Skip to Main Content

Grants and Grant Proposal Writing: Problems with Proposals

Provides introductory information about grants and the proposal writing process.

 

♦ PROBLEMS WITH PROPOSALS


Biggest Mistakes Made in Proposals (from Successful Grant Writing: Strategies for Health and Human Service Professionals, Springer, 2014)

  • Failing to read instructions.
  • Disregarding required topic areas.
  • Missing deadlines.

Red Flags That Can Cause Rejection (from The Foundation Center's Guide to Proposal Writing, Foundation Center, 1993)

  • Failure to meet funder's objectives.
  • Failure to satisfy funder's guidelines.
  • Demonstration of arrogance or sense of entitlement ("you owe us").
  • Use of rhetoric or puff.
  • Failure to instill confidence.
  • Inflation of budget.
  • Demonstration of lack of credibility.
  • Failure to demonstrate capability of participants.
  • Lack of honesty or failure to be straightforward.

Why Proposals Are Rejected (from Seeking Foundation Grants, National Catholic Educational Association, 1985)

  • Proposal poorly written.
  • Proposal hard to understand.
  • Objectives don't align with funder objectives.
  • Guidelines not followed.
  • Problem not documented properly.
  • Problem not sufficiently significant.
  • Budget beyond capability of funder.
  • Capabilities not sufficiently explained.
  • Objectives too ambitious.
  • Insufficient evidence project can be sustained beyond grant.
  • Evaluation procedure inadequate.
  • Methods unclear or inappropriate.

Common Problems Listed by Reviewers  (from Grant Proposals: A Primer for Writers, National Catholic Educational Association, 1994)

TITLE

  • Too long.
  • Confusing.
  • Cute, but distracting.
  • Not program related.

INTRODUCTION

  • Unrelated to support requested.
  • Too long.
  • Does not add to proposal.
  • "Begs," not "sells."

PROBLEM OR NEED

  • Deals with wants, not needs.
  • No documentation.
  • Unrelated to objectives.
  • Comparative data absent.
  • Not supported by current research.
  • Repeats agency statement for program justification.

OBJECTIVES

  • Unrelated to agency goals.
  • Too ambitious.
  • Not clear.
  • Omitted or hidden.
  • Do not fit guidelines for program.
  • Procedures, not objectives or outcomes.

METHOD

  • Insufficient details.
  • Tasks not related to objectives.
  • Tasks not justified by need.
  • Not reflective of current methods (research).
  • Who does what?
  • What is the time frame?

EVALUATION

  • Not measurable.
  • Omitted.
  • Vague.
  • Measures activity, not outcome.
  • Who will do?

BUDGET

  • Not detailed.
  • Some items not justified in narrative.
  • Travel not explained.

Some Reasons Proposals Were Rejected (from Proposal Planning and Writing, Oryx Press, 1998)

  • Applicant not adequately trained for research area in question.
  • Past efforts of applicant do not inspire sufficient confidence.
  • Principal investigator will have to devote too much time to other duties.
  • Better liaison needed with colleagues in collateral disciplines.
  • Problem to be investigated more complex than applicant realizes.
  • Project head lacks sufficient familiarity with relevant literature.
  • Project staff not identified.
  • Consultants' resumes not included.
  • Project unlikely to result in new or useful information.
  • Basic hypothesis unsound.
  • Insufficient scientific rationale for project.
  • Regional needs not clearly delineated.
  • Too little emphasis on regional needs.
  • Significant efforts in the State not mentioned.
  • Demographic analysis not developed.
  • Objectives not measurable.
  • Project evaluation plan not included.
  • Plan for disseminating information not included.
  • Budget not sufficiently explained or justified.

Pitfalls in Writing a Grant Application for Research (from Elsevier, website, 2019)

  • Failure to demonstrate importance of topic/ideas.
  • Project too ambitious.
  • Inappropriate balance of researchers' expertise and project's complexity.
  • Project members missing critical skills/expertise.
  • No discussion of possible problems or limitations.
  • No contingency plan.

Most Common Reasons for Proposal Failure (from Research Proposals: A Guide to Success, Academic Press, 2002)

  • Lack of original ideas.
  • Diffuse, unfocused, or superficial research plan.
  • Lack of knowledge of published relevant work.
  • Lack of experience in essential methodology.
  • Uncertainty concerning future directions.
  • Questionable reasoning in experimental approach.
  • Absence of acceptable scientific rationale.
  • Unrealistically large amount of work.
  • Lack of sufficient experimental detail.
  • Uncritical approach.

Pitfalls (from Writing Successful Science Proposals, Yale University Press, 2000)

  • Failure to establish general significance of your work.
  • Failure to logically link project to your work.
  • Too much text devoted to complex details.
  • Too much text devoted to your past accomplishments.
  • Lack of testable hypotheses.
  • Too many hypotheses.
  • Bad analytical or statistical methods.
  • Poor experimental design.
  • Weak questions.
  • "Big picture" question not adequately tested.
  • Project too ambitious.

Common Errors (from Guide to Effective Grant Writing: How to Write a Successful NIH Grant Application, Springer, 2012)

GENERAL

  • Crowded text layout.
  • Long paragraphs with too many ideas.
  • Unnecessary content.
  • Font too small.
  • Jargon.
  • Errors in text.

SPECIFIC AIMS SECTION

  • Unrealistic aims.
  • Poorly justified aims.
  • Purely descriptive aims.
  • Unnecessarily complicated aims.
  • Lack of cohesiveness of aims.
  • Too much interdependence of aims for success.

RESEARCH SIGNIFICANCE SECTION

  • Too little detail.
  • Too much detail.
  • Poor organization.
  • Lack of objectivity.

RESEARCH APPROACH SECTION

  • Lack of "hypothesis" and "rationale" sections.
  • Inadequate experience of investigator.
  • Too much experimental detail.
  • Lack of experimental detail.
  • Missing controls.
  • Inadequate details on clinical subjects/specimens.
  • Lack of statistical power calculations.
  • Lack of “potential pitfalls and "alternative approaches."
  • Overly ambitious experimental plans.
  • Approaches not hypothesis-driven.
  • Dependence of whole project on unproven premise.
  • Too much interdependence of experimental plans.
  • Lack of “interpretation of results.”
  • Too optimistic about implications of results.
  • Lack of logistical organization.
  • Lack of justification.

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND REFERENCES CITED SECTION

  • Incomplete references.
  • Overdependence on review articles.
  • Lack of alternative viewpoints.
  • Misquoted references.

COLLABORATORS/CONSULTANTS

  • Absent letters.
  • Vague letters.
  • Lack of adequate effort.

FIGURES AND TABLES

  • Undersized figures or tables.
  • Small fonts and symbols.
  • Awkwardly set scales on graphs.
  • Poorly labeled graphs.
  • Overcomplicated figures or tables.

RESUBMITTING APPLICATION

  • Misinterpretation of critiques.
  • Being overly defensive.
  • Being unresponsive to critiques.
  • Taking reviewer advice too literally.

Common Mistakes in Writing Research Applications (from National Institutes of Health, website, undated)

PROBLEMS WITH SPECIFIC AIMS

  • Too ambitious, too much work proposed.
  • Unfocused aims, unclear goals.
  • Limited aims and uncertain future direction.

PROBLEMS WITH SIGNIFICANCE

  • Neither significant nor exciting new research (i.e., will not advance science).
  • Lack of compelling rationale.
  • Incremental and low impact research.

PROBLEMS WITH INVESTIGATOR(S)

  • Inadequate demonstration of expertise or publications in approaches.
  • Low productivity, few recent papers.
  • No collaborators recruited or no letters from collaborators.
  • Need a more senior collaborator.

PROBLEMS WITH INNOVATION

  • Not clearly addressed in application.
  • Not innovative (i.e., not new).

PROBLEMS WITH APPROACH

  • Too much unnecessary experimental detail.
  • Not enough detail on approaches, especially untested ones.
  • Not enough preliminary data to establish feasibility.
  • Feasibility of each aim not shown.
  • Little or no expertise with approach.
  • Lack of appropriate controls.
  • Not directly testing hypothesis.
  • Correlative or descriptive data.
  • Inadequate consideration of power.
  • Experiments not directed towards mechanisms.
  • No discussion of alternative models or hypotheses.
  • No discussion of potential pitfalls.
  • No discussion of interpretation of data.

PROBLEMS WITH ENVIRONMENT

  • Little demonstration of institutional support.
  • Little or no necessary equipment.
  • Little evidence of effective collaboration among institutions, if applicable.