6 Strategies to Make the Grant Proposal Submission Process Less Stressful

This is the final post in a series on managing the proposal process. In earlier posts, we reviewed creating a proposal calendar, organizing the drafts, and managing the proposal development process. Now it's time to submit the proposal.

The last week of the proposal process can be hectic. Below are six tips to make the final days of the proposal process less stressful and set yourself up for an even smoother process next time!

Tip #1: Leave Yourself Plenty of Time to Review & Assemble the Final Draft

The first tip for making the grant proposal submission process smoother is to leave yourself plenty of time to finish the proposal, review it for completeness, edit it, and submit it. While this may seem like an obvious step, all too often it is a mad rush to get the proposal submitted by the deadline. When you submit a proposal at the last minute, you don't have the time to review everything as carefully as it deserves or correct last-minute formatting issues.

How much time should you leave to do the final edits and assembly?  It depends on several factors including the length and complexity of the proposal.

As a general rule of thumb, reserve at least two days to complete the final edits and package the proposal for submission. If you don't need both days, you can always submit the proposal early. On the other hand, if you don't have a buffer of a few days to handle the proposal editing and assembly, you risk not being able to meet the proposal deadline if you run into last-minute crises related to the content or structure of the proposal.

Tip #2: Double- and Triple-Check the Submission Guidelines

Even though you've read and re-read the submission guidelines many times, read them again. Read them at the beginning of the final week of the proposal development process and reread them in the final hours of the process when you are on the verge of submitting.

You need to do this because, although you and your colleagues have read the submission guidelines multiple times, often this is at the start of the proposal process. At the beginning of the process, everyone is focused on questions like how to structure the proposal response and who will be the proposal lead. In the early days of the proposal,  it is natural to be less concerned with the specifics of the submission process and to scan the instructions. To avoid being surprised at the last minute, read the submission guidelines while you still have time to address them. Read and reread, check and double-check, because when you are in proposal-writing mode you were probably not able to concentrate on the finer details of the submission process.

Tip #3: Prepare at Least Two Sets of the Final Proposal Package

After you finish the proposal, make multiple copies of the full proposal package before you move forward with the submission process.

The full proposal will consist of the technical (or main) proposal narrative, the budget and budget narrative, the cover letter, and any attachments. You should plan on distributing copies of the proposal to the other proposal team members, senior colleagues, and external partners (minus the budget or other confidential information). At least one copy of the proposal should be archived.

Making multiple copies of the final proposal package is important. However, there is something else you should do that is possibly even more important, which is to have a back-up "original" copy. In other words, prepare two identical copies of the proposal, each with original signatures on cover letters, etc. To prepare your two "originals," have the executive director sign two copies of the cover letter. If the grant application is a fill-in-the-blank form and not a proposal narrative, fill out the form twice and get all the required signatures on each copy.

Having a backup "original" will be less of an issue if the submission is electronic instead of in hard copy. With electronic submissions, the essential task is to save a copy of the final version of the proposal in a secure place (i.e., not on your laptop) and labeled clearly as the final copy.

You need to take these steps in case your first attempt at submitting the proposal doesn't go as planned and you need to resubmit.  If you submit the proposal as hard copy,  photocopies of some documents may not work, which is why you should complete in duplicate anything that must be submitted as an "original" document.  Of course, having a backup copy of the proposal only helps if you have enough time to resubmit, which leads to the next tip, which is to submit your proposal not just on time, but early.

Tip #4: Submit the Proposal Early

Obviously, you need to submit the proposal in time to reach the funder by the due date. However, submitting the proposal on the due date itself should be the last resort.

Ideally, aim to submit your proposal several days early so that if something goes wrong with the submission process, you have time to resubmit it and still make the deadline. How much in advance of the deadline you need to submit depends on the submission mechanism.

If the proposal needs to be submitted by hard copy, you'll need more time than if the submission is electronic. For hard-copy submissions, you'll want to take into account how many days it will take to deliver the proposal, using a reliable mail service and priority or express shipping. Whatever length of time it will take to deliver the package, double it and work backward from the due date to find your target shipping date. 

As an example, if the proposal is due on the 15th of October and with priority shipping it will take two days for the proposal to reach its destination, ideally, you'll want to mail the proposal at least 4-5 days before the deadline. This buffer should allow enough time to ship a second copy if the first one goes missing. Yes, this means you will lose several days of proposal preparation time. However, if your proposal doesn't reach its destination on time, all your work will be in vain. It is worth condensing your proposal development period so  you have some assurance that, no matter what last-minute glitch happens, you still have a good chance of making the deadline.

Submitting a proposal by email or through an online portal does make it easier. After submitting a proposal by email or online, you should receive an auto-reply message letting you know that your proposal has been successfully received.  If you don't get the acknowledgment or if you receive an error message, you'll know you need to resubmit. Additionally, you'll often have feedback on why the first submission attempt didn't work out. For example, maybe your document was in the wrong format or the file size was too large, two things that are quick to remedy. For electronic submissions, submitting the proposal 24-48 hours in advance should be enough time.

Related to electronic submissions, it is worth noting that many email systems have size constraints and do not deliver emails 10MB or greater, so check the size of your attachments. You may need to chunk your proposal up into several smaller files before submitting it.

Other than giving yourself a buffer of a few days to prepare the final proposal draft, submitting the proposal early is one of the best ways to reduce the stress of the proposal process.

Tip #5: Confirm Receipt of the Proposal

If you submit the grant proposal by email or through an electronic portal such as grants.gov, you should receive a confirmation message by email. When you receive this acknowledgment, you can begin to relax, but don't get too comfortable. Issues can come up with the electronic files, so it is advisable to be ready to resubmit the proposal right up until the due date.

If you submitted your proposal as a hard copy, you should contact the funder to confirm that it was successfully received. Do this even if you receive a signed confirmation from the mail carrier, unless you are 100% positive that the person you sent the proposal to (e.g., the relevant program officer at a foundation) signed for it themselves. A quick email or phone call is all it will take to confirm that Yes, the proposal was received. You'll sleep much better knowing that the proposal made it to the right person by the due date, so don't skip this step. If it turns out the proposal did not reach the right person, if you gave yourself a few days' buffer, you'll still have enough time to resubmit the proposal if needed.

Regarding relying on a national postal service or a delivery service such as FedEx, make sure to require signature confirmation of receiptAnd not just any signature. Require signed receipt by the person who is supposed to receive the proposal according to the proposal submission instructions.

Another delivery option, if a hard copy is required and it is feasible to do so, is to hand deliver the proposal. If you hand deliver, prepare an acknowledgement of receipt form in advance. When you drop off the proposal, have the receipt signed by whoever receives the proposal on behalf of the donor.

Tip #6: Request Feedback from Your Colleagues & the Funder

After you submit the proposal, ultimately one of two things will happen. Either you'll receive the grant or you will not.  Regardless of whether your proposal is funded, you probably did some things better than others during the proposal process.

While the proposal process is still fresh for everyone, schedule a debrief meeting to review the proposal experience. If possible, don’t wait until after you hear back from the funder to do this. It may take several months before you learn the fate of your submission. If you wait until you know the outcome of the proposal, you'll have forgotten many of the details of the proposal experience. So shortly after the proposal submission, schedule a meeting with the proposal team to review each stage of the proposal process and discuss what went well, what did not, and what could be improved. Maybe the proposal calendar wasn't realistic, or perhaps the review process didn't go smoothly. Whatever the feedback, take notes and think about how you'll implement the feedback during the next proposal effort.

Lastly, consider requesting feedback from the funder. You can do this regardless of whether the proposal is funded, but the feedback will be especially valuable if the proposal has not been funded. As soon as you receive the rejection letter, contact the funder to see if it is possible to arrange a time to speak to them about where your proposal fell short. The funder may not be willing or have the time to speak to you, but it is worth exploring.

If you submitted your proposal to a U.S. government agency, the agency should inform you in the rejection letter what the process is to schedule a meeting to receive feedback on your proposal. The timing of the request and the days when the reviews can take place will usually be listed in the notification. The feedback may not always be verbal. In many cases, the agency staff will provide written feedback only.

If you have the opportunity to discuss your proposal with the funder, it is worth doing, particularly if you plan to submit a proposal to them in the future. During your meeting with the funder, you may receive general feedback that the proposal was not responsive to the RFA, or hear about specific areas where your proposal did not meet the funder's expressed interests. With this information, you'll have greater insight into how the funder evaluates proposals and be in a stronger position for your next proposal. To make sure that you don't forget what the funder tells you, write up the meeting after it is over and archive the meeting notes with the copy of the final proposal for later reference.

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