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How to write proposals

Here are 8 tips to make sure you get funded

No one gets 100% of the proposals they write. No one.

So what can we do to ensure that we are as successful as possible, reducing the amount of wasted time and frustration? We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years but we’ve also learned a lot about what it takes to be successful. Please add your own tips and comments as my points are by no means exhaustive.

1. Get someone on the phone

We are always guessing if we’ve got a fit between our projects and the prospective donors. Who knows the project/donor fit better than the donor him/herself? Armed with your project description and milestones, give the donor a call or better yet try to meet someone face to face. They will be able to tell you if there is a good fit, how much funding you can expect and what the chances are. Also, by allowing the donor to inform the project development they will feel ownership over the project, and it will be harder to shut down an idea that they feel like they have helped create.

2. Forget your language and learn the language of the donor

We all develop our own language to talk about our project, but on the ground a community-based approach to climate change adaptation and an income generating initiative for actors in the informal economy could actually be the same thing: people making change. It doesn’t matter how clear you can describe your project to yourself, what really counts is how well the donor will understand your project and whether it is a fit with their priorities. Learn their language through their funding guidelines and tell them what you’re going to do in terms they understand.

3. Tailor your language, not your project

You can change your language, but don’t change your goals and objectives because you think it’s what a donor wants. Stay true to your ideas and always do your project design prior to writing the proposal. Mission drift is a real thing and you don’t want your donors to dictate your strategy. You and your stakeholders know best about what needs to be done so stick to it. Fundraising is a long process and you have to believe in the project in order to stick with it.

4. Be credible

The first thing that you’ll be evaluated on is your credibility. This is why getting someone on the phone is so important (Step 1). The project officer that picks up the phone may not be on the evaluation committee but they will most likely be the one presenting the projects to the decision makers. The first question from the evaluators will be, does anyone know the applicant, and can they pull this off? When you are describing your organization make sure that you’ve got a clear explanation of your accomplishments. Letters of support from widely known experts also helps to communicate your credibility.

5. Learn the terms

So what is the difference between an outcome, and objective, your goals and your impacts? Aren’t you just saying the same thing over and over and over again? Yes and no. There needs to be a lot of repetition in order to drive home the clarity of your project, so it will feel like you’re just saying things on repeat, but there is a difference. The best way to learn the difference is through the funding guidelines that most donors provide.

6. Use headings

Take the key words out of each question and use them as headings in your answer. Proposals are evaluated with very clear scoring systems that literally check boxes to ensure that you’re providing all of the required information. You can delete the headings after if you’re tight on your word count but at least you will know that you have provided all of the requested information.

7. Get the budget right

It is entirely possible to align perfectly with the donor’s priorities, clearly communicate a project and satisfy all proposal requirements only to pitch a deal-breaking budget. You don’t want to shock anyone with an ask that is outside of the project scope, your experience and the available funds. Don’t get rejected just because the ask is out of line.

8. Make sure someone has checked it over

It’s great to hit that final key stroke at 11:59 for a midnight deadline, but someone has to check it over. Everyone needs an editor so make sure someone other than the project evaluator catches your mistakes. Ideally have one person look it over for grammar, and another for clarity. The feedback you receive is not a criticism, but a valuable outside perspective.

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