There are many ways to stand out because many proposals are so bad.
Just addressing the sponsors’ priorities, undertaking activities with a proven record of success, and presenting a reasonable budget for a sensible work plan will put you ahead of most competitors.
To really stand out, focus on the difference between winning and almost winning. Ask yourself, “what’s the difference between a proposal that’s brilliant and one that’s merely excellent?” The answer will differ from sponsor to sponsor and even for different programs from the same sponsor.
This sort of due diligence takes time and effort. Focus on two areas:
1. How you will be reviewed
- Who will review your proposal? You need to address a lay audience differently that you would an expert audience and a mixed panel calls for a third approach. What personal biases might they have? If you have a personal history with someone, might it harm you, or might a sympathetic reviewer be forced to recuse in favor of an unknown person?
- What criteria will they apply? Make sure you understand the sponsor’s overarching mission and the specific goals of the program to which you’re applying. Don’t try to win based on cost—make sure you include every activity needed to produce the outcomes the sponsor wants. (That doesn’t mean to be profligate in your request; a reasonable budget is an indicator that you can be trusted to manage the project.)
- What process will they follow. Do the reviewers decide or merely recommend? Is there scope to marshall political support? Do the reviewers work in isolation or do they meet to discuss proposals? Each method presents different opportunities to persuade people.
2. What constitutes a winning proposal
- Look at previous winners to get ideas for your document’s format, style, and tone. Proposals funded by federal grant programs are a matter of public record; you can get them through a Freedom of Information Act request, but that takes time. I recommend that you request a short phone interview with the person who submitted the proposal: ask about their experience with the program officer, what the reviewers said, etc., and ask them politely if they would share their proposal with you. Tell them you don’t want to see the budget or anything that’s proprietary.
Finally, polish your writing!
Make it hard for the reviewers to miss the important information and easy to evaluate it.
Edit for clarity, brevity, and impact.
Write for three types of reviewers: Skimmers, Scanners, and Divers.