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10 tips for writing better project proposals

Writing successful proposals is essential to the work of every aid and development organisation.

Though we encourage exploring alternative funding streams, the capacity to attract donor funds through winning bids remains at the centre of a successful NGO’s work.

Here, MzN International’s donor funding team have summarised some of the most important tips for creating proposals that are more likely to stand out:

1. Plan enough time

Even the most effective organisations can fall short when it comes to planning. Often they rely too much on their track record, and fail to invest the necessary time and effort into preparing for a proposal. Proper planning is essential to letting donors know that your organisation is professional and competent.

Many proposals fail for the simple reason that not enough time is planned for collecting information. For most proposals a vast amount of information needs to be gathered; comprehensive plans need to be drawn up; and convincing budgets need to be written out. It’s impossible to collate all of this information in a week. And you’ll still need time to put it all together in a format that is reader friendly and professionally presented. For larger proposals, take into account that multiple country teams will often need to be involved in the process. Giving them adequate notice to prepare will yield better data, information materials and projects.

We recommend you plan well in advance of a proposal deadline. This is particularly important with proposals where country offices are involved, because it’s unlikely that last minute requests will get you the quality of information you are after.

2. Be complete and concise

It is vital that your proposal has the correct information. We recommend including all and only the information the donor is asking for. If responding to a Request for Proposals (RFP), follow the format and order of the RFP. Adhere to the guidelines and instructions, and resist the urge to include any other credentials, policies and experience that you think might be useful. If the RFP did not request this information, then it will more than likely be ignored. Worse still, including it may even disqualify your proposal.

The layout and language of your proposal is also very important. A well-written proposal gets straight to the point, is succinct, reader-friendly and well structured. You should avoid using passive language, jargon and too many acronyms.

Take care to be clear and concise. After reading the first page of your proposal, the reader should have some understanding of the following:

  • Your project’s key objectives.
  • Who the beneficiaries of your project are, and how many will benefit.
  • How much funding is being asked for.
  • What the impact of your project will be.

If the donor has not provided a template or set a page count, a proposal generally shouldn’t exceed 10 to 15 pages. This should include all aspects asked for in the RFP. The reference materials should be confined to a well-structured and correctly referenced appendix.

3. Know the donor

Proposals should address the donor’s needs and requirements. Take time to research the donor’s mission, values and objectives, and then tie them into your proposal. Find out about the projects they have funded previously and are currently funding, as well as the areas, sectors and themes they prefer. Include broader themes that the donor might be involved in, such as environmental sustainability or the SDGs. Align your outcomes with aspects of these themes.

When writing a proposal, always stick to the guidelines that determine what will be funded and up to which amount. Asking for more funding than is available, or for areas the donor does not support, might lead them to reject your proposal.

4. Stick with the donor’s format

Where the donor prescribes a specific format, stick to it! If no format is prescribed, stick with the order and priority in which the RFP has asked for information. To make proposals comparable, donors often create checklists distilled from the RFP. So presenting your information in that order is likely to increase the proposal’s chances of success.

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5. Follow all instructions

Some instructions donors give can feel misleading or even contradictory, but you should still read all guidelines and instructions carefully and follow them to the letter. A proposal that does not follow the given instructions is rarely given any further consideration.

6. Be correct and specific

You might think a few formatting or budgeting errors may be excusable, but the donor won’t feel the same way. Bear in mind that the competition for grants is increasing and with it, the donor’s choice of implementing partner. Those small errors you make, might be the reason why your proposal gets eliminated.

It may sound obvious, but double checking page numbers and calculations. Also ensure that all rationales and assertions are truly applicable; that they add value and are relevant. Getting these aspects right could put your proposal on top of the pile.

7. Present yourself credibly

Even if your organisation is well known, the donor is unlikely to know all the relevant facts and credentials about it. For this reason, you should summarise credentials as short and concise success statements to support your organisation’s experience.

These days, donors are especially concerned about organisational and project management capacity. To prove that you have both, provide details of staff experience, as well as updates on similar projects that your organisation is currently implementing or has already completed. This will demonstrate that your organisation can run projects on time and budget.

8. Be realistic, be accountable

A successful proposal must include specific, realistic goals that identify the beneficiaries; and can be measured within a set timeframe, against a robust methodology.

Bidders commonly underestimate the time and costs required for the infrastructure needed for programmatic excellence, such as staff development, transparent accounting systems, and technology support etc. Lowballing these costs can raise questions about your organisational capacity.

Under-budgeting in proposals should never be an option. Make sure your proposal includes all of those costs that are often under-accounted for. If the final budget exceeds what the donor usually funds, identify the shortfall and find other sources of funding for the project. Alternatively, adjust the scope or scale of the project proposed. Downscaling as necessary, can be more impactful than attempting to achieve more with an underfunded project.

9. Make it sustainable

Sustainability is more than just a buzzword. Your proposals are far more likely to succeed if your sustainability plan doesn’t simply read ‘look for other funding towards the end of this project’.

Chris Meyer zu Natrup, Managing Director at MzN International, advises: “donors need to see a lasting difference, which in turn requires financial and programmatic sustainability.” This can come in many forms, ranging from private sector engagement to income generation or beneficiaries’ involvement.

10. Avoid the “budget rejection trap”

A lot of bidders spend most of their time writing about the project and then treating the budget as an afterthought that the “finance people” will handle. In most cases, this causes a discrepancy between the financials and the narrative of a proposal, especially when the former has been created under considerable time pressure. This is often the reason why many good project proposals fail; because the proposed budget makes no sense or adds no value. We call it the “budget rejection trap”, and it goes to show a lack of organisational capacity that donors are increasingly less willing to overlook.

To avoid the budget rejection trap, we recommend you start with the budget on day one and develop it concurrently with the narrative. Don’t separate programme and finance staff during the proposal-writing period. Rather ensure both work closely together. You may need to provide some basic budgeting training for programme staff to assist in this process.

Proposal Writing: The Bigger Picture

Proposal writing alone is not the key to a successful funding strategy, but it is certainly part of it. A strong proposal that meets the donors’ criteria, highlights the strengths of your organisation, while differentiating it from others, will always be a strong contender. That being said, simply submitting good proposals isn’t sufficient to develop a long-term, sustainable funding stream.

The process of programme development and the art of proposal writing need to be part of something more holistic. They are aspects of a strategy that incorporates networking and strategic positioning, as well as thought leadership and a demonstration of impact. Consider it as a part of a wider approach to positioning your NGO, not only for acquiring funding, but for creating impact, as part of your broader mission.


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