Most not-for-profits never lack ideas of things they could do if they had a little bit of money (or a lot). But if a call for proposals comes by it sometimes becomes clear that not all ideas are workable. Not all ideas are a full project. Some ideas might have gotten outdated or are for other reasons no longer relevant. Maybe the person who would have been perfect in implementation has left the organization. The partner with whom you planned to cooperate has closed down. The idea needs further research and the deadline of the call is too soon. Or the idea does not fit the call, really.

At the moment you need solid project ideas you may find yourself rather empty-handed.

How to be prepared?

It is helpful to have regular brainstorms with your team to collect and discuss ideas for future activities and project ideas. Make sure these brainstorms are very open: include a broad variety of team members and allow any idea to be shared.

Make sure to follow the brainstorm with a ranking process. Define criteria together with your team, and score all ideas against all criteria, in a grid. Keep all ideas. But do one step more for the ideas with the highest-ranking scores.


Discuss the highest-ranking ideas with as many of your stakeholders, target groups or beneficiaries as you can. You can do this in a community meeting (face-to-face or online, depending on who and where your community is) or through one-on-one interviews.

Make sure that you do not use these moments just to ask people for a yes for your ideas. That will have almost no meaning for you later on. Engage in a real conversation with your target groups, beneficiaries or other stakeholders about the issues they face. Ask them what they think about these issues. What are the key problems or challenges they see? Which are most pressing for them? What is important for them, what has value and what are principles and values they want to uphold? Do they see any solutions? Have they tried solving some of the issues before? How? What was the result in their view?

And only then, you share your ideas and ask them, how these could be helpful in their opinion. Ask them how these ideas could be improved upon. Do they know other people who might be able to assist in making these ideas better, more practical or more helpful for the targeted community?


Pick one or two ideas that your target groups, beneficiaries or other stakeholders found helpful to elaborate. What insights and information did your interviews or your meetings yield? How can you incorporate these? What further research is needed or what additional information needs to be collected? Do all this as soon as possible after your meetings or interviews.


Make for each idea a short outline, on one or two pages, with all information you collected. Highlight:

  • Activities (including budget indication)
  • Outputs
  • Results
  • Objectives
  • Impact
  • Relevance to the targeted group(s) and beneficiaries
  • Key stakeholders
  • Key sources of information about the issues (to check up-to-date information as well as sources you can refer to in an application)
  • Key people to involve or consult for proposal development or implementation

Keep these outlines ready in case you meet a possible funding partner or see a call for proposals.


Regularly check if your outlines are still valid. Are these ideas still relevant to your target groups, beneficiaries or other stakeholders? Are these still the most important, urgent ideas? What developments should be taken into consideration in case these ideas could be implemented? (such as technological developments, new legislation, lessons learned, new stakeholders or partners to work with, etc.)

Does this work?

All this seems like a lot of work for no concrete reason. Because you do all this at a time when there is no concrete possibility to raise funds for any of the ideas developed. However, having a few good ideas at the ready that are relevant and supported by your community, whoever they are, and that come from within a wider team in your organization is very practical. Because this way you, and anyone else on your team, are ready at any moment when you do meet a potential funding partner. Or when one asks you for a proposal at short notice.

In the past years, I have experienced several times how useful it is to have different ideas to choose from when you are asked to prepare a proposal in two or three days or within a week. Without having ideas almost ready-made it would have been impossible to make a proper proposal within such a deadline. Especially a quality proposal that actually meets a need of your target community.

Help needed?

If your organization is small or not much experienced, feel free to ask me for a quick reflection on your draft ideas. I am happy to help.

Check out my Ten Tips for Clever Project Budgets here (free download).

In August, I will reopen my online course on Project Design. If you want to be among the first to know, subscribe to my weekly updates here.