New to Grants and Contracts?

How it Works: An Overview

Grants and contracts are simply two of the most common mechanisms for transferring money from an external sponsor (e.g., the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the California Department of Education, Hewlett-Packard) to the University to support a “sponsored project.”

A sponsored project is a short-term activity typically lasting from one to five years (depending on the sponsor’s policy). Sponsored projects may be renewed and continue for a longer period, but there is always an end date. The funds provided by the sponsor also are limited to a certain amount. The sponsor may choose to give additional funds over time, but typically there is a finite amount of funding provided for a sponsored project.

The University receives grants and contracts from government, non-profit as well as industry and business sponsors. Some sponsors give money for just one purpose. Other sponsors give money to support a number of sponsor interests. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has hundreds of funding programs to support various areas of science.

The thing that must be understood is that the sponsor expects something in return for their funding support. The sponsor’s funds are not “gifts” with no strings attached. The bottom line is that the sponsor is providing its funds to the University with the expectation that the University (through work carried out by University faculty, staff and students) will help the sponsor accomplish its goals.

The University is not providing this assistance just to be “nice.” The University only agrees to participate in a sponsored project when the sponsor and the University have the same goals. The most common reasons that the University accepts outside funding is to help faculty, staff, and students engage in sponsored projects that support one or more of the three missions of the University: Research, Instruction, and Public Service related to Research and Instruction.

When the sponsor and the University have similar goals, a sponsored project can result and both the sponsor and the University can benefit from the result. However, it is important to understand that the only legal “relationship” that exists is between the sponsor and the University. The people at the University involved in the sponsored project as a Principal Investigator (PI), Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI), or other key personnel may write the proposal that attracts the sponsor and they may be critical to the success of the project, but the sponsor awards the funds—not to the PI and not to the PI’s department—but to the Regents of the University of California.

A newly developed tool, the Grant Life Cycle, provides an overview of the research proposal submission and award administration process at Berkeley. This tool will guide you through campus resources, policies, and procedures, as well as finding funding and applying for and administering grants.

A Typical Sponsored Research Project

A typical sponsored project for research begins with a faculty member becoming interested in the study of a particular phenomenon, for example, the genome of crop plants. The faculty member realizes that they need to buy materials and equipment and hire graduate assistants to engage in this research project. Since the faculty member’s department does not have enough funds to support this research internally, the faculty member looks for an external sponsor also is interested in studying the genome of crop plants. Fortunately, in this case, there is such a sponsor and funding program: the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP).

The faculty member submits a proposal to conduct this research to the NSF, and the NSF evaluates this proposal in relationship to all of the other proposals that they receive on this topic. After a thorough peer review (evaluation by other scientists with expertise in this area) the NSF selects the best proposals to be funded. If the faculty member’s proposal is selected, the NSF makes an award—not to the faculty member—to the University. Why? Because the NSF wants to make sure that their funds will be administered by an organization that will conform to Federal requirements for grants and be capable of the prudent management of all expenditures and actions affecting the grant.

When the University accepts the NSF award, the University accepts the responsibility for the conduct of the project or activity supported under the NSF grant and for the results achieved. The NSF expects the University to monitor the performance of the project to assure adherence to performance goals, time schedules or other requirements as appropriate to the project or the terms of the grant.

A similar process occurs for sponsored projects that support training and service activities. The only exception is the procedure used for fellowship applications submitted by faculty, post docs and students. Some fellowship applications may be submitted directly by the applicant to the sponsor. Other fellowship applications must be submitted to the sponsor by the University. Funded fellowship applications may result in payments to the University on behalf of the fellow or the payments may be made by the sponsor directly to the fellow. When payments are made directly to the fellow, the fellow is responsible for managing the sponsor’s funds, not the University.

The University’s Role

The University ensures that only authorized proposals are submitted by University personnel. The University also makes sure that every proposal that is submitted contains accurate information about the project, the qualifications of the people involved in the project, and the project costs. The University approves all contributions of University resources being made to the project before the proposal is submitted.

When the award is received, the University makes sure that the award terms and conditions are acceptable to the University. Since the sponsor’s funds are awarded to the University, the University does not want to agree to carry out a project unless University policies such as the right to publish research results, non-discrimination in employment of project personnel, and intellectual property rights are respected.

When a proposal has been submitted appropriately and the award terms and conditions are acceptable, the University accepts the award from the sponsor. The University then establishes a special fund number for the project. All project expenditures then are charged to this University fund number, and this makes it possible for the University to report what was spent and on what to the sponsor since most sponsors require this type of financial reporting. The fund number may not be used to pay for anything except project costs because this is the sponsor’s money, and the sponsor expects their money to be used for the sponsor’s project.

At the end of each project year and at the end of the entire project period, the sponsor usually expects “deliverables” from the University. Deliverables can include a report of the findings or outcome of the project as well as a financial accounting of how the sponsor’s funds were spent. The sponsor might also expect some kind of product to result. The deliverables are agreed upon before the award is set up.

The University will not accept awards that specify deliverables that cannot be delivered. For example, a sponsor might want the University to “warrant” the outcomes of a research study. This could be interpreted to mean that that the University would have to pledge to deliver a particular outcome to the sponsor. Research outcomes cannot be predicted, so the University would not want to enter into such an agreement with any sponsor.

Sponsors only fund proposals for sponsored projects that relate to their interests or mission. There are formal and informal ways to identify sponsors that might be interested in your sponsored project. On the Funding page of the SPO website, there is a link to Pivot, an external funding search engine. Pivot is a subscription service paid for by the University that can help you identify and narrow down your funding options.

When searching, pay particular attention to the eligibility criteria for a particular funding program. For example, if only private institutions of higher education can apply, UC will not be eligible to submit a proposal. Other types of restrictions may include geographic area, e.g., “We only accept proposals from organizations in Arizona,” or type of person carrying out the project, e.g., faculty within five years of completing their dissertation.

You also will need to consider how much funding the sponsor typically provides and how many grants will be given out. If you need $100,000 for your sponsored project, and the sponsor’s typical grant size is $10,000, you will have to either find another sponsor or scale back your project. If the sponsor only plans to award one grant—the competition will be intense.

Deadlines also are very important. If the sponsor’s proposal deadline is tomorrow, it is not likely that a competitive proposal can be written in time for submission. Similarly, it may take up to six months for a sponsor to make a decision. Therefore, if the project must take place in a month, there will not be enough time for the sponsor to review the proposal and make an award before the funding is needed.

However, the most important piece of information when conducting your search is “what does the sponsor want?” Most people make the mistake of only paying attention to what they want from the sponsor. If you are interested in “X” and the sponsor is interested in “Y” the sponsor will not be interested in your proposal.

Therefore it is important to read and thoroughly understand the sponsor’s proposal guidelines. Do not stop with the Pivot descriptions. Use the links provided to find the application information provided by the sponsor. Read what they say and how they say it. Read between the lines—what are the attitudes being expressed? Is the sponsor “for” or “against” what you want to do? What words and phrases appear throughout the document—these should be your vocabulary when writing the proposal. The key to proposal success making the sponsor feel you understand what is needed.

You can improve your knowledge of the sponsor by contacting the sponsor’s representatives—these individuals are sometimes called Program Officers. However, only contact these people if you have a question worth asking. Questions such as, “When are proposals due?” can be answered by reading the guidelines. A better question for a program officer would involve interpreting the purpose of the funding program as it relates to your project.

It also is possible to learn about funding options by attending professional meetings where program officers attend to learn about work being done in a particular field. Some funding agencies such as the NIH and NSF hold workshops for people who are new to their funding programs. These are held in different regions around the country each year, and they definitely are worth the effort to attend.

Writing a Proposal

There are many books and websites that give guidance on how to write a successful proposal. However, the best advice for writing a successful proposal is to READ THE APPLICATION GUIDELINES provided by the sponsor. Every sponsor had rules about what the proposal should contain and the way the proposal should be organized. NEVER send a proposal written according the guidelines of one sponsor to another sponsor. You can use parts of one proposal in another proposal to a different sponsor but make sure the new sponsor’s guidelines are followed.

Always do your homework. Get all of the information you can about the sponsor: who and what they say they fund as well as what they actually fund. Find out how they want to be contacted. Some sponsors simply want a letter of intent or a concept paper. Others want a complete proposal. You may see a request for a pre-proposal. This will be a short description of what you want to do. Follow the sponsor’s directions in preparing the pre-proposal. If no instructions are provided, use the headings of the full proposal requirements as a guide. A pre-proposal can be binding or non-binding. If it is binding, you will not be able to submit a full proposal without an invitation from the sponsor. Pre-proposals that require an institutional signature, cost share, and/or a detailed budget must be reviewed/approved by SPO/IAO prior to submission.

Make sure you follow the instructions on proposal length and formatting as well as text size. There often is not enough money to fund every good proposal so sponsors do use these basic requirements as a way to screen out non-compliant proposals.

When explaining what you plan to do—be positive. State your goals and objectives firmly. Avoid wishy-washy statements such as “I hope to accomplish…” Avoid words such as “may” and “might” and instead use words such as “will” and “can.” This is not the time to be modest. State what you can do without overstating your capacity. In a sense, you are applying for a job. Put your best foot forward.

Imagine the sponsor reading your proposal and afterwards saying, “So?” Make sure you convince the sponsor that this is an important activity that relates to what the sponsor wants to make happen. Do not rely on the sponsor to fill in the blanks. Just because you think it is an important project, the sponsor will not think so unless you provide evidence that this is a project that will make a difference and needs to be done now. Write so that the sponsor truly understands the “significance” of the project.

Make sure that you relate your project to what has been done previously by others in the same field or area of interest. Do not make the mistake of novice proposal writers and state that your idea is the first of its kind. This is highly unlikely, and the people who are reviewing your proposal may not agree with you if they have contributed to this same line of inquiry in the past.

In the procedures or methodology section, clearly state what you plan to do and when. State your time lines, indicate specific dates when possible, and describe the exact procedures and tools you will use. Do not be vague. Provide tables and figures to explain complicated data. Make it easy for the proposal reviewer to read the proposal and find the information they need to evaluate the proposal.

Look at it this way: If someone were to ask you for money for a project, what evidence would you want that the project is likely to succeed? You would want to know (a) if the right people are involved, (b) if there is a clear plan for getting the project done, (c) if there is a process for making sure the project is being carried out in a timely way, (d) if there are clear roles and duties for the people involved, and (e) if the amount of money requested matches what is needed to succeed, i.e., the funding request is not too high or too low.

Finally, ask others to read your application before you submit it. It is wise to ask someone in your field to read it for content and someone outside your field to read it to see if would make sense to someone without this level of content expertise. Peer reviewers come with all levels of understanding. Never assume the peer reviewer will understand acronyms and jargon. It is your job to explain what you want to do in a way that any competent reader could understand.

Submitting a Proposal at Berkeley

Awards made to the University need to be processed by one of two offices. The campus office responsible for submitting all proposals to government and non-profit sponsors is the Sponsored Projects Office (SPO). Proposals submitted to business and industry must go through the Industry Alliance Office (IAO). Failure to submit a proposal through one of these two offices is a University policy violation.

Both offices require that proposals be submitted to the appropriate office for internal review and approval at least four working days before the proposal needs to be submitted to the sponsor. Both offices require that the proposal be submitted using Phoebe, the UC Berkeley system for proposal approvals and routing from departments and units to SPO and IAO.

If you are submitting your first proposal to a government or non-profit sponsor from Berkeley, please contact your SPO Contract and Grant Officer to obtain additional guidance. You can identify this contact by going to the SPO staff list and typing in the name of your department/unit at the top of the page.

Receipt of Award

Typically, new award documents and award amendments from government and nonprofit sponsors as well as prime recipients under these types of sponsors are sent directly to SPO. Electronic documents are sent to, and hard copies are sent to SPO’s physical address. However, it is possible for a sponsor to send the notice of the award to the PI or even another campus unit or office. It is very important for such award documents to be forwarded to SPO as soon as possible to prevent delays in setting up the award.

Note: In no case should anyone other than designated officials in SPO sign the award on behalf of the University. The University must comply with the terms and conditions of a signed award, and it is often necessary for SPO to negotiate these terms and conditions before signing to ensure that there is no conflict with University policy, procedures, and/or priorities.

After the Award

After the award has been received and processed by SPO or IAO, the Contracts and Grants Accounting office is responsible for invoicing the sponsor for the funds spent on the project.

However, it is up the PI and the departmental research administrator to ensure that the awarded funds are spent in accordance with the terms and conditions of the award. The sponsor may have other requirements as well, so it very important to read the terms and conditions of the award document received from the sponsor. For example, all federal sponsors require that key personnel on a project sponsored project report their effort. Contracts and Grants Accounting manages this effort reporting system for Berkeley, and PIs are responsible for accessing this system to report the percent of their time spent on federally sponsored projects.

Another compliance issue is cost sharing. If the proposal indicated that the University or a third party would provide cash or in kind support for the project, it is the PIs responsibility to track and report this cost share to the sponsor. Again Contracts and Grants Accounting provides forms for this purpose.

If the proposal indicated that a subrecipient would help to carry out a portion of the work for the sponsor, it is the PI’s responsibility to contact SPO to request a subagreement be established. Once established it is the PI’s responsibility to monitor the subrecipient to ensure that the agreed upon work is being done and that the subrecipient is paid for this work.

Depending on the requirements of the sponsor, it also is the PI’s duty to provide all required progress and financial reports to the sponsor during the life of the project. The PI also should contact SPO if any significant changes in the project will affect the agreed upon scope of work described in the award. Changes in the scope of work will require prior approval by the sponsor.


Sponsored projects bring benefits—but they also have “strings” attached. This short overview touches on only a few of the most important of these requirements. Please consult the SPO website for additional information. Welcome of the world of sponsored projects!

A Special Note to Students

Some sponsors have funding programs especially for students. Consult with your advisor to determine if you should apply to the sponsor as an individual or through the University. In general, if an authorized institutional signature is required, the proposal should be submitted through SPO or IAO. Remember that it often takes a long time for a sponsor to review proposals and make awards. It also can require more than one submission to be successful. Therefore start early if you are interested in applying for a sponsored project to support your research. See Guide for Student Researchers and Scholars for more information.