We all know writing winning project proposals is not a simple trick. There is no such thing as a 100% success rate in this. (not that I have seen in more than 25 years at least) But there are some things you can make sure to do and have that will help increase your chance of success. So, what are ingredients for a good project proposal? Here are my 6 tips for you – with two extra tips at the end!

Easy to read and understand

The first thing is to make sure your text is easy to read, for the person at the other end. Align your (technical) language to that of the donor you are addressing. So, use words they use, too. And avoid difficult technical words they are not using or may not be as familiar with as you are.

Tip: ask someone else to read the text and to tell you honestly how it reads to them.

Link to the donor’s dreams

First and foremost a donor will try to understand whether what you are proposing is in fact what they are looking for. Are you going to make their dreams or priorities a reality? It is your job to make sure that what you are proposing is in line with what they want (if not – don’t prepare this proposal!). And it is also your job to make sure they can easily see and feel that. If they don’t feel that, they will not bother with your proposal.

Tip: make sure to reference a publication from the donor related to the topic or focus of your proposal. Use the words they use in writing about your topic.

Strong project design

Most important of all is of course that your four main building blocks are designed properly and are consistent with each other. If your idea is not relevant to the community you plan to serve. Or if the results do not logically follow from the activities. If you have no system for collecting information about the progress of the project. And if the budget is a mess …. All that will make any donor hesitate. Especially if the building blocks seem disconnected. For instance. if you have items in your budget that do not seem linked to your activities. Or if you are monitoring indicators that are not relevant to the project’s success.

Tip: map out your design in visual blocks with arrows in between on a piece of paper. Or ask an outsider to read it and to tell you if it makes sense.

Follow the format & instructions

Each donor has their own instructions and format. Make sure you read the instructions carefully and follow them to the letter. Perhaps it looks trivial to you, but the donor probably has a reason (and a certain negative experience in the past) for certain requirements. For instance, about font, maximum number of words, format of documentation, etc.

Tip: make a checklist of the key instructions and ask someone to check at the end if you have followed all of them correctly.

Add all attachments but not more

Each donor may ask for different attachments. Some donors ask you to send all details with the initial application. While others will ask for specific documents only further on in the selection process. You may need to reserve some time to collect all required documents. For instance, you might need to prepare a document to be signed by your board members. Or you might need to request a certain confirmation from authorities or from the bank.

Tip: check the list of attachments required first and start planning for preparation and collection of these documents straightaway.

Make it look good

Of course, no donor expects you to hire a professional designer for your project proposal. (OK, I take that back, I know some that do. But this is certainly not a standard expectation). Nevertheless, it is good to make sure your proposal looks good. Make sure the font used is the same throughout. Make sure there are clear headers. Add visuals where you can, especially on the front page. Key is to make sure that how it looks will not distract the reader from enjoying the content.

Tip: once you are done with the text, zoom out in your word document or choose a print preview that shows you different pages side by side. That will give you a quick overview of how your document looks.

My key tips

  • Take time to carefully read and analyze instructions and application format for the call for proposals you are responding to. Do this together with your team members.
  • Make sure you have some time between finalizing your proposal and the deadline for submitting it. So that you can take time to look at your analysis and checklist and see if you followed everything properly. And so that you have time to ‘repair’ omissions or mistakes.

Want to know more and ask questions?

If you want to discuss this more – jump into the Facebook group and get input from a wide range of peers and from myself!

Here is how you can join my free Facebook group

You can join my free 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.