The Process

1.  Study the "RFP"

Program Managers (PM’s) get far too many proposals to fund or even to read.  The PM's first task is to throw out as many proposals as possible, using little effort.  The PM (or their secretary) will use a checklist as a screening tool.  Most proposals lose at this stage.  Before writing anything, study the request for proposals ("RFP") in detail.  Mark action verbs.  Make a complete checklist of stated requirements and recommendations.  Look for implied requirements:  they may be the most important.  Above all, address every single requirement explicitly.  Understand the submission timeline and anticipate difficult items such as in-house approvals.

2. Audiences

Identify the audience(s).  They will include disparate groups and the proposal must intrigue them all.  Identify and satisfy each audience's needs.

  • Programmatic audience.  Identify and meet the PM's scientific and political needs.  Help the PM look good to the boss.  Enable the PM to say to a superior "I spent YOUR money on this!"
  • Technical audience.  Who are likely reviewers?  How will their backgrounds differ from one another and how can we interest them all simultaneously?

3.  Do your homework

  • Call and talk to the PM before writing.  Few submitters do this, but PMs appreciate the extra effort.  They will convey surprising and useful things such as what the PM is trying to accomplish both in general and in the program.  Ask how this RFP fits into their master plan and ask about upcoming RFPs.
  • Choose the approach.  Any idea can be presented in many different ways:  select the approach carefully after this conversation.  Use the tactically best presentation, even if it doesn’t appeal to the writer or presents the writer’s main interest only.
  • For any "special" RFP, find out who invented it, why, and where the money actually comes from.

4. Make the reviewer’s job easy

  • Avoid jargon.  Remember:  many non-specialists will deal with, and review, every proposal.  The author is writing it because s/he is the expert, so the proposal must educate (and enthuse!) all readers.  One can explain complex things using simple everyday words.  Unknown terms hinder and confuse the reader. Use spell-checkers:  they find both jargon and misspellings.  The PM should be able to use the proposal itself to explain "Why?" to the (inevitably non-specialist) boss.
  • Use succinct English.  "The man ran down the hill" vs. "The post-adolescent human male perambulated at a high rate of speed in a pronouncedly downslope direction."
  • Use the active voice, first person.  It is shorter, clearer, easy to read and draws the reader in.
  • Rules for sentence structure:
    • No more than three commas in a sentence. Work at this.
    • No more than 20 words in a sentence.  Work at this.
    • Get the grammar right.  If uncertain, SIMPLIFY until there is no doubt.  Clarity is the highest goal.

Actual writing -  Do all of these (this is the best sequence):

  1. Define the problem (what's the question?);
  2. Put it into context (relate it to the universe);
  3. Tell why it is interesting (why should the reader care?);
  4. Tell how it will be investigated; and
  5. List your needs

If this cannot be performed in less than five pages of text plus one figure, then the problem has not been thought through.


Keep it short.  Drop any figure or table you can summarize in a sentence. Pare text down repeatedly.  Reviewers are amazed and pleased to get a short, succinct proposal.  That is to your advantage.


Fewer citations are better.  Use short citations (e.g., AAAS's "Science" format).  More (numbers, length) wastes space and indicates failure to identify critical points.

Cite only for controversial or critical points, or to support unexpected arguments and conclusions.  Most PMs have neither ready access to libraries, nor time to check references.  Technical reviewers should know most background material and will only (if at all) consult critical references.  The proposed investment is in the ideas, not in a literature search.  Display a grasp of the topic and the team’s capabilities in the text, not the references.


Ask for what is necessary to do a good job.  Always prepare a fall-back position in advance. Padded budgets are (1) trivially easy to spot and (2) extremely bad faith (a.k.a. cheating).


Understand and precisely follow stated guidelines. Margins, spacing, etc. are important.  Neatness does count.  Make the reader’s job easy by keeping it short.  Use big, plain fonts.  Micro-type almost guarantees failure.  Use bold, frequent, informative, short headings.  Let the reader easily see "Where I am", "Where I just was" and "Where I'm going".  Most reviewers are busy, overloaded people – headings enable them to skip things they already know or don’t need.  If possible, take many headings directly from the RFP's "requirements" checklist.  Headings alone should (a) tell most of the story and (b) satisfy list-checkers.  Leave white space! Do not seem to be cramming in material.

5.  Partners

Many research projects require multiple talents.  Put together a dream team: select only the best partners.  In choosing them, disregard all boundaries (disciplinary, departmental, institutional, business vs academia, etc.).

6.  Do a preliminary review

Obtain technically competent literate reviewers, from outside the immediate field, to critique a draft in detail and  accept their advice.  If they fail to understand it is YOUR problem so do not argue.  A good test is this: after the reading, ask your reviewer(s) to outline points 1-5 (see Actual Writing, above)after reading the draft, without parroting it.  If they cannot, then you must rewrite!

7.  Tactics

  • Submit early (before the deadline).  Why?  Because this will surprise and please (astound!) the PM.  S/he will probably have time to actually read and study an early submission:  it will be on their desk alone.  If it is a good proposal, it will become the standard for comparison. It will probably get the top reviewers.  All this is good.
  • Information copies.  Who else might like to know about this?  Is the topic ripe for co-funding from two or three sources?  (PMs love this:  each can claim to be leveraging the other's money as that sounds good.)  Send cross-referenced copies to all, and suggest they discuss co-funding.  Make that job easy:   give them all one-anothers' phone numbers.
  • Suggested reviewers.  This is legitimate, especially for esoteric subjects. Don't be transparently self-serving.  Pick good people who can do a good job and ask each before you recommend them.
  • Suggested non-reviewers.  This is legitimate, but do so rarely and selectively and have a very good reason.

8.  If the proposal is not funded

Remember, most proposals are not funded!  Don't blame the reviewers or PM: get the reviews, study them, and learn from them.  An idea worth submitting at all is worth a second try.  Discuss the reviews with the reviewers(s) who critiqued your draft.  Identify weak points, then modify the proposal.  Then call the PM and discuss both the failed proposal and ideas for improving it.  Take the PM's suggestions seriously, implement them, and re-submit.

9.  After the proposal is funded

  • Keep the PM informed.  PMs are usually experts in their field.  They are in the business primarily because they are passionate about the topic.  All PMs need to feel included and informed.  Very few investigators keep PMs informed about progress.  Almost none ever take time to write a note to the PM about interesting or exciting developments in the field generally (a "white paper", not self-serving propaganda).  Doing so is easy, and critical. Talk to PMs often:  give them reason to feel vested in the project.
  • Make the PM’s job easier.  PMs must continually defend and explain their programs.  Keep them loaded with current visual aids, designed for drama and the non-specialist.  When the PM has to make a presentation, they will be prepared.  The work will be showcased and the PM's boss will ask about the work next year.  All that is good.
  • About problems.  Problems are almost inevitable. Tell PMs about problems early, not late. Be frank: PMs know (usually from personal experience) that things don't always go smoothly. Remember - your success or failure is the PM's success or failure, hence they have a vested interest in helping you. PMs will help you devise creative solutions. They have resources (intellectual and other) far beyond what you might expect.  Everyone likes to be a hero, so ask for help when you need it..

Copyright 2013 The Pivotal Point Group, LLC