Writing a proposal can be a daunting task for NGOs especially when they have to provide enormous information about their proposed project, their organization and the budget in a proper framework. Now, different donor agencies can have different proposal formats but the basic framework of any proposal remains the same. Here, we discuss a simple step-by-step guide on how to write proposals as per the basic framework requested by donor agencies around the world.
What is a Proposal?
A proposal is an essential marketing document that helps cultivate an initial professional relationship between an NGO and a donor agency over a project to be implemented.
The proposal outlines the plan of the implementing organization about the project, giving extensive information about the intention, for implementing it, the ways to manage it and the results to be delivered from it.
The Difference between a Proposal and a Concept Note
A proposal is a very important document. In some cases, a concept note precedes a
proposal, briefing the basic facts of the project idea. However, the project idea faces a considerable challenge when it has to be presented in a framework.
The proposal has a framework that establishes ideas formally for a clear understanding of the project for the donor. Besides, unless the ideas are not documented in writing, they do not exist. Hence, a proposal facilitates appropriate words for the conception of an idea.
Proposal as a Tool for Competition
Proposals have recently become more sophisticated. This reflects the increased competitiveness and larger resources existing in the NGO sector. The trend of inviting proposals for contracting development programs began with the allotment of substantial resources for development that triggered off the mushrooming of NGOs around the world.
Enormous opportunities existing in the sector have led to the trend of making proposal writing a profession. Proposal writing poses many challenges, especially for small and unskilled NGOs. Here, we discuss some basic and necessary information required for developing a proposal.
The Importance of Writing a Proposal
Proposals are important:
- Because without a proposal, there is no understanding of whatever
- A donor believes more in a written document
- Helps planning activities and making budgets
- Reflects the competitiveness of several NGOs seeking limited resources
The problems we face in writing proposals
Before we start learning about proposal writing, it will serve our purpose if we outline the exact difficulties we face working on the proposal. The following are the common problems we face while trying to write a proposal:
Confused about the format?
There are as many proposal formats as there are a number of donors and each donor as a different format. Although the basic information requested by various donors is generally the same, yet we often encounter snags that make the entire process confusing.
Although a good idea exists, yet when we try to plan it out extensively, we face many unexpected challenges.
Fear of proposal rejections?
No matter how much of an expert we are in writing proposals, the underlying fear of
proposal rejection hovers over us while writing it.
This is perhaps the most universal problem for all proposal writers. For some reason or the other, we are expected to complete working proposals under very tight deadlines.
Solicited and unsolicited proposal?
Solicited and unsolicited proposals are quite confusing. Many NGOs work hard and submit proposals to donors, but soon they get a letter saying that they had never asked them to send.
Before Writing a Proposal
Before we start writing a proposal, it is important for us to do some research. No matter how small or big the project is some kind of references to existing literature or data should be made.
Usually, it is expected that the NGO has enough information at hand about the problem or the project before writing the proposal. Yet, NGOs have to gather all related information about the issue they are working on and the sit down to write the proposal.
In some cases, donors sponsor pre-proposal research so that organizations have enough evidence, both at field and in literature, before developing the actual proposal. But not many NGOs are lucky enough to avail such an opportunity.
The Project Stakeholders
While planning the proposal, it is ideally believed that all stakeholders have been consulted or involved in the process. There are generally three main categories of stakeholders involved in the process of writing the proposal. They are:
- The Proposing Organization/s or the Proponent: This could be just one NGO or a group of NGOs applying for the project to the donor.
- The Community: The most important stakeholder for whom the project is conceived. Community members or beneficiaries or the target group has to be involved in the proposal planning process so that the project reflects strong qualities of participation and community ownership.
- The Donor Agency: Wherever possible, it will be useful to take inputs from the donor. In formal invitations for proposals, the donor may discourage any contact with the proposing organizations. However, in other situations where donor has requested for a one-to-one proposal, it will be a good idea to have several meetings with this stakeholder and note down information carefully. It will also help to research donor priorities while conceiving the proposal idea.
What you need to know about your donor
- Aid priorities and issues of the donor
- The donor‟s country strategy paper (if any)
- Proposal Guidelines
- Previously funded projects and programs
Writing about your NGO
New individuals working on proposals in a particular NGO may face problems in writing about organizational background. They prefer to just copy previous information into this particular section of the proposal. However, this information may be sometimes outdated.
You may have forgotten to add an important NGO activity.
Besides, many times, there are facts about our organizations which we ourselves are
unaware of. We do quite a lot of research on the beneficiaries and the donor agency while writing the proposal, but we hardly see the necessity of researching our own organization to present the best picture of our institution to the donor.
To ensure that there is thorough knowledge about the organization in the proposal, it is important not only to copy information from previous documents but also carry out discussions with colleagues about the project.
The SWOT tool comes handy here when we sit with our colleagues and find out the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of the organization. Once this framework is ready, it will be quite easy for us to write the proposal and answer the sharp questions of any proposal format.
A general format of the proposal consists of the following parts:
- Problem Statement
- Project Rationale or Justification
- Project Goal and Objectives
- Strategies and Activities
- Results: Impact, Outputs and Outcomes
This basic format of a proposal has expanded covering many concepts and issues, confronting project funding and project implementation.
As new experiences are gathered by donors in project implementation and funding processes, new explanations are sought from the applicant through the proposal.
Problem Statement or Project Rationale in a Proposal
The Problem Statement/Project Rationale gives an explanation about the issue that is being addressed by the project and why it needs to be addressed. It also argues in favour of implementing the project in the proposed area in the existing conditions.
It is critical that we give evidence to what we are writing in this section of the proposal.
Evidence can be in the form of other research, existing literature or data collected by the organization itself
What to remember when writing a project statement
- Problem Statement/Project Rationale is a brief analysis or summary of the problems identified relating to the project or issue to be addressed by the project.
- It has to be precise and point-to-point basis.
- Use of quotes, live examples, references, research data and press articles would be very helpful.
- It has to be very specific to donor issues and priorities.
- Giving references to other NGOs, Governmental work in the area
- What information to include in a project statement
- Country, region, area details (location in the region, government, population etc);
- Poverty information, including information on the state of the economy,
- Gender issues;
- Health and education
Sometimes, we may find difficulties in writing the exact problem we intend to address in the proposed project. It happens this way that the problem we are mentioning in the proposal is not a problem at all, but is actually an effect of another problem.
For example, suppose there is high child mortality rate in our project area and we wish to put up a proposal on it, we cannot mention this as a problem because this is an effect of a problem, while the problem is something else. In this case, it could be the prevalence of diarrhoea that is leading to high child mortality. So the problem here is “the prevalence of diarrhoea” and not “high child mortality rate.”
It is also necessary to mention the cause of the problem because it is an integral part of the project implementation. In this scenario, the cause of the problem for the prevalence of diarrhoea could be the “poor knowledge of the community about proper hygiene and sanitation.”
Effect > Problem > Cause
The relationship between the three (Effect, Problem and Cause) has to be outlined in the Problem Statement of the proposal. If we have an issue, it will be a good exercise to go a step back and forth to find out its cause and effect relationship. The best way to understand the cause of an issue is to ask “Why” continuously. This will help reveal the cause of the problem. A problem can have many causes and effects.
“The Why or Why”
- Projects evolve out of identified problems
- It is the problem that comes before a project
- The secret of solving a problem is proper identification of the problem. This requires a thorough investigation.
- A problem does not happen in isolation. It goes hand in hand with cause and effect.
- There is a relationship between cause and effect. They are linked by the problem.
- A way to analyze a problem is through analyzing the root causes and its effects.
- State the problem as effectively and precisely as possible
- Refer to any research data that is available, including publications, reports, newspapers etc.
- Give a narration of community perception with quotes.
- Check back how well it matches with the donor guidelines or issues.
- Give thorough background information about the region, community and resources available.
- Explain the organizational strength and capacity in countering this problem and achieving long-term results.
Project Goal and Objectives
A project goal is a very general, high-level and long-term objective of the project. It is different from project objectives because the latter are very specific and have to be addressed alone by the project. But a goal cannot be achieved by the project on its own since there will be other forces like the Government and other agencies as well working to achieve it. It is a major benchmark to compare work between different projects.
Usually, there is one project goal only and it can be reflected in the title of the project also.
It should ideally support the overall policy of the government or the donor agency.
Example: “Providing housing facilities to earthquake-affected victims” – This cannot be a project goal, but can be a general objective
“Reducing the impact of natural disaster over communities belonging to the hilly region” –
This can be a project goal, as you are contributing to the problem in addition to other efforts.
A project goal is:
- Very general, high-level and long-term
- A project cannot achieve the entire goal on its own
- A major benchmark to compare work between different projects
- Usually there is one project goal only
- It can be reflected in the title of the project
- Supports the overall policy of the government or the donor agency
Project Objectives should be:
SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
Project objectives are the specific objectives for which the project works to achieve them within a stipulated time. They should directly address the problem mentioned in the Problem Statement.
They should be specific: the more specific it is the better to design activities, indicators and the Logical Framework Analysis. Specific objectives also help address the problem stated and convince the donor easily.
- Think about what success means for your project and how you would show that success
- Refer to the results you expect from the project
- Describe the focus population and the desired change among the population
- Include the location and time period for each objective
- Reflect the intended changes in systemic conditions or behaviours that must b achieved to accomplish the goal/strategic objective
- Objectives should have measurable indicators which show what, when, and how conditions, behaviors, and practices will change
- Objectives must be verifiable at some point during the execution of the project
A good objective can be:
“To increase the income-level of women farmers from 5% to 15% in the district.”
Some Relevant Words to be used while writing Objectives
Some inappropriate words not to be used while writing Objectives
Strategies and Activities
Proposals are required to outline how the objectives of the project would be achieved.
Here, it will be necessary to mention the Strategies and the Activities to be implemented in the project. There is lot of difference between strategies and activities. Strategies are broad concepts under which activities are placed.
Strategies in a project can include:
- Capacity-building/ awareness-raising
- Organizational development
- Research & Development
- Victim Support Strategy
- Micro-finance and CBO development Strategy
- Participatory Infrastructure Development Strategy
- Activities can include:
- Training workshops, street shows, rallies
- Staff selection, staff training
- Baseline, PRA, FGD
- Conferences, meetings, articles, publications
- Establishing shelter homes, counseling, legal support
- Forming SHGs and cooperatives
- Building irrigation tanks, demo plots etc
To develop activities:
- Refer back to the lessons learned from previous projects.
- Identify best practices from other agencies/ projects/sources.
- Activities as identified by the communities
- Develop activities by listing numbers, so that they can referred back to easily
- Leave space for unplanned activities that can be added later during project implementation
Performance Indicators and Risks & Assumptions
A Performance Indicator is a measure of the result. It gives a sense of what has been or what is to be achieved. For example, the number of households keeping their surroundings clean and hygienic or the number of women participating in training programs. There are two types of indicators, namely, “Process Indicators” and “Results Indicators.”
Process indicators define the indicators for a process or an activity like „number of women participating in the training on gender development” and Results Indicators refer to the indicators that indicate the result achieved from the implementing the activity like “number of women aware about gender rights.”
An indicator is a measure of the result.
It gives a sense of what has been or what is to be achieved
Example: “the number of households keeping their surroundings clean and hygienic or the number of women participating in training programs.”
Risks & Assumptions
Risks and Assumptions are part of the concept based on the principle that we have less and less control of the project results as we go down and down implementing the project.
For example, „Government policies/ officials are supportive of the project activities ‟or ongoing peace and stability may get hampered by sporadic violence.‟
These are part of the concept based on the principle that we have less and less control of the project results as we go down and down implementing the project
Example: “Government policies/officials are supportive of the project activities and
ongoing peace and stability may get hampered by sporadic violence.”
Results are changes that we expect to take place after implementing the project activities.
The results are generally positive experiences undergone by the beneficiaries.
Results are divided into three types:
Outputs are immediate results that we achieve soon after the completion of the project or any specific project activity. For example, if training on human rights is carried out in a project, the output or the immediate result of it is “a greater understanding of human rights amongst the participants.”
The outcomes are results that have been or that are to be achieved after a period of time, but not immediate. In the above example, it could that “the participants have gone further to communities to inform them about human rights or carrying out policy advocacy in favor of human rights.”
The impact is the longer-term result that has happened because of the activities
undertaken in the project. The impact in the example given above could be “policies are framed by the Government to protect the human rights of the people.”
Monitoring and Evaluation
Although it is the responsibility of the donor to carry out monitoring and evaluation of the project, it usually seeks the plan from the implementing NGO about it.
Monitoring and evaluation enable a constant check on the activities and helps review the progress made at every step. Monitoring should be an integral part of the project
implementation; in fact, there should be an internal mechanism to monitor the results, risks, assumptions and performance regularly through meetings and submission reports.
Management Information Systems (MIS) is often used as a mechanism to undertake to monitor. The baseline information is critical to the monitoring process. Involving external entities such as donors, government people, consultants etc in monitoring would give a good opportunity to collect feedback, provide exposure to the work and also explore new options. Evaluation is carried out by an external agency during the mid-term or in the end part of the project
Budget and Proposal Packaging
The budget has to be itemized as clearly as possible, presented in the required format. It should be in line with the activities set in the project. It will be an added advantage to mention contribution from other sources such as the community or other donors.
The contribution made by the proposing organization should also be mentioned. It there is any recurring income from the project activities, it needs to be clearly given in the budget section.
When the proposal writing is complete, it is important to ensure that the packaging has been done properly before submitting it to the donor. Below are some important points to be kept in mind while packaging the proposal.
- The Title Page should have Project title, name of the donor agency and name, logo & contact info of the NGO.
- There should be a Table of Contents
- There should be one page for explaining acronyms
- There should be a Project Summary- not more than one page, narrating goal, objectives, results and activities.
- Provide an overview of the organization
- Ensure that page numbering, header & footer are complete.
- While writing use active sentences more.
- Keep in mind the limit for the total number of pages for the proposal
- Attach appendices, if necessary
- Give Bibliography and references.
- The proposal should be signed and sealed.
- Covering letter is essential
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