Common Reasons Grant Proposals Are Rejected

The proposal review process involves individual, human readers. This fact produces an implacable rule. What is not noticed is not funded.

Amidst the sometimes formidable stack of proposals, the document that does not catch the attention of the reader cannot compete on the more formal criteria associated with quality of design and congruence with the agency's priorities. The abstract and introduction sections of the proposal are thus very important, since they must project whatever unique or attractive elements are contained in your research question or approach.

The most common reasons for proposal rejection boil down to a surprisingly small set of simple and familiar failures:

  • Deadline for submission was not met.
  • Proposal topic was not appropriate to the funding agency to which it was submitted.
  • Guidelines for proposal content, format, and/or length were not followed exactly.
  • The proposed question, design, and method were completely traditional, with nothing that could strike a reviewer as unusual, intriguing, or clever.
  • The proposed area of study was not an agency priority for this year.
  • The proposal was not absolutely clear in describing one or more elements of the study.
  • The proposal was not absolutely complete in describing one or more elements of the study.
  • The authors review of the literature indicated they did not know the territory.
  • The proposed study appeared to be beyond the capacity of the authors in terms of training, experience, and available resources.
  • The proposed method of study was unsuited to the purpose of the research.
  • The budget was unrealistic in terms of estimated requirements for equipment, supplies, and personnel.
  • The cost of the proposed project appeared to be greater than any possible benefit to be derived from its completion.
  • The authors took highly partisan positions on issues, and thus became vulnerable to the prejudices of the reviewers.
  • The quality of writing was poor (e.g., sweeping and grandiose claims, convoluted reasoning, excessive repetitions, or unreasonable length).
  • The proposal contained an unreasonable number of mechanical defects that reflected carelessness and the author's unwillingness to attend to detail. The risk that the same attitude might extend to execution of the proposed study was not acceptable to the reviewers.

Because the probability of rejection for any given proposal is high, it is particularly important to be mindful of the items above in bold.

As adapted from: Locke, L.F., W.W. Spirduso, and S.J. Silverman. 1987. Proposals that Work. Second edition. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., by the University of Montana’s Office of the Vice President for Research & Creative Scholarship.