Which Proposal Section Has the Greatest Influence on Proposal Reviewers?

This blog summarizes the responses of eighty-eight (88) grant professionals who discussed this question in some LinkedIn groups.  It first summarizes those discussions and then compares them to the results of two quantitative research investigations.  existing research.  This summary of those discussions is not meant in any way to serve as social science research; it is just that — a summary of a group discussion.  A total of 15 pages of comments were received. To limit the length of this blog, only the primary preferences are reported below, recognizing that many people added important qualifying comments.

The following table identifies the different proposal components in this LinkedIn Discussion Question along with the number and percent responses (votes).

Proposal   Component Number Percent
Introduction/Abstract 16 18%
Need/Problem 18 20
Goals/Objectives/Aims 6 7
Method/Plan/Approach 10 11
Evaluation 7 8
Collaboration 1 1
Budget 10 11
Overall   Impact 20 23
Total 88 100%

Since all 88 responses consumed 16 pages of information, we have selected one representative response from each proposal component category.

Introduction/Summary/Abstract (N=16)

This is an excellent question. It is especially important to have a strong project summary that clearly lays out the project’s goals and shows how the project fits in with the funding agency’s mission. That summary will provide the foundation for the rest of the proposal.

Need/Problem/Justification (N=18)

For me it’s the needs statement–it tells me if the organization has done its homework, establishes the thesis, and provides me with (hopefully) the credible, current, and appropriate evidence to support both the need and the organization’s proposed solution. It’s the “teaching tool” that prefaces everything that comes after. Everything has to tie back to it (and to each other, of course). But then I’m a data junkie, so I may be biased. :)

Goals/Objectives/Aims  (N=6)

In teaching grant writing, I suggest to students that the most important section is the Objectives. They must be clear, simple, measurable and provide the basis upon which outcomes and evaluation can be accomplished. They provide the framework for the deliverables on the contract for which you are making application.

Method/Plan/Approach (N=10)

The Procedures and Approach Section is the most revealing of the merits of the study. In this section a reviewer discovers if the approach is novel, if the resources are adequate, if the project is well designed, and if the results will be interpreted correctly. All of the other sections are weighted against this section. This includes evaluating the budget with the approach, considering the expertise of the investigators to accomplish what is described, etc.

Collaboration (N=1)

I agree with our colleague’s statements thus far, but I would add that evidence of support from the community being served and commitment from other local agencies (i.e. collaboration) is also a strong indicator that the grantee would be successful in the implementation of their program. I served as a Peer Reviewer for the Michigan Dept of Education recently and this tended to score good points on the apps.

Evaluation (N=7)

I think the evaluation section is probably the most influential since it ties back to all aspects of the proposal. It also shows whether you have a solid strategy for how you’ll collect and analyze data to assess whether you meet your goals and objectives. No matter how strong your need or project description, a weak evaluation section will kill your chances.

Budget (N=10)

When I was actively reviewing grants, the budget was a do-or-die section. If there were errors, inflated or unrealistic numbers, the ability of the organization to successfully deliver on the grant was immediately called into question. And also watch for a disconnect between budget and narrative. I too often saw proposals that involved budgets assembled by finance people and plans put together by program people with very little connection between the two.

Overall (Meaning that the respondents rejected the survey hypothesis that one section would be the most important and that the proposal should be viewed as a whole; N=20)

The section with the most points allocated to it! :) That’s my sarcastic way to say that I think it depends on the funder.

Comments on Survey Results

Nearly one-fourth of the survey respondents thought the proposal should be viewed as a whole and were reluctant to single out one proposal section as being the most important. The remaining three-fourths identified on a forced choice basis a single priority proposal section but little inter-respondent agreement existed. The most popular response favored the statement of the problem/need.

In interpreting these findings, it must be recognized that the respondents were a highly heterogeneous group.  For example, some were responding on the basis of their experience with private foundation proposals while others were reacting to lessons learned with government grants. Accordingly, the results must be interpreted with a degree of caution.

No hard data exist for private foundation or corporation grants simply because of the practical difficulty of obtaining a large quantity of proposals to analyze. However, hard data does exist for government grants where such information is in the public domain.

Proposal Impact on NIH Reviewers

Dr. Sally Rocky, NIH Deputy Director in the Office of Extramural Research (OER) analyzed over the reviewer responses of over 52,000 proposals.  Her recent blog post indicated that while reviewers were urged to give special weight to the “Innovation” section of proposals, the reviewers were still placing the greatest emphasis on the “Approach” section, or what other agencies might call the “methodology” or “plan” section.  The take-home message for NIH grant writers: continue to emphasize the methodological detail.

Proposal Impact on U.S. Department of Education Reviewers

Jeremy Miner, president of Miner and Associates, Inc., conducted research on U.S. Department of Education proposals, half of which had been funded and half of which had been declined. Using statistical techniques, he analyzed sixty-three different variables to determine which ones had the greatest impact on funding outcomes. Bottom line: the statement of the need was the single most important proposal feature that influenced funding success. Curiously, this did not matter whether the need section received many or few points on the reviewer’s evaluation form. Accordingly, when we write proposals, we “hammer” the need section regardless of the assigned points because it has such a strong impact on the reviewers.


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