8. Writing a proposal
Module eight of the GFMD MediaDev Fundraising Guide.
Proposal-writing should be a creative process.
It’s far more than filling in a form or ticking boxes – it’s an opportunity to pitch an idea, to make it compelling, credible and inspiring.
Equally importantly, it’s a chance to work with other professionals who may have different ideas, experiences and skills.
This interaction can be extremely rewarding. It can enrich your own knowledge base and broaden your worldview. It can also play an important role in networking building and institutional development.
The approach to writing a proposal is highly individual. Some like to build it line by line, section by section; others start off by taking a more impressionistic approach, then hone and fine-tune the narrative through multiple drafts.
An important first step, however, is to establish the key points you want to make under each section heading to ensure that you avoid unnecessary repetition through the narrative and that you successfully address all the key requirements.
As noted in Module 6, a skeleton outline populated with bullet points can be very helpful in getting a handle on the overall workload and assigning tasks at an early stage in the process.
It also allows for a comprehensive “audit” of what existing material can be reused or repackaged for the purposes of this bid and what needs to be developed from scratch.
Psychologically, it’s a good idea to get as many words on paper as soon as possible since contemplating long vistas of empty pages can be dispiriting!
As the process unfolds, try to involve colleagues and external experts as much as possible.
Even if you do not have the budget to pay for outside support, you should think about simple informant interviews with individuals who can provide knowledge and experience that you do not have yourself or cannot source internally.
These should include any experts who have agreed to be involved in the project if it comes to fruition. They may be prepared to give their time and effort free of charge.
Proposals are formal documents that, if successful, will later become part of your contract with the donor.
The style should, therefore, be dry and businesslike, drawing on the terminology common to the development community and reflecting an academic rigour in any discussion of research or background material.
However, proposals do not need to be dull. They should aim to communicate your own passion for the subject matter and paint a clear picture of how your proposed activities will make a difference in people’s lives.
The following techniques can be used to make sure your proposal stands out from the pile:
Proposals should be clearly and neatly presented with strong section headings and, where possible, enough white space to ensure that the narrative does not become overwhelming.
Proposals often suffer from dense slabs of text that provide too much general discussion without presenting concrete activities and logical steps.
Some leading agencies invest significant time and resources into graphic design, arguing that this helps to make their proposal memorable and provides welcome relief for evaluators who have navigated their way through poorly formatted documents and unremitting swathes of verbiage.
It is unclear whether or not this investment pays off. In all likelihood, a good design will not save a bad proposal but it's possible that a good proposal may be perceived as an excellent proposal if it is well designed.
Of course, when the donor includes prescriptive guidelines for page limits and margin widths, there is very little room for manoeuvre.
However, whatever the constraints, you should focus on ensuring that a document is readable, usable and well signposted.
This is, perhaps, more important than cramming every possible word into the available space, at the expense of margins, paragraph returns and readable font sizes.
Most proposals are developed by a small team, even if some of the team members may only contribute a small part of the narrative, the budget or the supporting documents.
In order to ensure that the master document remains manageable and accessible, it is worth encouraging contributors to observe certain parameters.
Throughout the process, it is helpful to put yourself in the evaluators’ shoes and recognise their key priorities.
In theory, their job is to identify the projects which are most likely to achieve the goals set by their paymasters and which are least likely to cause reputational damage or political fallout.
First and foremost, therefore, the evaluator will be looking for the following elements: