When you start writing project proposals for organizational donors, you will notice that each of them has their own structure for how they want you to organize your ideas on paper. You may not always enjoy their way of structuring your proposal. It may sometimes seem you are answering the same question more than once. While you cannot find a place for some of what you want to share. But let’s look at it from a little distance. How can a structure help you?

Common elements

The first thing you will start noticing is that all different formats and templates share some common elements.


All donors want to know what the impact of your activities will be. What the stakeholders and target groups concerned think about your plans. How are you engaging them in your work? How is your plan relevant to the donor, what is the shared interest or value?

The basics

And of course, all donors want to know the basics: what will you be doing, when, and how? What will be the outputs and results of the activities? How many people will you reach? And how much will that cost? How can the donor know you are capable of achieving what you promise? How will you yourself keep track of what has been done and achieved?

The what if’s

The final block of common elements focuses on what if-questions. Not all donors ask for this explicitly. But all of them are interested in knowing what you will do in case of abc happening or not happening. What will you do if there is a second wave of COVID-19? How will you make sure personal data stay safe? What if someone leaves your team? What if another donor decides to no longer fund you? How robust is your organization and how flexible are your plans?

Checklist for common elements

The good thing about common elements is, you can prepare yourself for them. You can easily make a checklist for yourself with all the issues I highlighted. Whenever you start thinking of a project idea, you can check your list and make sure you have thought of all the building blocks donors would like to hear about.

Test run

To be sure that your checklist is complete, you can test it out with your team on a rough project idea you have. See if there is something you desperately want to share that is not part of your checklist. You can add it to your checklist.

Test pitch

The best test of your idea, your team and your checklist is of course to try and present your idea. Ask each of your team members to present the chosen idea in a short presentation of say, maximum, one or two minutes. Make sure everyone else is listening carefully (instead of thinking of their own presentation coming up soon). Let everyone note down what they liked about the presentation. After everyone has presented, make a list of the strong points you all noted. Then make a joint pitch, including these strong points.

Test audience

Try out the ideal pitch you developed with your team on one or more real persons, individually or as a small focus group. Listen carefully to what they say: what do they like, what is clear to them? What do they feel during the pitch? And after? What are their questions?

Who is your donor?

You may have noticed that I started out speaking about common elements in organizational donor formats and forms. And now I am suggesting you should develop a short pitch and try it out on real people, who are not organizational donors. You may think I have gone mad. But no! It really is true that in order to obtain donations from private individuals, you can make use of the same building blocks that make up official donor formats and forms.

It is all about values and dreams

Remember, private individual donors have their own values, dreams, and needs that they hope to fulfill through your work. They are basically looking for the same type of information as organizations providing grants. Of course, they do not want to receive (or listen to) pages and pages of text and excels. You need to convince them in a short presentation, that you deliver at an event, in a video message, or in a short text that you e-mail or share on Facebook. Or whatever other platform suits them best.

All donors are people and that is where it starts

If you can condense your story and tell it plain and simple to normal people, you can be sure you can also write it out in detail in a manner suitable to an organization who is looking to provide grants to achieve their aims and dreams.

So how can a structure help you?

Once you are familiar with the building blocks of a proposal structure, the structure can help you make sure you think through your idea very carefully. It will help you be sure your idea makes sense, really. Not just to you. But to your team, your stakeholders and target groups. And to your donors, whether they are organizations or individuals. And the structure will help you present your idea in the best possible way. Finally, being aware of the building blocks of your project structure will help you make all your communications to external parties relevant to them, whether or not you are concretely asking for support at that moment.

Want to know more and ask questions?

Then join my Facebook group how to become a professional and resilient nonprofit with Suzanne Bakker here. In this group we will create a safe space for open exchange and discussion on potentially sensitive topics like boards, nonprofit management, fundraising, etc.