A Quick Guide on How to Write Powerful Concept Notes

In recent times, many donor agencies prefer their grant-seeking applicants to submit a comprehensive concept note about their proposed project before submitting a full project proposal. We have also observed this trend in many of the USAID and European Commission grant applications.

In some cases, these concept notes can be highly structured requesting in-depth information about the project and in some other cases, it can just be an overview of the project idea. Nevertheless, the concept note is your initial step to tap the donor agency for funding. If the idea is interesting, you may be requested to submit a full proposal.

So what exactly is a concept note? How much time does it take in preparing it? What should go into it?

A concept note is a brief outline of the project you have in your mind. A simple version of it will include an introduction, a background, proposed objectives and results and a budget overview. Ideally, it should not be more than 2-3 pages unless the donor agency has specific requirements. If you wish to supply extra information, you can always annex documents such as your organization profile.

According to the ProPack: The CRS Project Package by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a concept note can be produced in a matter of hours. In some other cases, it can also take a few days. But research is quite critical in both the cases and experienced planners develop extensive notes and organize meetings with project stakeholders (mainly the beneficiaries of the project) before starting to write a concept note.

The concept note is not only an important document for making your first contact with the donor agency, it is also the basic layout of your project plan. The layout will form the foundation to develop a larger proposal document soon after you hear a positive feedback from the grant-making agency.

The First Steps towards developing a Proper Concept Note

If you have a project idea in mind and you know the right donor agency to apply, then it is fairly easy to come up with a proper concept note. So the first step here is your project idea!

For example, if you see extreme poverty around you and you wish to address this by introducing certain livelihood measures that will boost the income of the poor people, then this is your project idea.

You should then start searching for your donor agencies that can possibly fund your idea. It is easier to write the concept note after you have identified your donors because there are vast differences in their systems of accepting your project idea. Like mentioned earlier, some donors accept concept notes in certain format only while others just request a simple narration.

Further, donor interests will vary and it may not necessarily be the same as you think. So your concept note has to be molded in such a manner that it draws the attention of the donor based on mutual interests. For this to happen, you may need to research and learn more about your donor.

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Once you have successfully identified your donor agency and your project idea is ready, you can start working on your concept note.

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The Questions you need to ask yourself by writing the Concept Note

In order to refine your project idea, one of the best ways is to ask yourself questions. Remember that your project idea is raw and unstructured – nobody will ever understand it nor any donor agency will relate to it unless you refine and give it a proper structure. To give it a proper structure, you need to refine it as much as possible.

When you start asking yourself questions about the idea, it will be easy to refine and bring clarity to it. For example, you desire to eliminate poverty existing within a community. You can ask yourself why there is so much poverty? People may be uneducated and there may be unemployment problems. You can further ask yourself why there the issues of lack of education and employment are prevalent amongst these people. You will find reasons such as poor awareness, lack of educational facilities and no stable sources of livelihood.

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In the process of asking these questions, you can start making visits to the community i.e. the stakeholders and start discussing with them about the problem. Of course, in most cases, the community may not be as analytical as you are and they may just blame the government. But some insights from them will be useful.

Once you have discussed the problems, you can start thinking about the solutions. If there are no educational facilities or no means of employment, you can explain your concept note that you wish to address these problems by launching interventions like opening a school or helping an existing local school with new infrastructure or teachers or introducing a new livelihood mechanism that can boost the income of the household families.

Once the basic structure of your concept note is ready, you can start asking other questions like how long will take to address this problem, what will be the geographical scope of your project, who will be the actual beneficiaries (farmers, women, children etc), what will be the resulting change after you have implemented the project and above all these, what is the uniqueness of your project. Remember that thousands of other grant-seekers are simultaneously applying for the same grant and you need to convince the donor that your project is different when compared to others. Donors often emphasize on innovation to address social problems.

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The Structure of the Concept Note

The Title

An unstructured concept note should ideally have a title, submitted by, date of submission as the primary information in the header section. Preferably, the title should be short but make sure it reflects the overall idea of the project that resonates with the donor’s objectives.

Introduction or Background

The first section of the project should be an ‘introduction’ or ‘background’ of the project where you can state the problem you are trying address and also explain what are the root causes of this problem. You can conclude this section with the ‘opportunity’ available for you to make the intervention and address the problem. Usually, the ‘opportunity’ can be in form of your own skills that can be used to reduce the problem or a government policy.

Remember to give references to your narrative so that you can establish authority to the facts given. For example, if you explain that there is extensive poverty in the region, you need to supply some data and a reference. Also, try to give numbers in terms of men, women, and children getting affected by the overall situation. In this way, you can ensure that gender has been integrated from the planning stage itself.

Goal and Objectives

List out the goal and objectives in this section. The goal is usually the long-term impact of ‘reduction in poverty’ or ‘improved living conditions of the people.’ It may not necessarily be achieved.

Objectives have to be specific and if provide numbers, it will be more helpful. For example, 100 women will have access to newer sources of livelihood’. Also limit your objectives to 3 or 5 – the lesser number of objective, the more practical the approach will be.

Expected Results

This section briefly analyzes the result of your project. You can list out the results that the project will achieve during the project period. For example, 100 households have increased income from agriculture.’ Again, numbers can be very important while narrating expected results.

Innovation

A separate section explaining the uniqueness of your project will be very useful. As donors are interested to see what new value you are going add to this project, this section will quickly introduce them to the innovative approach you will use to address this problem. Although most concept notes may not have this section, if you include it, it will create a positive effect on the donor agency.

Budget

The last section of the concept note will be the budget. Although a detailed analysis is not required, you would still need to submit a reasonable sense of how much money you are seeking from the donor to execute the project. You can also give a quick breakup of the main items (not more than 5-6). Any matching contribution from you or any other agency can also be mentioned here.

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