Proposal Tips

The following scenarios really occurred — requiring what we call "advanced problem solving." The solutions presented and lessons learned may help you to make the right decisions when major problems occur with your grant proposals.

Most funding agencies understand that situations like these can arise in nonprofit organizations. Discussing the problem openly with your Program Officer can serve to re-establish a viable relationship and lay a positive foundation for future requests.


  1. "Our proposal has been recommended for funding, but we have been sent a list of detailed questions to answer before they can issue an award."

    Solution: First, there is no guarantee that responding to the questions will result in an award. Now is the time to drop what you are doing, assemble your team, and develop a comprehensive response. Review the questions first to be sure you understand about what is being asked of you, and ask your program officer for clarification if necessary. Some of the easy questions can be delegated to various team members, for example, to the exhibit designer or to the project evaluator or to your finance officer. Other questions may be more complex and require a discussion with your program officer. Develop a complete draft response for review by the entire team so that you have the correct information and the relevant perspectives. Above all, make sure you meet the timeline for submission, which may only be a week or two.

    Lesson: Keep all of your original documentation from the proposal development stage. Many times, the foundation is only seeking additional detail.

  2. "Our museum has a good project idea, but we don't have a Principal Investigator."

    Solution: Large projects of national significance need a visionary leader in order to drive the project within your institution and to present the project with a coherent voice to your colleagues and to your funding program officer. Ideally, the initial project idea should come from a professional that has the necessary background and expertise to develop the project, to communicate on a high level with partners and collaborators, and to see the project through to implementation and dissemination. If you do not have such a person within your organization, consider partnering with an organization that does.

    Lesson: Every good project needs a dedicated leader or leaders. Simply "assigning" a staff member to fill this position may not be enough unless they have the qualifications, the time, and the ambition.

  3. "The auditors are coming!"

    Solution: Relax, take a deep breath, and go see your Director of Finance. Normally, auditors of a federal grant will give you reasonable notice before they move into your office. Set some time aside to review your budgets and accounting practices and to prepare the documentation they will request of you. When the auditors arrive, provide them with office space, access to a copy machine, and plenty of coffee, and make yourself available for answering questions. See the NSF Cost Analysis & Audit Resolution Branch for information.

    Lesson: Assume you WILL be audited at some point. Provide careful stewardship of your budget and your expenditures, including cost-sharing (if applicable). If you are currently in the process of developing a proposal, it's wise to develop a simple budget that will be easy for you to manage and track, and which will be clearly distinguishable from your other projects. Planning ahead is key.

  4. "The entire advisory committee abandoned the project a week before the proposal is due!"

    Solution: Get each advisor back on board asap. First address the issue that raised their concern. Then communicate with each advisor individually to ensure that the problem has been addressed to their satisfaction.

    Lesson: Remember that you initially selected these advisors because of their specific expertise. Their participation is crucial to building a successful project with high impact, and you are counting on them to catch any project shortcomings. Any group concerns must be respected and dealt with openly and honestly. If you are unable to address the problem to their satisfaction, your project may not be ready for proposasl submission.

  5. "We have to give the money back!"

    Solution: Assuming that all possible attempts to re-negotiate with the funding agency have been unsuccessful, keep your chin up and comply.

    Lesson: No institution ever wants to give money back. However, some projects of merit have successfully received funding, but lack support for implementation due to changes in staffing, to lack of matching funds, or to a redirection in institutional strategic planning. In cases like these, either the Board or staff vote to cancel the project altogether, or the funding agency no longer has evidence of your intentions to spend their dollars as promised and requests that the grant be returned. Remember that the first step when considering a federal or other major proposal is to make sure that your project fits into and furthers your institution's mission and strategic long-term plan. The project should have staff, board, and community support and involvement from the outset to avoid a possible misalignment with institutional priorities.

  6. "The Principal Investigator is leaving!"

    Solution: If the funded project is specific to your institution and cannot travel with the PI to his/her new institution (for example, a permanent exhibition), you must find a replacement PI within your organization. In many cases, the original PI must maintain some degree of involvement with the project and the funder in order to keep the grant.

    Lesson: Ideally, a PI commits to overseeing a major project through all phases of development, implementation, and evaluation, however this is often unrealistic in the nonprofit world. Since many large awards are based on the original PI's qualifications and experience, the replacement PI must exhibit similar credentials and the high professional standards necessary to manage a major grant and a significant project.

  7. "Our Program Officer called with some questions, but we can't find the proposal!"

    Solution: Don't panic. You are not the first person this has happened to, and you won't be the last. Relax and contact your Program Officer or their assistant right away. Be honest, explain your predicament, and ask them to mail you a copy asap.

    Lesson: The Principal Investigator is responsible for archiving the actual proposal as well as any supportive documents that might be required should any questions arise from the funding agency. Make multiple electronic and paper copies and file them in various locations. It is amazing how many organizations fail to do this. Of course, if you submitted to the National Science Foundation, your proposal can always be retrieved on the Fastlane website.