Learn how to improve your problem-solving and persuasive skills. Employ your writing and reasoning skills to make a difference in the world. View samples and write a proposal to conduct research, develop a Web site, solve a problem, or provide a service. Proposals are persuasive texts that articulate ways to solve a problem, conduct needed research, or provide a service.

Proposals may attempt to persuade readers to act or they may seek funding. Writers of proposals support claims with reasoning, library and Internet research, and original research, including questionnaires, interviews, and ethnographers. Ironically, even a proposal that seeks funding to conduct research needs to be firmly grounded in research. In other words, you often have to conduct research in order to craft a proposal, even if your ultimate goal is to secure funding for additional research.

Why Write Proposals?

In school, your instructors may ask you to write proposals to solve or improve a problem. For example, you could write a proposal to better meet the needs of students so 50% of them don't fail to complete their degrees. Or you could attempt to solve that age-old problem of parking on overcrowded campuses. Instructors across the disciplines may ask you to write research proposals, outlining a topic, describing its significance, and presenting a schedule for more thoroughly researching the topic. In business classes, your teachers may assign business plans or your teachers may seek proposals to improve the curriculum.

Proposals are arguments that seek particular outcomes from the readers of the proposals. Proposals can offer to trade services for money or goods, proposals can seek funding to conduct research, and proposals might present a call for action.

Diverse Rhetorical Situations

In general, proposals address three distinct purposes:

  1. Research Proposals: Students and professionals often write research proposals, describing research they'd like to complete in college classes, professional settings, and laboratories. For example, a student might write a proposal to conduct a full-length research report, essentially outlining the topic, describing the significance of the topic, and explaining when and how the research would be conducted.
  2. Essay Proposals: People write proposals as editorials or essays, hoping to influence people about various topics. The proposals go beyond arguing one side of a topic: They present a call for action. For example, a student might write an editorial in the student newspaper calling for a task force to explore ways to create healthier food choices on campus. An activist might write an article for a magazine, advocating particular health care reforms. A terrorism expert might argue for enacting certain policies in airports.
  3. Consulting Proposals: Did you know that billions of dollars are awarded to successful proposals every year? People write proposals seeking funding for necessary services. For example, an environmental consulting business might sell its services to the EPA, offering to conduct a water contamination report, or an accounting firm might sell its services as an independent auditor.

In the U.S. much of the research conducted by university faculty and scientists is funded by government agencies and private foundations. Professional researchers often refer to the Community of Science, a funding source database, which identifies $33 billion in funding opportunities. Another popular funding source database is IRIS.

As suggested by the table below, proposals are a remarkably diverse genre, coming in all shapes and sizes. Proposals can be page length or book length, covering hundreds of pages. Proposals can be presented in essay form and published in trade magazines. Alternatively, proposals can be submitted in an internal memo format or in an external report format. Some large organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, have online submission procedures.

Purposes Audiences Voices/Persona Media
  • Call for a specific action
  • Conduct research
  • Provide services
  • Corporation
  • Foundation
  • Business
  • Newspaper
  • Professional
  • Academic researcher
  • Activist
  • Persuasive
  • Letters
  • Memos
  • External proposal
  • Editorial
  • Email
  • Web sites

Rhetorical Analysis of Online Readings

Consider the context, audience, purpose, and media invoked by the following readings. Also examine how ideas are developed in these texts. Are assertions grounded in personal experience, interviews with authorities, questionnaires, Internet and library research, or empirical research?

  1. MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (Sample Student Proposals)
  2. DECA, an association of marketing students, calls for a variety of proposals, which can be entered into a nationwide competition.
  3. Students at Brown University rewrote the Student Code of Conduct because they weren't happy with the university's code.
  4. The Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry publishes Children and TV Violence to warn parents about the effects of violence on TV on their children, as suggested by the research of their members.
  5. The American Psychological Association, the leading professional group of psychologists, has published Childhood Exposure to Media Violence Predicts Young Adult Aggressive Behavior, According to a New 15-Year Study.
  6. The Union of Concerned Scientists publishes Powerful Solutions: 7 Ways to Switch America to Renewable Electricity, suggesting ways Americans can switch to renewable energy sources.
  7. NSF , the National Science Foundation, offers many sample proposals on its Web site, helping to guide future proposal writers.
  8. NEH, National Endowment for the Humanities, publishes successful proposals (in DOC and HTML and PDF formats) on its Web site; see sample proposals.
  9. EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, provides hundreds of proposals on its site; see sample proposals.
  10. Preventing AIDS: An Investment in the Future by Lawrence H. Summers. Representing the United States government as the Secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence H. Summers explains the importance of thinking globally when it comes to infectious

What Are Proposals?

Proposals typically outline a problem, detail solutions to the problem, and define the costs for solving the problem. Proposals provide information about the qualifications of the person or people suggesting the solution. When funds are sought to conduct the promised work, a detailed budget is provided. More formal proposals contain evaluation information--that is, a plan to evaluate the success of the proposal once it's implemented.

Key Features of Proposals

A proposal designed to affect readers' opinions about public policies differs from one seeking funding for research or to conduct research. Accordingly, the following analysis of key features is presented as a series of considerations as opposed to a comprehensive blueprint.

Focus

Proposal writers bring focus to their proposals by highlighting the urgency of the problem and by providing the evidence readers need to believe the proposed solution can work.

Development

It's true that some proposals are won on appeals to emotion. But ultimately, an argument needs to be based on reason. You need to conduct research to find the facts, opinions, and research that support your proposal.
Reading sample proposals can help you find and adopt an appropriate voice and persona. By reading samples, you can learn how others have prioritized particular criteria. Below are some additional suggestions for developing your proposal.

Define the Problem(s)

Obvious problems can be defined briefly, whereas more subtle problems may need considerable development. For example, Michael McManus details the problems with divorce for over five pages in Why Is It in the Government's Interests to SaveMarriages? Thus, this part of your proposal may be as short as a sentence or many pages long. Occasionally writers will view the problem as so obvious to their audience that they won't even introduce it; see, for example, What You Can Do About Global Warming by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

When they read the introduction to your proposals, readers are likely to ask these two questions:

Who benefits from the proposal? Will the project have significant impact? Who is submitting the proposal? What is their interest in solving the problem? Is this person or organization qualified to solve the problem?

In order to answer these questions, provide specifics including statistics, quotes from authorities, results from past research, interviews, and questionnaires. Notice how the following excerpt stuns readers in its introduction with gruesome statistics. These statistics provide the background information that readers may need to understand the proposal:

Three hundred million people live on less than US$l per day. Life expectancy is 48 years and falling. More than one-third of all children are malnourished; more than 40 per cent have no access to education. Twenty-eight million people live with HIV/AIDS, and for over 100 million people, war is a part of daily life. And yet, in spite of these grim statistics, there are still grounds for optimism. The spread of democracy and the growing strength of African civil society, combined with the efforts by some African leaders to chart a new course, offer a real chance to tackle the root causes of poverty and conflict.

Define Method(s)

How will you gather information (secondary research or primary research)? In the humanities, writers do not explicitly mention their methods, whereas in the sciences and social sciences writers often explicitly mention their methods.

  1. If you are proposing to conduct research, your readers will want information regarding how you propose to conduct the research. Will your research involve Internet and library research? Will you interview authorities?
  2. If your proposal calls for laboratory research, your readers will want to see that you have access to the laboratory and tools needed to carry out the research.
  3. If you are proposing a service, readers will want to ensure you can actually provide the service.

Present Your Solution(s)

Successful proposals are not vague about proposed solutions. Instead, they tend to outline step-by-step activities and objectives, perhaps even associating particular activities and objectives with dollar figures--if money is sought to conduct the proposal.
Critical readers are likely to view proposals skeptically, preferring inaction (which doesn't cost anything) to action (which may involve risk). As they review the solutions you propose, they may ask the following three questions:

  1. Is the solution feasible?
  2. How much time will it take to complete the proposal?
  3. Will other factors resolve the problem over time? In other words, is the problem urgent?

Appeal to Character/Persona

People often imply or explicitly make "appeals to character." In other words, they attempt to suggest they have credibility, that they are good people with the best interests of their readers in mind.

The persona you project as a writer plays a fundamental role in the overall success of your proposal. Your opening sentences generally establish the tone of your text and present to the reader a sense of your persona, both of which play a tremendous role in the overall persuasiveness of your argument. By evaluating how you define the problem, consider counterarguments, or marshal support for your claims, your readers will make inferences about your character.

When reviewing proposals, reviewers are particularly concerned about the credibility of the author. When an author is advocating a course of action, critical readers wonder about how the author(s) benefit from the proposal--or why they are presenting the proposal. Notice, for example, when the Brown American Civil Liberties Union rewrote the Code of Student Conduct, they were quick to agree with doubting readers that they also dislike "hate speech," yet they thought stifling free speech on campus wasn't the best way to counteract hate speech:

We at the Brown American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are proposing the following changes to the Code of Student Conduct in an effort to ensure a consistent, unambiguous, and Constitutionally acceptable disciplinary code that does not consider protected speech a violation or an aggravating factor under any circumstances. We fully support the University's efforts to promote tolerance, understanding, and to prevent discrimination and prejudice. However, we strongly disagree with the assertion that the current Code prohibits only "behavior" and not Constitutionally protected speech. In addition, we believe that although hate speech may be offensive, it should not be censored. The solution to hate speech is more speech, not less. Brown must insure that all opinions, no matter how unpopular, can be freely stated and challenged within a free and open University. The current "behavior" guidelines, no matter how well intentioned, can potentially still be used to punish unpopular, yet Constitutionally protected speech. The potential for the current code to be wrongly interpreted by the University Disciplinary Council (UDC) is great, and has been used in the past to justify harsher penalties for speech-related violations than for actual physical confrontations. We seek to rectify this situation, and we feel our proposals should satisfy both the desire to protect the Brown community and to protect the rights of community members. We urge the timely and respectful consideration of our reform proposals listed below. [Brown University: Revising the Code of Student Conduct]

In less formal circumstances, writers will speak personally about the importance of the proposal. Consider, for example, this excerpt from one of the students' proposals featured at MIT's site on Undergraduate Research Proposals:

I am very enthusiastic to continue working with the multidisciplinary team of researchers involved with this project. As a student, I am excited to be able to supplement my education with out-of-class research. While learning about the organizations that are perceived to be on the "cutting edge," those that have incorporated the best technologies and most innovative organizational approaches into their management structures, I will gain a better understanding of the overall business environments of both our society and of our world. Because the scope of this initiative is greater than what current consulting firms have to offer, this project is particularly attractive. Having an interest in the field of professional consulting, work on this project would allow me to explore in greater depth the subject material that a future career in consulting would involve. In addition, I will have the honor of working with a distinguished group of faculty and staff members that are under the direction of [faculty supervisor's name].

Because I am a student majoring in economics, minoring in psychology, and I possess a strong interest in management science, this multidisciplinary research initiative, which draws upon all three of these fields, really feels like a "nice fit" in terms of what it has to offer and by what I can give back. [Sample UROP Proposals]

In circumstances when a service is being proposed or when a research project is being proposed, they want to ensure the author has the resources, skills, and experience necessary to successfully provide the service.

Appeal to Emotion

Proposals are more firmly grounded in appeals to logic and character than appeals to emotion. Often, appeals to emotion would seem unethical or unprofessional. Critical readers tend to emphasize facts and qualifications when assessing proposals. Notice, for example, that:

The AMA doesn't put a face on all of the deaths caused by insufficient organs. [AMA House Supports Studies on Organ Donation Incentives]

The Union of Concerned Scientists doesn't emotionally describe the effects of global warming. [The Union of Concerned Scientists]

However, because of the power of emotional appeals, you may want to slip them into the introduction and conclusion of your proposal. Just be discreet and careful. Most modern, well-educated readers are quick to see through such manipulative attempts and they prefer the bulk of a proposal to be grounded in research and logic.
Additional emotional appeals include:

  • Appeals to authority. (According to the EPA, global warming will raise sea levels.)
  • Appeals to pity. (I should be allowed to take the test again because I had the flu the first time I took it.)
  • Personal attacks on the opposition, which rhetoricians call ad hominem attacks. (I wouldn't vote for that man because he's a womanizer.)

Appeal to Logic

Successful proposals are firmly grounded in logic. You need to provide evidence if you hope to sway educated readers. Your description of the problem must be firmly grounded in research. You can add depth and persuasiveness to your proposal by citing authorities, interviewing experts, and researching past attempts to solve the problem. Trained as critical readers, your teachers and college-educated peers expect you to provide evidence--that is, logical reasoning, personal observations, expert testimony, facts, and statistics.

Consider Counterarguments

Typically, proposal writers are under severe word-length restrictions. In professional contexts, they may be competing with hundreds, perhaps thousands of writers who each have five pages to sell their solution. Accordingly, each word is precious so proposal writers do not want to give significant air time to articulating counterarguments or counter solutions.

Even so, at some point in your proposal, you may need to present counterarguments or consider the wisdom of alternative solutions. Essentially, whenever you think your readers may think your alternative solutions are more feasible, you need to account for their concerns. Elaborating on counterarguments is particularly useful when you have an unusual claim or a skeptical audience.

Consider, for example, Jonathan Trager's "Libertarian Solutions: How Small-government Solutions Can Successfully Stop the Terrorist Threat." Addressing the best ways to protect our airports in light of 9/11, Trager spends the bulk of his proposal critiquing other people's solutions. In particular he critiques these three recommendations:

  1. Have government bureaucrats man x-ray machines in airports.
  2. Regulate immigration more effectively.
  3. Grant more power to law enforcement.

Using an inductive organization, it really isn't until the middle of his proposal that he cites his four solutions:

  1. Stop disarming pilots.
  2. Dismantle the drug war.
  3. Return to a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Prohibit the American government from giving weapons--or money to buy weapons--to foreign nations.

Use Visuals

Readers love visual representations of proposals because they enable readers to see the proposal, engaging readers at a visual level. Consider the effects of the following creative uses of visuals: To augment their proposal on ways to alleviate parking problems at Harvard (see Students Tackle Parking Problems), the students provided video clips, illustrating how robotic garages can best solve Harvard's parking problems. 

Chunk Your Contents

Consider "chunking" your proposal. For example, some proposals call for a 50-word abstract and a 500-word executive summary. Many of the proposals linked in this section provide brief and extended examples

Organization

Most proposals to conduct research or provide a service are organized as classical arguments: The author briefly presents the problem and then proposes the solutions. Occasionally, writers will employ a more inductive organization, particularly when the proposed solution may seem controversial.

Style

You can make your proposal more persuasive by using unambiguous, concrete language, appealing to the reader's senses and relating the subject or concept to information that the reader already understands, moving from given to new information.information.