Top 10 Proposal Writing Tips

What is a Proposal? A proposal is the opportunity to present your ideas to a group of people you want to influence to accept your ideas and take action.

When most people think about winning a grant, they start by writing the proposal. Bad move! Why? Because when they find a prospective funder, they discover that their proposal fails to meet the funder’s expectations. They either submit it as is, and get a rejection; or start all over, which is a waste of time. So let’s look at the Basics of Writing a Winning Proposal.

1.    Start Early
  • Writing a good project proposal will take time. Time to collect background information such as chasing up reference documents, supporting material (e.g. Country reports) and data.
  • Check out potential donors by phone, letter or email.
  • What sort of project do you have?
  • Do donors fund this type of project?
  • Have you got any funds now?
  • Applications forms? Preferred proposal format?
  • Deadlines?
  • What other documents do you need?
  • If you have guidelines from the donors, always read them carefully and highlight key points. Keep referring the guidelines as you write and start collating your materials. If you don’t, then;
  • Maybe try a ‘preliminary’ project proposal (concept paper) first to determine if your particular type of project is supported by the funding agencies?
  • After writing the first draft of any proposal, seek comments from colleagues, friends and peers. Have a ‘brainstorming’ meeting to gather feedback. Revise the draft.
  • Be accurate; If you are using previous data to support aspects of your proposal, double-check and triple-check that information. It's easy for facts to be misunderstood and misused in a proposal. You'll risk turning a winning proposal into a loser if you present inaccurate data to the donor.
  • Quantify the results that the donor can expect from funding you, donors buy results, slightly more than tools or methodologies.
  • Donors care about how you'll address their issues, so show them how you'll do that.
  • Put passion into your words and ideas Share how your staff will approach problems in creative and innovative ways.
  • Devote a paragraph in the proposal detailing how much you know about the subject.
  • Beware of best practices; find a blend of outstanding practices and innovative solutions that fit the donors’ particular needs.
  • Size does matter; Keep your proposals as short as possible, while meeting the donors request. Think quality, not quantity.
  • Choose a dark, clear typeface – fancy is not necessarily better!
  • Finish early; Let your proposal sit for a day after you've completed the final draft, and then reread it completely before sending it to the donor. You're likely to come up with some new ideas that enhance your work, and you may find errors that you missed earlier.
  • Keep an eye on any deadline. Contact the agency early (before the deadline) if you think you might need an extension.

2. Use the language of the donor
  • Use the words of the donor agency. Example:
  • How will the project address the issues of gender equity?
  • The project will address the issues of gender equity by…….
  • Avoid jargon not used by the donor. Limit technical language to those new words or technical terms that truly lack an equivalent in common language. Guidelines are available from some aid agencies that can guide you in the use of appropriate language eg. ‘AusAID Guide to HIV/AIDS & Development’ – see AusAID website.
  • Abbreviations – expand on abbreviations early in the document when first used eg. APN+ (Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS).
  • Glossary – include an explanation of terms in your project proposal, if necessary.

3. Write clearly
  • Simple is better than complex – do not use complex terms or long sentences.
  • Be brief – more is not necessarily better!
  • Spell and grammar check – use your word processor spell (and grammar) checker but do not rely on them. They can let mistakes through. Ask colleagues to check your proposal for spelling and grammar errors.

4. Format
  • Tell a story from beginning to end – each section of your proposal should build on the one before.
  • Introduction or the executive summary is one of the most important sections of the proposal. It is your opportunity to grab the reader’s attention. Decision-makers start with and focus on the executive summary, so create this section with that fact in mind. When writing the executive summary, assume that the reader knows little or nothing about the proposed project. Be clear, forceful and determined!
  • Be very precise and stating the action you want the donor to take. Don't make them guess about what you want. Be sure to give accurate steps needed for completion of the project.
  • Your proposal should include a review of how the proposed plan will work. Do not go into too much detail. That can be confusing and cause rejection of the project. In your proposal you want to answer the basic who, what, when, where and why questions. Be sure to offer supporting information where it would be helpful. Handouts that offer details are very helpful.
  • State the benefits. Don't close without stating very clearly the benefits that would be achieved by accepting your proposal. Make sure the benefits correspond to the needs, wants and interests of your audience.
  • Use headings to show logical progression through the proposal.
  • Use paragraphs to break up large sections of writing.
  • Use diagrams and charts to illustrate points eg reporting flow charts – to show where copies of project reports will be sent to.

5. Gender and Environment
  • These are two ‘buzz’ issues that must be addressed. They cut across all issues. However nowadays there are many crosscutting issues like HIV and AIDS, Advocacy, Protection, OVC. Try and blend these issues in a realistic way for value for money.
  • Gender – examples of how to address:
  • Breakdown of female/male in target group
  • Role of women in the project
  • How will you support women to be involved as beneficiaries and decision makers in the project.
  • What are the particular needs of women.
  • How will the recruitment (staff) policy for the project ensure gender equity.
  • Project strategies for empowerment and participation.

6. Sustainability
  • What will happen when the project finishes?
  • Who is going to pay the ongoing costs, if any, of activities once the project finishes eg who is going to continue to fund the dispensary costs?
  • Examine both medium and long-term benefits from the project, examples
  • Trained workers/peer educators who will continue to provide services.
  • Processes – community committees formed and village leaders trained in project management.
  • Do not focus on buildings and motor vehicles, they are very expensive to maintain. Focus on sustainable benefits.

7. Monitoring/Evaluation
  • How is the progress of the project going to be assessed?
  • Show the donor how you are going to make sure the project’s objectives are achieved eg quarterly reporting of achievements against objectives. Examples:
  • Objective – to ensure that a minimum of thirty new health care workers attend our HIV Workshop each month.
  • Report – a total of thirty-five health care workers attended the HIV Workshop in June.

8. SMART Objectives
          Time related
  • Example of SMART objective:
  • To ensure that 80% of PLWHA attending the Kisumu District HIV Care Centre have access to clean blankets by December 2011.
  • Remember to always keep your objectives simple and short. Do not be vague. Focus on your immediate objective and don't confuse the issue with future goals or objectives.

9. Participation
  • Show how the project has been designed using ‘participatory planning techniques’ eg community workshops held – community leaders attended, proposal developed and distributed – comments incorporated, meetings held to discuss project with all key agencies.

10. Other Contributors
  • Clearly document who else is going to contribute resources (funds, time, workers, equipment) to your project.
  • Describe any other fundraising activities that you propose to carry out to assist the project eg fundraising, income generating activities and how much you expect to raise.