This section will discuss how to make sense of the sponsor's solicitation and how to help your PI understand and interpret its guidelines and requirements. As mentioned previously, the sponsor may call the funding opportunity announcement by a number of names, including: Request for Proposals (RFP); Request for Applications (RFA); Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOA); Proposal Announcements (PA); or Broad Agency Announcements (BAA). The basic steps for understanding the sponsor's proposal submission guidelines and instructions are the exactly the same regardless of what the funding agency calls the announcement.
Each funding opportunity has a specific set of instructions, or guidelines associated with it. Be sure to download the most recent version of the sponsor's guidelines and look for any associated updates to the opportunity (i.e., deadline extensions, format changes, etc.) to ensure you have a complete set of instructions before proceeding to the application.
Most federal funding for basic assistance requires that a proposal be prepared using agency specific formats. Therefore, be sure to download the most current application form packets for each submission. This is of particular importance because all of the sponsoring agencies which submit through Grants.gov also use the basic SF424RR form. However, each agency can add their own particular form(s) to the basic SF424RR application set, or they can ask that certain information be loaded into sections of the application where it may not seem to fit intuitively.UT Austin provides a "system2system" interface called CAYUSE 424™ which per OSP policy, should be utilized for Grants.gov submissions. This system greatly simplifies the process for the PI, departmental administrators and OSP. TIP: Be sure to verify that your sponsor agency's FOA is supported by CAYUSE 424™.
Look for and take notes of important dates, requirements, and other information that are required to be addressed in the RFP.
Sample checklist forms are identified below in Section 4.2. Use these as templates, and adapt them to track dates and other key information required by your specific proposal(s).
While most proposals are now submitted electronically to the sponsor for paper submissions you must determine whether this is a "postmark by" or "receive by" date. This can make or break your submission. "Postmark" will allow the application to be mailed in on the day it is due. "Received by" means you have to send the proposal with enough lead time that the sponsor will receive it by the deadline time on the due date.
Some sponsors specify the time a proposal is due, i.e., 3 PM Eastern (ET). Be sure to adjust to Central Standard Time (CST), so you do not miss the deadline.
Most agencies will require set margins, fonts, type size, limits on color illustrations, number of pages per section, etc. It is important to pay attention to these requirements as they can determine whether your proposal is reviewed or rejected. Template 4.2.3 provides a format for taking notes of the formatting requirements in your announcement.
The University of Texas at Austin is the Applicant. If the RFP says "only one application per applicant", this is your cue that this funding opportunity is a "limited submission" and you must contact OSP before proceeding. See Section 3.3.2 for more information regarding limited submission programs.
Are the applications supposed to be sent electronically, paper, or both?
Are appendices allowed? If so, what can be included? Private foundations require very different supporting documentation from federal sponsors and their formats are generally not uniform like government agency grant proposals. Read the instructions for these proposal applications very carefully to make sure you understand what is required.
A sponsor may place restrictions on the use of its awarded funds. Be sure to note whether or not restrictions are detailed in the funding opportunity announcement and be sure to follow those restrictions when crafting the budget. Remember, each funding opportunity is unique and each sponsor is unique; a different set of restrictions may be employed by the same sponsor for different opportunities. Some examples of sponsor restrictions are:
Facilities and Administrative (F&A) costs are sometimes called indirect costs (IDC) or overhead costs. These refer to those costs incurred by the university in support of the project that are not easily allocable as direct costs. These costs are usually associated with facility operation and maintenance, utilities and building and equipment depreciation, etc. Most sponsors recognize that universities that conduct research incur these costs in addition to those direct costs that are that are directly allocable and included in a project's budget. And, they have agreed that the portion of F&A costs identified with organized research is distributed by applying a cost rate(s) which is negotiated between the university and the federal government. This process allows the university to recover some portion of the costs associated with conducting research. Read the opportunity guidelines to determine if the sponsor imposes a limit or restriction on the amount of cost recovery that is less than the UT Austin negotiated F&A rate of 52%. If so, OSP requires written documentation from the sponsor that confirms a lower rate must apply. NOTE: Proposals to industry or other "for profit" sponsors must use the full negotiated F&A rate. See the OSP memo on F&A negotiated rates for an explanation of the types of negotiated F&A rates at UT Austin and UT - Austin's Federally Negotiated F&A Rate Agreement.
Standard information about the applicant institution requested by sponsors which is specific to UT Austin is referred to as " boilerplate".
Some applications require letters of recommendation which become part of the overall application. Letters of recommendation speak to the applicant's ability and potential to conduct the proposed research. If a sponsor requires letters of recommendation, they are generally due at the time the application is submitted.
Letters of support can also be an important part of an application. These may come from consultants who are agreeing to work on a project, from research sites, from departmental personnel who are committing resources to a project, etc. If allowed by the sponsor, these letters should be submitted to the sponsor at the same time an application is submitted.
Sponsors may dictate 1) if letters are allowed at all; 2) if letters are required; 3) if letters are mandatory at the time of submission; 4) the content of the letters; 5) use of a specific form or the format of the letter; and 6) whether or not letters count against the page limitation. Again, the sponsor's funding opportunity announcement will provide guidance on all of these issues.
It is important that you and your PI understand the nuances surrounding letters of recommendation and support, because if an error is discovered at the time a proposal is reviewed by OSP, it may be too late to request new letters.
Advise your PI to request these letters four to six weeks in advance of the submission deadline, and to follow up to be sure they are submitted. Emphasize that this time frame allows for the PI to find substitute references should one of the initial requests be refused. Request that the PI provides you with the names and contact information for these individuals to allow you to follow up with them. Many funding organizations will not allow a proposal to be submitted without the required letters, so failing to provide/request these letters within an appropriate time frame could mean that a lot of time is wasted preparing a proposal that cannot be submitted.
If an optional letter arrives after the deadline date, it is sometimes possible to submit non-mandatory letters directly to an agency. This is only possible AFTER the application has been assigned to a Scientific Review Officer (SRO) at the funding agency. The SRO may accept the letter and provide it to the review panel, but this action is completely discretionary and this is not a request that should be used very often. In today's funding climate, it is imperative to get your application materials in on time and to get them right the first time.