Contents of a proposal:
A Summary - best written after the following is written.
An Introduction giving a brief statement of why the area of study is important.
A brief explanation of the work previously done, emphasizing why it is inadequate.
An explanation of how the research you propose would advance knowledge beyond the condition in the previous item.
An explanation of the research you plan to do.
A statement of the specific hypothesis or hypotheses you will test.
An explanation of how your research will specifically disprove, or fail to disprove, the hypothesis or hypotheses.
A budget itemized to explain the need for the funding that you are requesting.
A justification of the budget to show that all the requests are reasonable.
A timetable to show how you plan to accomplish the work.
A bibliography of the references cited in the proposal.
A very brief (post-card-like) example of the above, or more likely a summary of a longer proposal, might be as follows:
Roughly 70% of the American population eats avocadoes at least once each year, so that potential exposure of the populace to contaminants in avocadoes is widespread. Little research has nonetheless been done with regard to the uptake of trace metals by avocadoes during their growth. The proposed research would address this problem by making the first detailed examination of the controls on concentrations of trace metals in avocadoes. Specifically, groundwater in 15 groves of avocadoes will be sampled and concentrations of trace metals determined by atomic absorption. Concentrations of trace metals in the pulp of avocadoes from the same groves will be measured by the same method. Hypotheses to be tested are that concentrations of Hg and Cd are greater in avocadoes from groves in which groundwater has higher concentrations. . . . .For some granting bodies, the proposal might actually be as short as this example. More commonly each of the sentences above would become at least a paragraph, if not a section of multiple paragraphs.
Following the guidelines:
Granting agencies and institutions typically have many rules regarding the format, content, and length of a proposal. They have these rules to protect their reviewers, who commonly review proposals for no recompense other than fulfilling their sense of obligation to the field of study. Enforcement of the rules is thus commonly Draconian, and a submitter has to follow the rules completely to avoid rejection without review.
Other good pages on this topic (definitely not an exhaustive list):
"Writing a good grant proposal" by Simon Peyton Jones and Alan Bundy.
NSF's Guide for Proposal Writing (specific of course to NSF, but educational).
Willamette University's Tips for Writing a Successful Grant Proposal - basic but useful.
e-mail to Railsback (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Railsback's main web page
UGA Geology Department web page