Producing a Successful Grant Proposal

By McShane, Marilyn D. | Corrections Today, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Producing a Successful Grant Proposal


McShane, Marilyn D., Corrections Today


Today, more and more public and private agencies, as well as professional organizations, are competing for grants and federal funds. Grants often represent the chance for you to develop projects that your agency ordinarily wouldn't be able to fund, to try new approaches you think might be effective, or to search for ways to solve problems in your field.

Many resources are available to help you locate funding sources and get you started in the application process, but you should be aware of the pitfalls most frequently seen by those who review and evaluate grant proposals. If you become familiar with them, you can avoid some of the most common mistakes in proposal writing.

Review the Literature

It's important to keep in mind that reviewers will be selected to evaluate your proposal because they are familiar with the topic and the related literature. They will expect you to be knowledgeable, up-to-date and aware of what has been done in the area as well as what needs to be done.

A literature review is more than just putting together a current bibliography. The process can help you avoid problems that previous studies have encountered and can save you time and effort by providing you with reliable instruments and other tested research techniques. You even may find some excellent studies that lend themselves to replication or modification.

Reviewing the literature also will push you to define your study and demonstrate that you are not repeating prior work. It will force you to examine how your research will extend or build on what already is known.

Identify Your Target Population

When reading your proposal, reviewers clearly should understand the focus of the study, to whom the results will be generalized, and how the sample will be selected. You will need to be able to explain the size of the population, as well as the sample, the source of the sample, those to be excluded, and any special circumstances affecting the sample selection. If a sample appears to be one of convenience rather than one that represents the most logical design, this will raise a red flag in most reviewers' minds.

Obtain a Random Sample

Proposal writers frequently claim that it is too difficult to obtain a true random sample. In many cases this isn't so. By planning and making special arrangements with programming agencies, you can obtain a random sample. It is better to expend whatever effort it takes to obtain a random sample than to attempt to surmount the obstacles created without one. In most cases, the lack of probability sampling limits your ability to use and interpret many statistical tests, to estimate the amount of error in your tests, and to generalize to the population after you have obtained your findings.

Conduct a Site Visit

Site visits often are proposed as a way to gather data, interview critical players in a program and perform observational analyses. In many instances, the methodologies employed are informal, unscientific and difficult to aggregate or measure quantifiably. Although qualitative studies are an important part of research, few proposals contain a thorough, rigorous or "true" qualitative data-gathering process. There are many inherent limitations and threats to the validity and reliability of data gathered on-site that are not outweighed by the fact that "being there" will control error.

Interviews, for instance, are problematic by nature. Structure and consistency are imperative in good interviewing; unfortunately, this important task often is assigned to a less experienced assistant or student. Consider replacing interviews with more structured, pretested surveys. However, if you must use an interview, explain in the proposal why this method is being used.

Surveys vs. Evaluation

Limitations are intrinsic in any particular research methodology or technique. A survey, for example, can only investigate issues, identify problems or gather opinions. …

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