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How to Write an Executive Summary for a Grant Proposal

Every successful grant proposal starts with an engaging executive summary. It stresses the significance of the proposed research, and it makes a compelling case for your grant request in a short and readable passage. Here we explain the value of the executive summary and what should (and should not) go into it.

Every successful grant proposal starts with an executive summary. The executive summary presents the key elements of your application in a condensed and engaging form. It’s also sometimes called a project description, abstract, or summary.

A grant proposal’s executive summary introduces your research project goals, preliminary findings, and the personnel involved. It stresses the significance of the proposed research. It makes a compelling case for your grant request in a short and readable passage.

This article explains the value of the executive summary and what should (and should not) go into it if you want to get your funding.

Why is an executive summary important for a grant proposal?

Grant proposals are organized into distinct sections. The executive summary is often the most important section because it’s the first thing reviewers will read, just like an abstract is often what readers read first when searching for useful research.

Some granting agency reviewers may base their opinion on the abstract alone. “The abstract must sell the grant,” says a US-based grant evaluator. “If I don’t get interested by the first page, the proposal is lost,” says another.

Even when evaluators read the entire proposal, those first impressions are critical. If these decision-makers come across a poorly written executive summary, they might start reading the following pages with a negative bias—this may be difficult to overcome. Or they might stop right there. However, if the executive summary is well written, evaluators will likely approach your proposal with a more welcoming attitude.

There are also administrative reasons why the executive summary matters. Some granting agencies, like the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), use the grant proposal title and executive summary to assign proposals to a specialist review panel. Your executive summary should reflect the key elements of your proposal so it ends at the hands of those who will see its value.

Grad students working together at a desk

Strictly follow the granting agency’s requirements

Before you start drafting the executive summary, learn everything there is about the sponsoring agency.

Start by perusing funded grant applications. How is their summary structured? How much did they score in this section?

Requirements differ across granting agencies. Many have a word limit for the executive summary (~500). Others ask for a more comprehensive description of the project (2–3 pages).

Some ask you to mention the type and amount of funding or other support you’re after. And yet others want the budget to be submitted separately from the technical proposal. Picky picky, but they make the rules you have to play by.

Let the sponsor’s mission and funding proprieties shape your executive summary.

What should you include in the executive summary?

Certainly, the granting agency’s funding priorities, mission, and specific guidelines will inform the content of your executive summary. There are also general best practices that work across different fields.

Here, we’ll give you a basic structure. Then keep reading to see a real example.

General concept

Try to structure your executive summary like an abstract—only with more emphasis on your (and your research project team’s) ability to do the research.

Regardless of the summary length—ranging from one paragraph up to two full pages—you need to answer the following questions:

  • 1) What is the broader context in which your research is situated?
  • 2) What is the gap in the knowledge base that your research project will address?
  • 3) Why are you ideally suited to deliver this project?
  • 4) What do you intend to do (project objectives) and how (methodology)?
  • 5) Why is this research project worthy of funding?

    Executive summary structure

    This is the typical order you might follow, though it’s not always as strictly defined as a research abstract.

Background and problem/need assessment

At the start of your executive summary, briefly contextualize your proposed research in the overall landscape of existing scholarly work. Then mention the unmet need(s) or knowledge gap(s) creating the need for your research. To make these points, you can use phrases like “It is still unclear how…”, “…has not been determined”, or “there is currently limited research on…”

Research project team’s abilities and experience

Next, mention who you and the rest of the research project staff are, including any external collaborators. Describing your competencies and previous research record can convince the evaluators that you deserve this funding.

Your executive summary should stress your unique capacity to get work done and meet the sponsor’s needs. If you have a website for your project, link to it in a footnote or with an embedded link.

Background and problem/need assessment

At the start of your executive summary, briefly contextualize your proposed research in the overall landscape of existing scholarly work. Then mention the unmet need(s) or knowledge gap(s) creating the need for your research. To make these points, you can use phrases like “It is still unclear how…”, “…has not been determined”, or “there is currently limited research on…”

Research project team’s abilities and experience

Next, mention who you and the rest of the research project staff are, including any external collaborators. Describing your competencies and previous research record can convince the evaluators that you deserve this funding.

Your executive summary should stress your unique capacity to get work done and meet the sponsor’s needs. If you have a website for your project, link to it in a footnote or with an embedded link.

Goal and objectives

Present your project’s overall goal and particular. For policy-related research, this may also cover the aim to develop interventions that solve the real-world problem you are researching. You can make these points with phrases like “Our overarching aim is…”, “We propose to explore…”, or “We will investigate the…”

Strategy/methodology

After stating the purpose of your research project, briefly describe your research design or methods used to conduct the work. This includes possible barriers or shortcomings. To do so, use phrases like “We will show this, drawing on X/Y theories” or “We will achieve this goal by…”

Preliminary results/outcomes

It’s good to refer to the initial or expected findings of your research. This builds the reviewers’ confidence in the feasibility of your work.

Research project significance/impact

Conclude by addressing the (positive) impact of your proposed research.

  • Why does the problem you’re trying to solve matter?
  • How will the expected outcomes benefit society and/or serve the funder’s mission? Useful phrases here include: “has important implications for …”, “will shed critical light into…”, and “These results will contribute greatly/play a key role in…”

    Sample executive summary

Background: The cumulative intensity of human stressors has led to degradation of marine ecosystems and the deterioration of biodiversity in the Mediterranean Sea.

Gap in the field, need for this research: Practical conservation measures are required to shield threatened marine ecosystems from intrusive human activity. Conservation must involve social views supported by human values that differ significantly between Mediterranean countries. Social, financial, and political differences increase the challenge of balancing sea conservation with sustainable use. Extensive cross-regional cooperation is urgently needed to secure adequate protection of this region’s marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

Research project goals: This research project aims to promote collaborative research to support marine management and conservation design and influence policymaking.

Methodology, team’s abilities: We will devise innovative approaches and mechanisms to reduce knowledge gaps and promote marine conservation science.

This project involves collaboration between the Marine Conservation Department of Big Fish University and the G. W. Sharque Center for Applied Research. The project team comprises a multidisciplinary group of internationally renowned experts in marine biodiversity conservation. These members have collaborated successfully in the past on two funded projects.

Expected project activities and outcomes: This partnership is uniquely positioned to support the development of cross-regional and national policies through four key activities:

  • 1) Develop analytical tools to explore cumulative human impacts on the Mediterranean marine ecosystem
  • 2) Determine key scientific and technical gaps in existing conservation actions.
  • 3) Coordinate marine conservation policy across national borders in the Mediterranean.
  • 4) Identify adequate governance procedures to establish and manage marine protected areas.

Practical applications, research impact: Meeting these research aims will have important practical applications. It will enable integration of marine conservation policy into cross-regional maritime planning agendas for the Mediterranean seas. In this way, it will help counter the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in this region.

Scientist filling a test tube

What should the tone be?

Grant evaluators read dozens, even hundreds, of grant proposals every week. The executive summary should capture their interest to convince them to read the entire application. To achieve this:

  • Give a clear and concise account of who you are, what you need the money for, and how you’ll use them. The executive summary should be a clear road map for your proposal.
  • Write in an instructive manner to explain your topic and be understood by people working in the same or related fields. The executive summary should stand in its own right.
  • Be convincing (but also pragmatic) about your research project team’s ability to carry out the research. As noted, you can do this by mentioning your research record of accomplishment.

    What to avoid when writing an executive summary

    Naturally, as there are best practices, there are things to avoid. These are the main ones when writing your executive summary.

  • Don’t address the funder directly. Only do this in the cover letter (if requested).

  • Don’t give out too much. Don’t go too deep into what your project will accomplish or how you’ll manage it. And don’t use too many citations; about five is enough. You’ll have space for this later.
  • Don’t write in the first person. Aim to sound objective and persuasive. But note that a different tone may be needed for grants in areas like the arts and philosophy, where the researcher’s subjectivity is often a key factor.
  • Don’t give any confidential information. Funding agencies might publish parts of the executive summary of the funded project on their website. You don’t want your competitors to read any sensitive information.
  • Don’t focus more on problems than the proposed solutions. This might make reviewers think your project isn’t feasible.

    Expert insider tips

    Hopefully, after reading this, you saw the executive summary is all about quality over quantity. A precise and specific summary beats a wordy and redundant one. So how can you use the limited space provided to the greatest effect? We’d like to offer a few experience-based tips.

  • While the summary is the first section in the proposal document, it’s often best to write it at the end. It will be easier to outline the most critical points in a condensed form when you have a complete picture of your project. (Double hint: take the same approach for writing your manuscript abstracts.)
  • If your executive summary is longer than one page, use subheadings for each section to make it easier to read (just like we did in this article). You can also include bulleted lists where possible. Avoid “walls of text.”
  • The executive summary should follow the logical flow of the main points in your proposal. It should only reference topics and information explained in detail in the main body of your submission.
  • If the call for grant proposals includes evaluation criteria, keep these in mind as you write the executive summary. For example, it might state that the project impact subsection carries more weight than the personnel. In this case, you could dedicate more attention to the significance and broader impact of the proposed research in the executive summary than to the team’s competencies.

About the author

Adam Goulston is a U.S.-born, Asia-based science marketer, writer, and editor. His company, Scize, helps scientific businesses and researchers communicate their value globally. He has edited more than 3,000 scientific manuscripts.

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