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.
The first step
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!
Bringing in expertise
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.
Language and style
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.
How to make your proposal shine
The following techniques can be used to make sure your proposal stands out from the pile:
Use case studies
Use case studies to illustrate your points, either from your own portfolio or from your research.
It is important to demonstrate that your work is people-focused and capturing personal testimonies can be a good way of doing this.
Write a compelling executive summary
Even if there is no specific section entitled “executive summary”, make sure that you find a way of including one.
You need a few crisp paragraphs that sum up the project’s core activities strands; the changes that they will bring about; and why your organisation/consortium is best positioned to deliver the desired impact.
Use short, concise sentences
Write in short, concise sentences that make a relevant point.
Make your narrative as focused as possible, so that the key messages don't get lost amid unnecessary noise.
Avoid repetition. Hammering home the same point again and again does not strengthen your argument. It gives the impression that you have a lack of fresh ideas.
Avoiding including material and research findings that are not necessarily relevant to the project but that are designed to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of the sector.
Pitch the idea, not the organisation
A proposal is a pitch for an idea, not a pitch for your organisation.
It is important to show that you have the experience and expertise to implement a successful project but it is advisable to keep the marketing and promotional blurb to a minimum.
Ensure coherence and continuity
A proposal is a story that needs to be told in a logical sequence. The narrative should build a comprehensive picture of the need for the project, its approach and methodology, its target groups and the techniques that will be used to evaluate impact and ensure long-term resonance.
Proposals often suffer from introducing ideas and elements without providing proper build-up or explanation.
Don’t force the evaluator to jump back and forward in the proposal in order to understand what is going on.
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.
Design and layout
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 is 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.
The golden rules for presentation
Make sure that the document is visually clear and accessible; ensure proper signposting and cross-referencing throughout.
Use the same fonts and styles for text and headings.
Use a style guide to make sure spelling and grammar follow the same rules.
Make sure the tone and writing style is consistent throughout the document.
Maintain a sequential narrative that builds on and embellishes its central premise.
Don’t use 100 words when 10 will do.
Avoid cluttering up the proposal with unnecessary elements or superfluous detail.
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.
Establish a common discipline for “mark-up”
Decide whether you are going to use margin notes, tracked changes, highlights or different font colours to denote multilateral contributions.
Avoid using a combination of these approaches or giving each contributor the freedom to use his/her preferred tools.
Copy, paste & generic content
Discourage contributors from transplanting blocks of untreated narrative from other bids or reports without making their origin clear. Generic content will need to be adapted to the purposes of the proposal.
Avoid dropping large graphics into the text at an early stage in the process. Your file size will quickly escalate making it problematic to share the document or edit it effectively on less powerful computers.
Encourage all contributors to write to length since this will avoid a good deal of wasted time in the final throes of the application process.
Reference your sources as this will:
(a) Show that you have done your background research and
(b) Demonstrate that you have a rigorous approach to scoping out your ideas and basing them on clear evidence.
Stifle any perception that “we’ve still got loads of time”. In reality, there is never enough time and, if too much is left to the last minute, the quality inevitably suffers.
Use your best writers
Finally, always use your best writers to draft the proposal.
In any organisation, there are people who can write well and there are people who cannot.
It is not a skill that everyone has.
Assess who your best writers are and encourage them to contribute, even if they do not necessarily have the right subject-matter expertise.
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:
A comprehensive understanding of the operating environment and the needs of the target groups
Make sure your rationale is based on clear research and that you can demonstrate the link between the beneficiaries’ needs and your intervention.
Adherence to programmatic goals
Quote liberally from the Terms of Reference, pulling out the keywords and phrases to underline the relevance of your response.
While donors consider that the profile and institutional track record of your organisation are important, they want to see that you can deploy sufficient resources to implement your project from the outset.
You should place considerable focus on your backstopping resources and local networks to show that deployed personnel can transition seamlessly into their roles.
Access to other stakeholders
Highlight your connections, both formal and informal, outside the core team and consortium.
You need to prove that you are capable of engaging with multiple stakeholders, including governments (where feasible) and building trust-based relationships.
If these relationships are already in place, then the viability of your project is vastly strengthened.
Use SMART principles to test your proposed objectives and outcomes.
You need to be sure that there are realistic mechanisms for tracking progress towards your goals and, ultimately, for demonstrating that a change has taken place.
Good value for money
This is not just about being cheap. It is about offering the donor the best possible return on investment (ROI).
Show that you have considered possible multiplier effects and potential for replication as well as ways of pooling resources with other media development actors.
A viable methodology that takes the risks and assumptions into account
Donors are generally risk-averse and they need to feel that implementing organisations have made informed decisions when assessing whether or not planned activities are viable.
Always explain why you have chosen these activities and not others.
A project legacy in the form of institutional and/or sectoral sustainability
Can you make a long-term difference in the allotted timeframe?
This is a tricky question to answer since, in general, the timeframes allotted by donors to their programmes are unrealistic and the potential for long-term change depends on multiple factors which are outside the project’s control.
However, the legacy should be more than an aspiration and it should not be limited to the individual level.