A proposal will usually contain the following sections or slots:
- Summary—a short overview of the problem; its importance, objectives, evaluation, impact, cost; why the proposed activity should be funded or conducted; how it will solve the problem; what benefits the funder or society will receive; why the proposers are qualified.
- Situation/background/problem/need—why the project is important.
- Objectives of the proposed activity.
- Benefits/significance/justification. People don’t want to pay to see the wheel reinvented. Do a literature review/survey of previous work in the area.
- Methods/procedures/approach to achieving the stated objectives. This section needs to be realistic; thought and spelled out specifically; and achievable within institutional resources and commitments, proposed staffing, and their qualifications and experience.
- Costs/budget. This needs to be worked out in fine detail and presented meticulously.
- Schedule/timetable—starting date, duration.
- Limitations of the proposed methodology, if there are any.
- Evaluation of results. How will this be carried out? The funder needs to be assured that you know how to prove how useful your work will be.
- Appendices, attachments, and references.
A good proposal should anticipate (and answer) a reader’s objections, questions, and reservations. You need to think through what you are proposing to the funder. Instead of believing that your reader will be eager to read your proposal and grateful for your solution to a problem, it’s better to presume that the potential funder would find it much more justifiable to choose one of your competitors. Proposals frequently don’t win jobs as much as they clinch or lose them.
- The funder’s background situation/problem.
- Given that problem, your objectives for solving it.
- Given those objectives, your methods for achieving them.
- Given those methods, your qualifications to perform them.
- Given your methods and qualifications, how much it will cost.
- Given that cost, what the benefits will be.
- Given all these considerations, how long it will take.
If you will be chiefly responsible for implementing a proposal, then your credibility is an important factor in persuading readers to respond in the desired way. To convince them that you are a ‘person of substance’, you should address the following points: qualifications, track record, sound knowledge and deep understanding of your area of proposed investigation, and technical and managerial competence. Remember, there is no substitute for substance.
Style and tone
Proposals are generally significant documents, often dealing with large amounts of money. Therefore, their style and tone should be clear, concise, serious, and considered. However, this does not mean that you should lapse into pomposity or wordiness in an effort to sound ‘impressive’. In particular, you should avoid the following: an unprofessional appearance, such as obvious and offensive ‘cut-and-paste’; poor logic and organisation; more focus on the writer than on the reader’s organisation; fuzzy, overly complex, inadequate, or seemingly irrelevant research; unrealistic promises; unjustified claims; specialised or inaccessible jargon; wordiness; unnecessary repetition; vagueness; and lengthy sentences and paragraphs.