Proposal Structure

Proposal Introduction – Establish Credibility

The introduction must establish your credibility in the project topic area and lead logically to the problem statement.

The introduction should cover the key elements of your proposal, including:

  • a statement of the problem
  • the purpose of the research
  • research goals or objectives
  • significance of the research

Problem Statement – Establish Research Need

Your problem statement represents the reason / rationale behind the proposal. It specifies the conditions you wish to change. It should establish the need and relevance of the research, supported by evidence drawn from your experience, from statistics provided by authoritative sources, and from appropriate literature reviews.

Your problem statement should quickly summarize the problem, show your familiarity with prior research or work on the topic, reinforce your credibility for investigating the problem, and justify why this problem should be investigated. How is your project different from previous research on the same topic? Will you be using new methodologies or covering new theoretical territory? Do not assume that everyone sees the problem as clearly as you do. Even if the problem is obvious, your reviewers want to know how clearly you state it.

As you write your problem statement, consider whether it:

  • demonstrates a precise understanding of the problem or need that you are attempting to solve
  • clearly conveys the focus of your project early in the narrative
  • indicates the relationship of your project to a larger set of problems or issues and justifies why your particular focus has been chosen
  • establishes the importance and significance of the problem
  • justifies why your problem should be of special interest to the funding agency (align with their research priorities)
  • demonstrates that your problem is feasible to solve
  • makes the reviewer want to read further
  • indicates how the problem relates to your organizational goals
  • states the problem and outputs in terms of human needs and societal benefits

Describe the Human Impact

A common approach is to present the problem in grand or general terms. Try to paint the problem in a positive light. Rather than saying “little is known about…,” “there is a lack of information about…”, or “no research has dealt with…”, go one step further and explain the consequences of the information void. Describe the need in human terms. For example, if you want to buy computers for your school, talk about computer-literate students who will benefit in the future.

Beyond discussing the importance of the project’s topic, demonstrate the need for your methodology; the reviewers should be able to anticipate your solution based upon your analysis of the problem. This important transition paragraph is frequently left out of proposals.

Project Narrative – Anticipate Reviewers’ Questions

The project narrative provides the meat of your proposal and may require several subsections. The project narrative should supply all the details of the project, including a detailed problem statement, research objectives or goals, hypotheses, methods, procedures, outcomes or deliverables, and evaluation and dissemination of the research.

For the project narrative, preempt and / or answer all of the reviewers’ possible questions. Don’t leave them wondering about anything. For example, if you propose to conduct unstructured interviews with open-ended questions, be sure you’ve explained why this methodology is best suited to the specific research questions in your proposal. Or, if you’re using item response theory rather than classical test theory to verify the validity of your survey instrument, explain the advantages of this innovative methodology. Or, if you need to travel to Valdez, Alaska to access historical archives at the Valdez Museum, make it clear what documents you hope to find and why they are relevant to your historical novel on the ’98ers in the Alaskan Gold Rush.

Clearly and explicitly state the connections between your research objectives, research questions, hypotheses, methodologies, and outcomes. As the requirements for a strong project narrative vary widely by discipline, consult a discipline-specific guide to grant writing for some additional advice.

Objectives – Identify Outcomes (Keep it SIMPLE)

The research objectives should identify the anticipated outcomes of the research and should match up to the needs identified in the problem statement. Objectives specify the outcome of your project – the end product. When you write your objectives, follow the acronymic advice “SIMPLE”:

Specific: Indicate precisely what you intend to change through your project.

Immediate: Indicate the time frame during which a current problem will be addressed.

Measurable: Indicate what you would accept as proof of project success.

Practical: Indicate how each objective is a real solution to a real problem.

Logical: Indicate how each objective systematically contributes to achieving your overall goal(s).

Evaluative: Indicate how much change has to occur for the project to be effective.

Although these categories are not mutually exclusive, each of your objectives should meet at least two or three of these six criteria. For example, given the goal of “improving the quality of life for homeless individuals in our city”, a proposal objective might be for the (fictional) Midwest Home Shelter Agency to reduce the number of homeless (Specific, Practical, Logical} during the next 24 months (Immediate) by 15 percent (Evaluative) as noted in the Department of Social Welfare Homeless Survey Report (Measurable).”

Your objectives section indicates precisely what you intend to change through your project and what you would accept as proof of project success for your target population. Your objectives provide the yardstick you use to conduct your evaluation; if you write your objectives in precise, measurable terms, it is easy to write your proposal evaluation section because you know exactly what will be evaluated.

Review & Confirm Your Objectives

As you write the objectives, ask yourself whether the section:

  1. clearly describes your project objectives, hypotheses, and / or research questions
  2. signals the project’s objectives without burying them in a morass of narrative
  3. demonstrates that your objectives are important, significant, and timely
  4. includes objectives that comprehensively describe the intended outcomes of the project
  5. states the objectives, hypotheses, or questions in a way that they can be evaluated or tested later
  6. demonstrates why your project’s outcomes are appropriate and important to the funder

List your specific objectives in no more than one or two sentences each in approximate order of importance. Don’t confuse your objectives (ends) with your methods (means). A good objective emphasizes what will be done and when it will be done, whereas a method will explain why or how it will be done. Include goal (ultimate) and objective (immediate) statements.

Methods – Make the Case for Your Approach

The methods section describes your project activities in detail, indicating how your objectives will be accomplished. The description should include the sequence, flow, and interrelationship of activities as well as planned staffing for the project. It includes, for example, the process by which the subjects will be sampled, the number of groups studied, whether past or current data are collected, methods to reduce bias, and statistical analyses to be used. It should discuss the risks of your method, demonstrate your knowledge of alternative methods and make the case that your approach is the most appropriate and most valid way to address your objectives, and indicate why your success is probable. Finally, tell what is unique about your approach.

When writing the methods, always begin with your objectives. Describe what precise steps you will follow to carry out each objective, including what will be done, who will do it, and when it will be done. If you have trouble writing this section, assume the funder’s cheque just arrived in the mail. What is the first thing you will do? Hire additional staff? Order equipment? What will you do next? Keep asking and answering the “What’s next?” question and you will lead yourself through the methodology section.

Once you have determined the sequence of events you will follow in completing your project, cast the major milestones into a time-and-task chart. In graphic form, it segments your total project into manageable steps and lets your reviewers know exactly what you will be doing – and when. It says to the reviewers that you are organized and have thought out the major steps of your project. It gives them a road map of the territory you plan to cover. Finally, the time-and-task chart represents a clear, one-page, visual summary of the entire methodology section.

Dissemination – Plan to Get the Word Out

Dissemination is the means by which you let others know about your project: its purpose, methods, and accomplishments. Dissemination is more than transferring knowledge to a general audience. It deals with how the results of your research project will be communicated and disseminated to those who should use them (e.g., policy makers, stakeholders, the public). As these user groups are identified, they also become part of the audience for whom you are writing. For related information on this subject, visit the Audience, Purpose & Occasion discussion in the Write the Proposal section.

As grants become more competitive, dissemination of results is increasingly important. No longer is it sufficient to say you will submit a journal article or present a paper at a professional society meeting. Instead, specify the tentative titles, target journals, and submission dates. Likewise, indicate which meetings will be attended, including dates and locations for presenting papers.

As you write this section, try to:

  • indicate why dissemination activities are important to your project
  • clearly identify the intended outcome of the dissemination effort
  • include a feasible and appropriate plan for dissemination
  • succinctly describe any products resulting from the dissemination effort
  • demonstrate that you are well grounded in theory and research on the dissemination and utilization of knowledge
  • provide sufficient detail on proposed dissemination procedures to justify the budget request
  • specify clearly who will be responsible for dissemination and why they are capable
  • indicate why the dissemination will reach the appropriate audiences in a form they can use when needed

Some dissemination ideas:

  • project newsletter
  • conferences and seminars
  • site visits
  • interim working papers
  • convention papers
  • journal articles
  • pamphlets
  • books or manuals
  • displays at meetings
  • demonstrations
  • audiovisual material
  • speeches
  • press releases
  • postings on computer networks, web pages or a project blog
  • executive summaries

If your department has a dedicated communications person, investigate whether this person would write a letter of support indicating their willingness to help you spread the word about the results of your research project and how exactly they intend to do so. There are also researchers who specialize in the area of knowledge translation and exchange that you could consider partnering with to strengthen this section of your application.

Abstract – Provide a Clear, Cogent Summary of Your Project

The abstract, or research summary, is usually the last written and first read section of your proposal. It should be carefully written, providing a cogent summary of your proposed project. It should provide a quick overview of what you propose to do and a clear understanding of the project’s generalizability and potential contribution, with an emphasis on significance / relevance. Project end-products should be clearly identified.

This summary can be viewed as a sales pitch or the ‘wine and dine’ page.  It is often the only part of the application read by all reviewers so make it compelling and easy to read.  Focus on innovation and novelty to get the reviewers excited about funding your research project!

Agency reviewers often must write up a summary of your project for presentation to a larger review panel. If you write a quality abstract, you make your reviewer’s job easier. If the abstract is poorly written, the reviewer’s job is more difficult and your funding chances diminish.

Generally, the abstract section contains from 250-500 words. Include at least one sentence each on the research problem, objectives, and methods, using the major subheadings you used in the proposal unless the subheadings are already provided for you in the instructions from the funding agency.


References are an integral part of the written proposal, used to validate your claims. They should be clear, consistent and appropriate. They should also meet the funding agency requirements.

Style guides that stipulate how to format references are available. These style guides can be general or subject specific. Visit the Editing section of Templates & Tools to view the Chicago Manual of Style for more information.


A researcher’s capability to conduct a study is reflected not only in the ‘technical’ components of the study but also in the materials that accompany the main body of the proposal. Appendices contain information peripheral to your proposal, such as reprints of articles, questionnaires / interview schedules and / or consent forms that you intend to use, definitions of terms, subcontract data, consortia agreements, tabular data, certifications, lists of board members and officers with titles, recent annual reports, organizational fiscal reports, organizational charts, resumes, past success stories, significant case histories, agency publications, publicity, and letters of support.

Many funding agencies do not circulate copies of appendices when transmitting proposals to reviewers. Always make sure that the proposal can stand alone. Reread the completed document to make sure your reviewers could make an informed funding decision without any appendix information.

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