits…toolkit-24157707 copy

Nonprofit Good Practice Guide:

Nonprofit leaders can access hands-on tips, articles and profiled links. In 2010, the site was redesigned with interactive features. Visitors to come from all 50 states and over 140 countries.

The Nonprofit Guides:

The Nonprofit Guides are free web-based tools designed to assist established nonprofit organizations and entities through the grant writing process. The site hosts several grant proposal samples.

Points of Light Foundation:

Points of Light Foundation (POLF) has gained a national reputation as America’s Address for Volunteering. POLF is an excellent resource for the volunteer, nonprofit, or volunteer manager and will refer you to a helpful resource if it is not readily available on their website.



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Advice to proposal writers from the NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides the following information to help proposal writers understand the steps that go into preparing a proposal and to share some advice that others have found useful.  This guide was written specifically for proposals to NSF; however, the excerpts provided are applicable for funding proposals to other federal and non-federal agencies as well as foundations.

Even experienced researchers keep in mind that “Little Things…Make a Difference

  • Use a spell checker before submitting the proposal.
  • Proofread carefully.
  • Be sure to follow the directions given in the Program Announcement. In particular, follow any specific requirements such as page limitations.
  • In general avoid abbreviations. For example, use laboratory, not lab and mathematics, not math.
  • The first time you use an acronym, write out what it stands for and put the acronym in parentheses. For example, American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC). After that you can use the acronym.
  • Make sure all your references are correct.”

Now onto specific tips from the NSF staff…


“Step 1 – Before You Write

Getting Started

A good proposal begins with a clear idea of the goals and objectives of the project—for example, creating a course or curriculum, improving a laboratory by teaching new concepts directly, teaching new material to undergraduate faculty, or preparing future technicians or K-12 teachers in a more effective way.

In addition, a good project begins with a sense of why it will be a significant improvement over current practice.

Envision what improvements your project will make, and then ask yourself what activities and course(s) must be developed, what instruments will be needed, or what coalitions must be formed to make the desired improvements. Focusing first on the goals and objectives helps ensure that the activities are designed to reach those goals.

After the goals and associated activities are well defined, consider what resources (e.g., people, time, equipment, technical support) will be necessary as part of the request to NSF. A better proposal is likely to result if the goals and activities are clear before resources are considered.

Your project should be innovative within its context. It should not be designed merely to bring your institution up to the level of other similar institutions, nor should it be used to fill program deficiencies that have been caused by changing student registration patterns.

Mention what work has been done in preparation for the project, and describe specific attempts that have been made to try the proposed improvement on a small scale. Evidence of preliminary work demonstrates planning and commitment to the project and often indicates the project’s potential for success.

When the proposal requests significant funds for equipment, it is helpful to consider alternatives and explain why the instruments chosen are particularly suitable for the project and why others, especially less expensive ones, are less suitable.

Get advice from people who have been successful in the proposal process.

Gathering Background Information

When writing a proposal, look for previously awarded NSF projects or work supported in other ways that are similar. The relationship of the proposed project to work of others should be described. In addition, the proposal must give appropriate attention to the existing relevant knowledge base, including awareness of current literature. Results of previous projects may have been presented at professional meetings or published in journals, and NSF regularly publishes abstracts of its recently awarded grants.

Feel free to call a Program Director when unsure about any details or procedure.

Looking at the Program Announcement

Identify the program or programs that best fit what you hope to accomplish.

Read the Program Announcement guidelines carefully and consider what is requested. Each program’s section of that announcement specifies requirements for that program and information that is used to review the proposal.

The Program Announcement clearly spells out requirements, including format requirements. All parts of the proposal should conform to the requirements, i.e., target dates, font size, page limits, program objectives, budget limits, matching funds, etc. The proposal should be concise and not exceed any text restrictions.

The review criteria are particularly important to consider in writing the proposal. Keep in mind that different programs may have special emphases for review. These will be mentioned in the Program Announcement. You should consider, if appropriate, how your project might address these areas.

In some cases, programs have specific requirements that differ from the general requirements. When there are differences, the guidelines closest to the program should be followed (i.e., follow the program guidelines provided in the Program Announcement). For example, the DUE Program Announcement calls for double line spacing while the NSF Grant Proposal Guide leaves line spacing to the discretion of the proposer. In that case, you should use double line spacing.

Thinking About the Target Audience

The target audience of the grant should be clearly explained in terms of demographic characteristics, size, and special characteristics or problems/challenges faced by the group. The project design should be developed in a manner which will effectively assist the target group in addressing those special problems or challenges.

Building Coalitions

When several departments, several institutions, or constituencies outside the academic community are involved in the project, it is important to have these groups involved in the planning and to obtain letters of commitment to the project.

Where appropriate in terms of the project’s size and its potential for national impact, consider designing the project with an advisory board of outside experts to provide additional levels of expertise and experience and to help widely disseminate the project results.

Build consensus on your idea within your own department and institution.  It is often valuable to include a letter of support from the department chair or other individuals to establish institutional support.

Include information about where the project fits in the context of the institution’s academic program. As appropriate, show how your project is part of an overall plan to improve education by your institution and other institutions.

Discuss involving other institutions in your proposal either as partners in the endeavor or as test sites.

Other Considerations

Organize a good working team. Distribute duties and develop a firm schedule of activities needed to prepare the proposal in time to meet the proposal deadline.

Schedule proposal writing and information gathering activities over a reasonable time and carefully manage the schedule. Consider scheduling the writing in small, regular amounts of time. The effort needed to write a proposal might, at first sight, seem insurmountable. By proceeding a step at a time, you will be able to accomplish the task.

Remember to allow enough time to have the proposal revised by a third party if needed and to obtain all the necessary internal and external support letters and permissions. Consider having one person write the final proposal to assure consistency.

Typically a final version of a proposal will have gone through several drafts and revisions. Don’t plan on writing a final version in a first draft.

Invest time running a pilot program and preparing preliminary versions of curricular materials prior to the actual writing of the proposal.

The proposal should be written so that, if funded, it can serve as a blueprint for executing the plan.

Step 2 – Writing the Proposal

Writing the Proposal Narrative

A good proposal is always readable, well-organized, grammatically correct, and understandable.

Be explicit in your narrative about how the program will make an improvement. This narrative must contain specifics including details of experiments and/or applications, both to show that planning has been done and to help reviewers understand why the particular application you propose is better than other ideas. You and your colleagues should think through several iterations of the definition of the project.

The narrative should be specific about the proposed activities. Reviewers want details of the project’s organization, the course content, laboratory and other inquiry-based experiments, and participant activities, both to show that groundwork has been laid and to help them understand why the particular ideas you propose are better than others.

Careful writing should allow you to describe, in the limited space available, enough about your project to give the reviewers a clear idea of exactly what you plan to do and why your plan is a good one.

The project description/narrative of the proposal should be written by the person or persons in the science, engineering, or mathematics departments who will be the principal investigator(s). The submitting institution’s sponsored research office or grant administration expert can assist in some areas of the proposal writing, e.g., with budgets or grammar.

It is helpful to reviewers to see that you have devised a time frame. This will show that you have done adequate planning and are realistic about the program’s implementation.

Including Budget Information

The budget request should be realistic for the project and reflect the goals of the project. It must also be consistent with the requirements of the particular NSF program. It should request sufficient resources needed to carry out the project, but it should not be excessively high.

Budget information should be complete and unambiguous. Carefully review your budget to ensure that ineligible items do not appear in the budget and that adequate attention has been given to cost sharing. Consult the Program Announcement for eligible and ineligible items. Most reviewers and all Program Directors look carefully at the proposed budgets to find evidence of careful reflection and realistic project planning.

Institutional and other leveraged commitments toward the budget is one way to demonstrate institutional support of the project. Institutional and other contributions in terms of matching funds or released time are usually looked upon by reviewers as a positive sign of institutional commitment.

Make sure that your budget narrative reflects both your official NSF budget pages and the needs of the project.

Cost of the project must be realistic. Many budget requests are out-of-line with others submitted to the program. Look at the Program Announcement for average size of awards and the award range.

Budgets are often negotiated as a proposal is being considered; but a clear, realistic budget request strengthens a proposal.

Writing the Credentials of the PI and Other Staff

When writing up the credentials of faculty for the grant proposal, each biographical sketch should be written with the proposal in mind and should display the unique background of the principal investigator(s) which will be valuable in working on the proposed project.

Carefully follow program guidelines about format and length of biographical sketches.

Be sure that the roles of all personnel, especially the principal investigators, are described in the proposal itself. Having the roles of the principal investigators and other personnel discussed within the narrative is important so that reviewers can understand their involvement, leadership, and commitment to the project.

Letters of Commitment

Include letters of commitment from your department chair and other appropriate administrators.

If your project involves other people or groups not on your campus (e.g., consultants), include letters of commitment and support from appropriate individuals.

Include letters of commitment with specific contributions from the participants’ supporting institutions. These should make specific commitments and not just be generic support of good will. Uniquely phrased letters of commitment from different institutions are better than nearly identical letters from the institutions to be served.

Project Summary

The project summary (abstract) is the first thing that reviewers and NSF staff read. It should be written clearly and concisely. In the space allotted, it should outline the problem, the objectives and the expected outcomes, project activities, and the audience to be addressed. Project directors use the summary to choose reviewers for the proposal. It is also the reviewers’ introduction to the project. NSF publishes an abstract of the project (both in hard copy and electronically) should it be funded. Considerable effort and thought should be spent in preparing a well-written summary.

Step 3 – Before Sending Your Proposal to NSF

Learning More About the Review Process

To gain expertise in NSF’s proposal review system, volunteer to serve on a program review panel yourself. Each Division compiles names of appropriate individuals who can serve as reviewers. Contact the pertinent division for a form to fill out to volunteer for reviewer status.

Encourage your professional organization to form a committee to help members review their proposals before submitting them to NSF.

Getting Advice

Consider asking someone who has served on an NSF program review panel to assess your proposal.

If possible, have someone not connected with the proposal read and comment on a draft of your proposal—with sufficient time allowed for changes prior to the submission of your proposal. This person can help identify omissions or inconsistent logic before reviewers see the proposal.

Some programs require a preliminary proposal. Check the Program Announcement and with NSF staff.

When working on a proposal or award for several years, you may be transferred from one Program Director to another. Many Program Directors come to NSF from colleges and universities for one or two-year assignments and then return to their schools at the end of their rotational assignments.

Before Finishing the Proposal

When a checklist is provided in the Program Announcement, use it to ensure that all needed information, signatures, and/or administrative details are included.

Look again at the goals and objectives and at your written plans and procedures for achieving the goals. Check to see that the goals are well-developed and realistic and that your plans are innovative and appropriate.

Consider using graphics to make your point stronger and clearer.

A time line to show when different components of your project are to take place can be particularly effective.”

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On the Art of Writing Proposals…grant writing tips

Need some inspiration and tips for writing a research proposal?  Check out the seminal publication, The Art of Writing Proposals, from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC)…some of the writing strategies should be useful for other disciplines as well.cropped-cropped-toolkit-24157707-copy.jpg

From The Art of Writing Proposals:

“Writing proposals for research funding is a peculiar facet of North American academic culture, and as with all things cultural, its attributes rise only partly into public consciousness. A proposal’s overt function is to persuade a committee of scholars that the project shines with the three kinds of merit all disciplines value, namely, conceptual innovation, methodological rigor, and rich, substantive content. But to make these points stick, a proposal writer needs a feel for the unspoken customs, norms, and needs that govern the selection process itself. These are not really as arcane or ritualistic as one might suspect. For the most part, these customs arise from the committee’s efforts to deal in good faith with its own problems: incomprehension among disciplines, work overload, and the problem of equitably judging proposals that reflect unlike social and academic circumstances.”


  • Capture the reviewer’s attention
  • Aim for clarity
  • Establish the context
  • What’s the pay-off?
  • Use a fresh approach
  • Describe your methodology
  • Specify your objectives
  • Final note

Citation: Pzreworski, Adam and Salomon, Frank, On the Art of Writing Proposals (Social Science Research Council, 1995 rev., 1988).


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Grant writing…how do I manage my time?

Researchers and grant writers are frequently cautioned to make sure they have enough time available to craft a well written application in order to maximize their chances for funding.  I am often asked,

How much time do I really need to write a grant?

The answer depends on many variables.  Fortunately, NIH provides a comprehensive resource for strategic planning to secure funding.  Even if you are seeking non-NIH funding, the steps outlined and time management information provided about qualifying for funding, designing a project, writing the application, submitting the application, what to do if not funded, and  how to manage a grant to retain your funding are worth review.  Remember that good organization and planning ensure a competitive edge and will allow you to produce your best work.cropped-cropped-toolkit-24157707-copy.jpg

Keep in mind that NIH (per the information gleaned from their website) notes that successful applicants:

  • Set internal deadlines and work together with individuals in their organization to meet them.  I encourage you to speak with your Grants Office early in the process.  The Grants Office can assist you in developing your budget as well as developing other required components of your application.
  • Determine what type of application works best for research (e.g., training, basic, translational) to be funded.
  • Are realistic about the time it will take to complete each aspect of the application process and plan accordingly.  I encourage you to consider the additional time required when you include collaborators or subcontracts in your project.
  • Develop a realistic timeline that includes draft application deadlines and allow enough time to meet them.  I encourage you to be mindful of holidays and office closures when developing your timeline.  In addition, remember that electronic portals and equipment can fail.  Add in some time for potential technical difficulties when creating your timelines for application submissions.

To assist you in developing the recommended timelines, NIH provides resources at Strategy for NIH Funding for all phases of funding.  I’ve provided their timelines (SOURCE:  NIH NIAID) below for your quick reference.  Details are provided via the links included for each part.

You may also want to review how submission cycles affect the timing of funding at Timing Factors That Affect Your Application and Award.

Planning Timeline:  For details on the action items shown, see Understand Timing.

Writing Timeline:  For details on the action items shown, see Understand Timing.

NIH Timelines_Page_1

Submission Timeline:  For details on the action items shown, see Understand Timing.

Assignment and Review Timeline:  For details on the action items shown, see Understand Timing.

NIH Timelines_Page_2

Resubmission Timeline:  For details on the action items shown, see Understand Timing.

Funding Timelines:  This part has three timelines: funding decisions, renewal, and staying funded. For details on the action items shown, see Understand Timing.

NIH Timelines_Page_3



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Red Flags for proposal review…

Do you know what sounds the alarm bells when a reviewer looks at a grant proposal? This brief video from the Foundation Center gives some behind the scenes insights… What Are Potential Red Flags When You Are Reviewing Proposals?cropped-cropped-toolkit-24157707-copy.jpg

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Grant Managers Network releases Blueprint for the Future 2014-2016

Grants Managers Network (GMN), a national leader in advancing the “how” of philanthropy, has developed an ambitious Blueprint for the Future  to help grants management professionals and their organizations ensure that grant dollars (tens of billions of available dollars in grants to local, national, and international causes) are delivering successful results.

GMN hopes to maximize philanthropic impact by:

1.  Advancing the knowledge and expertise of grants management professionals so they can lead their organizations to better outcomes.
2.  Accelerating the adoption of proven practices that bring added effectiveness, efficiency and transparency to grant making.
3.  Connecting grants management professionals and the organizations they represent so they can learn and work together to advance the field.

GMN promises to “move our 2014-16 blueprint to reality in two mission-driven ways: first, by meeting the learning needs of grants management professionals so they can achieve the core competencies required to expertly manage grantmaking; and, second, by identifying and promoting practices that get better results for funders and the organizations and initiatives they support.”

GMN Blueprint for the Future

Click here to download

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7 Steps to Find Grant Funds

My recent post, The #1 Question Grant Seekers Neglect to Ask, generated requests for more information about how to find grant funds.  Specifically, folks have requested action steps to implement when seeking grant funds.  Here goes my attempt to summarize the process (and the questions to ask along the way) in 7 steps…

cropped-cropped-toolkit-24157707-copy.jpgTAKE ACTION:  SEVEN STEPS TO FIND GRANT FUNDS

STEP 1:  Gather specific information about the PI/PD for the project

Principal Investigator (PI)/Project Director (PD) information is essential for eligibility determination.  Gather the information below to facilitate efficient and successful searches via websites and databases.

  • Highest degree conferred
  • Year degree conferred
  • Citizenship
  • Appointment status/employment status
  • Performance site
  • Known Conflicts of Interest (COI)

STEP 2: Determine eligibility

Check out The #1 Question Grant Seekers Neglect to Ask for discussion about how to determine eligibility.

STEP 3: Determine the purpose of the funding

Do you want funding to do research?  Are you an educational non-profit?  Funders support projects and non-profits with purposes that are consistent with their purpose.  Make sure the goals and aims of your project are explicitly matched to the funder’s purpose.  Are you looking for funding that focuses on…

  • a specific population? (e.g., children, disease-specific, by location)
  • a specific nonprofit? (e.g., religious, environmental, educational)
  • a type of support? (e.g., research, conference, construction, fellowship, equipment, program/center

Decide on the purpose of your project for which you seek support.  This will help you determine if a funder is a good fit when requesting grant funds for your specific work.

STEP 4: Find an appropriate funder

Numerous searchable databases and websites are available when seeking funding in the following categories:

Check out a few searchable databases included on the funding resources link.  There’s alot out there so “work smart, not hard” to find the best fit in this competitive market.

STEP 5: Review the funder’s mission and priorities in detail

As stated, you need to ensure your project is consistent with the purpose and activities the funder supports.  Take the time to review that information BEFORE deciding to respond to a funding opportunity announcement (FOA).  This relatively small investment in time allows you to package your request for funding in a way that makes sense to the funder and can result in a big payoff when you are awarded support.

Most funders readily provide their purpose, mission statement and priorities for annual funding on their websites.   For example, every NIH Institute and Center has its mission and funding priorities posted.  Remember to check back before submission deadlines for any updates based on annual budget policies.

STEP 6: Determine if there are any limitations for the available funding

Most funding opportunity announcements will explicitly list allowable costs and unallowable costs.  READ CAREFULLY and be respectful of any limitations when preparing budget requests.

STEP 7: Review the funding opportunity announcement CAREFULLY (note any unusual terms)

Confirm that you are responding to an appropriate funding solicitation.  Said another way, if the funder does not accept unsolicited applications, DO NOT APPLY without invitation.

Ask yourself questions like the following as you review the FOA:

  • When is the application due? Is there time to write an application of quality?
  • Is a Letter of Intent due before the application? If so, what is the deadline?
  • Do we need institutional endorsement before we can submit?  Talk to your research administrator about any plans for submission.  There may be internal deadlines or internal requirements you need to satisfy in order to obtain endorsement for submission.
  • What are the budget constraints? Is enough money available to actually implement the project if awarded?
  • How does the funder want to be contacted? (e.g., email, hard copy, electronic portal)
  • Do we have the facilities, equipment, and resources in place to implement the project in the time frame stated if awarded?
  • What are the formatting guidelines?
  • How do I submit?  Is this a paper submission or an electronic submission?  If it is electronic, do I need to establish an account or registry before submission?

Download a summary of the 7 steps via the grant funding search checklist which includes embedded links to a few searchable funding databases.  The checklist is intended to help you easily keep track of individualized searches by project and PI/PD.  Fingers crossed that the grant funding search checklist proves to be a useful and time saving resource. Good luck with your searches!