Money Talk Issue 3 Proposal Writing Toolkit

Parts of a proposal

If the funder has specified what they want from you, follow their guidelines. However, if you lack information, here is a format based on what most funders say they want.

This section covers applications on paper. Many funders now want applications submitted online. While this solves a few problems, strict limits on word counts can make it frustrating to provide the information in limited space. Careful preparation in advance may help you craft the best wording with the fewest characters. You can usually cut and paste into their forms, which can also save the annoyance of having the connection to the site crash part way through filling in your submission.

The ideal proposal package contains:

1.     Cover letter 1-2 pages
2.     Title Page 1 p
3.     Table of Contents 1 p
4.     Summary 1-2 p
5.     Introduction 1-2 p
6.     Problem/Need 1-2 p
7.     Project Goals 1-2 p
8.     Methods 1-2 p
9.   Outcomes/Evaluation 1-2 p
10.  Recognition/Benefits ½ p
11.  Future Funds ½ p
12.  Budget(s) 2 p
13.  Appendices

Once you’ve put it all together, mail your proposal flat, not folded, with a paperclip, not staples, because this makes it easier if the funder needs to photocopy or scan your document to share it with their committee.

Use a neatly addressed professional looking envelope, with your return address, and proper postage. This may seem obvious, but experience shows people are either too tired or too inspired. Applications have arrived in envelopes spritzed with perfume to make them seem like personal love letters (not good in a small grant office where the staff may be in a relationship) or decorated like grade school projects.

Here’s what goes into each section.

The cover letter

The cover letter may be all that the grantor reads before deciding to say ‘no’ to your project.

Make it exciting and motivational.

Make it personal, showing that you have researched the funder’s interests.

Make it short: 1 or 2 pages. Use words as carefully as a poet.

Answer all these questions in the cover letter:

  • Who are the people the grant will help? How will the grant change one person’s life? Give that person’s name and an emotional human interest story.
  • What are the goals of the project? How do they match the grantor’s stated goals?
  • How much do you hope the donor will give?
  • How long will the project last?
  • How is this project similar to or different from others, particularly any funded by this grantor?

Who signs the letter?

This person who signs could impress the donor, or make them feel this is just another bureaucratic process. Ideally, the grantor will find it hard to say ‘no’ to this person regardless of the project. As one corporate executive said, “If my biggest customer asks me to donate to a charity, I start writing the cheque before I ask the name of the cause. I don’t care if it turns out to be underwater golf. I just want to make my customer happy.” Select influential people who could impress a politician, club member, religious leader, or another decision maker.

In priority order, the best to worst people to sign the letter are:

  • A well-known board member or friend of the ICO who is closely connected to the specific grantor
  • A person with power in the grantor’s world but not closely connected to the ICO
  • A respected business leader, union leader, clergy (depending on the grantor)
  • A celebrity, particularly if they have visited the project
  • An academic with respected credentials
  • One of your top donors, speaking donor to donor
  • A person you have helped
  • Someone inside the funder’s organization, such as an employee of the company (the more senior the better), a member of the union, a person who voted for the elected official (better yet volunteered during the campaign), a member of the flock at a place of worship, etc.)
  • The Chair of your Board (if not well known or connected)
  • The Executive Director (or whatever you call your lead staff person)
  • Fundraising staff (always the least impressive)

Title Page

This is like the cover of a book. It carries all the core information at a glance. Include the following.

  • The project name (Make it interesting! That’s part of the selling job.)
  • Start and end dates for the project
  • Contact name and co-ordinates: for your organization (and for the project, if a different person and/or location is involved). This is necessary even though it’s in your cover letter, in case the letter is not attached when your proposal gets to the granting committee.
  • The amount of money you are requesting.
  • The funder’s name (personalize the application at least by putting their name on the title page.)
  • The date you are submitting the proposal.

Table of Contents

Include a table of contents even if your proposal is only three pages long. It shows that all the important elements are there, like a checklist. It also makes it easy to find a point during a busy grant review session.

Double check it to make sure the page numbers are correct,


Cover the basic facts. Don’t say ‘we will tell you’ – tell them here. Thoroughly summarize all the important information. Make it so strong the funder is ready to approve the grant without reading further, but so interesting they want to read on.

Introduction to the ICO

Make sure the funder understands that your organization is competent, experienced, and capable of spending their money wisely. This is like a resume or curriculum vitae for the group. Include information such as this:

  • What are your ICO’s values, mission, aims and/or goals?
  • What are your activities? (This might be more than the one project.)
  • What are your main achievements?
  • What statistics document your achievements?
  • How will the people you help (or the environment) change for the better when this project succeeds?
  • Who testifies that your group is capable? Include quotes about your organization from people who are known to the funder, or at least people whose credentials will impress funders. For example:
    • People you help
    • Donors
    • Experts
    • Politicians
    • Media
    • Others similar to the grantor e.g. business leaders, teachers, nurses, unionists, clergy, etc.

The Problem or Need

Do not jump directly to the solutions. The funder may not be as familiar with the issues as you are. First, explain the problem(s) that this grant will fix.

This section must be adjusted to the grantor’s level of expertise. If they have funded many similar projects, don’t annoy them explaining the obvious basics. If they are new to this type of project, do explain the basics.

Emphasize external problems. The problem must never be that your organization does not have enough money, staff or resources. It’s about the people the grant will help, not the ICO itself. Remember the old saying “people give to people”.

Why is this problem important? There are so many problems in the world, why is this one fundamental? Do you have relevant statistics, or surveys, questionnaires or interviews with the people affected? What are the facts, and what will happen if this project is not funded? Show that you are part of a larger issue. Show that you are keeping up on the issues. Include quotes about the problem from experts, such as:

  • Media and news reports
  • University faculty and academic studies
  • Politicians
  • People affected
  • Other non-profits
  • Neutral third parties who have credibility, and expertise relevant to the problem, e.g. health care professionals, police, clergy, artists, farmers

Project Goals

Now that you have established that your organization is capable, and the problem is important, exactly what do you expect to accomplish? Note that this is not how you will do it yet; that comes next in the section on methods.

Make your goals impressive, but be realistic. You probably can’t eliminate poverty,
but you might be able to train 35% of under-employed women in a village in Malawi
to work in solar-energy production by June 2023.

Goals should always have four components:

  1. Who is affected by the program? (This can be more than the people directly helped, so for example, training 100 women to get jobs will mean their 250 children will get better educations, and the community will have solar power to run the water pump instead of the diesel generator that is expensive, prone to break down and causes pollution, which affects 1,000 people.)
  2. What measurable changes do you expect? (This will increase their income by 50% so they can buy food and their life expectancy from 45 to 65)
  3. When will it happen?
  4. How will you measure that this change is (or is not) happening?


Now that you the funder knows what you plan to do, if they give you the money, show them you have a well thought out plan on how to do it. You may not be the only ICO asking them for funds to tackle this problem. Answer the following questions:

  • What specific actions will the project use to fix the problem in the time period for which you are applying for funds?
    • Who will be helped?
    • By who? (list staff/volunteer skills or qualifications)
    • What will they do, precisely?
    • When?
    • Where?
    • Why this method and not another?
    • How will this be done?
  • What makes your approach different and better?
  • How have you adapted the methods to suit the special needs of these particular people? Have you anticipated any challenges in setting up the project? If this is the continuation of a past project, are these methods changing from the past? If not, explain how successful they are
  • What is the timeline for the project? Have you taken into account external factors such as weather, or local conflicts, or fluctuations in the price of fish? Beyond the time period for this grant, what will happen in up to five years after completion?

Monitoring, Evaluation and Outcomes

Increasingly funders are looking for data to determine if it was worth Investing in this project. Should they give you (or others) more in future? Or try something different. Will the evaluation be done by a neutral third party, for greater honesty? Show the funder you have anticipated the need for monitoring and evaluation, by showing that you plan to report on key metrics, such as:

  • What results do you expect?
  • What were the actual results?
  • If there is any variance, why?
  • How will you measure the results?
  • What is the Return on Investment (ROI) of this project?

Some funders will even provide funding for proper evaluation.

It is not enough to measure the outputs. These are merely the means to the end, not the goal itself. For example, in the following, the outputs at the top are not as important as the outcome and impact at the bottom of the list:

Goal: Prevent HIV.

Method: Funding to print brochures.

Evaluations in increasing order of importance:

  • How many brochures were printed?
    Plan: 2000. Actual 1,500. Reason for variance: Paper shortage drove up prices. How we measured: Internal count
  • How many brochures were distributed? (We’ve all seen boxes of outdated printed material in a back closet.)
    Plan: 2000. Actual 1,200. Reason for variance: People handing them out were attacked by religious leaders. How we measured: Internal report from volunteers.
  • How many were distributed to the right people?
    Plan: 2000. Actual 1,000. Reason for variance: Could not get access to the mine because it is private property. How we measured: Internal report by volunteers.
  • How many people actually read the brochure?
    Plan: 2000. Actual 750. Reason for variance: Many miners do not read Swahili. Need other languages. How we measured: Survey of Miners
  • How many changed their behaviour?
    Plan: 2000. Actual 400. Reason for variance: Condom shortage in stores. How we measured: Survey of male recipients; Reports on condom crisis from Ministry of Health and local media.
  • How much will their behaviour change?
    Plan 100%. Actual: only use condoms with prostitutes. Reason: Embarrassed to use them with their wives. How we measured: survey of women
  • How much money will be saved that can be used for other good things?
    Plan $10,000 in reduced costs for medicines. Actual: $2,500 Reason: see above. How we measured: Data from Ministry of Health, WHO, and pharmaceutical makers.
  • How long will the change last?
    Plan: Permanent. Actual 75% of the men continue to use condoms after one year. Reason: Message needs to be reinforced every pay day. How we measured: Survey of men and women.
  • How many lives will be saved?
    Plan: 2,000. Actual: 400 miners, 200 prostitutes, 200 wives. Reason: see above. How we measured: WHO estimates.
  • What is the impact of the lives saved on other people in the community, such as their partners and children?
    Plan: 6,000 children not orphaned, so able to stay in school and get good jobs. Actual: 2,500 children but unanticipated bonus in grandmothers who are able to care for 1,000 more children instead of devoting all their energy to sick kids. Reason: see above. How we measured: Stephen Lewis Foundation and WHO data.

Funders want to know:

  • How many ‘units of change’ were planned and actually achieved?
  • What was the cost per ‘unit of change’ planned and actual?
  • Can you do a test that compares two methods that might achieve the same (or better) results to discover which is less expensive per unit of change (even if it costs more overall)?

Another key question funders want answered is how the lessons learned from this project will be put to good use. How will you change your project based on this the information? How will you share it with other ICOs working on similar projects? Will you be reporting on it at an NGO conference, publish an article in a journal, or post it on a website like

Recognition or Benefits

ICOs cannot compete with hospitals or schools that offer donor walls or naming opportunities. Not all funders care about recognition, but some do, particularly if it helps them raise more funds, keep their members or shareholders happy, or get re-elected.

What creative opportunities can you provide for those who want it? Here are a few examples:

  • Prominent recognition of the donor on your website and at events
  • Exclusive reports on results for the donor
  • Souvenir swag gifts the donor can display
  • Tours of the project (usually at donor expense)
  • Signage at the project used in photos and videos shared widely
  • Thanking the donor via social media
  • Nominating the donor for an award

Future Funds

Funders are wary of projects that depend on them for additional funding over and over again. Most funders prefer not to be expected to commit to more than one-time seed funding. But they don’t want to see a project fall apart in the future if no one else funds it.

Your proposal will more likely be accepted if you can show either:

  1. This project will stand as an achievement even if no future funding is available.
  2. If additional funds after this grant are essential, you have plans for who else might donate, or how else you might you get income (for example user fees, or revenue from the sale of the fish resulting from the provision of nets).


One of the most common reasons grant applications are rejected is inadequate budget information. Funders look to the budget as evidence that you are capable of planning properly.

Include two budgets:

  1. Full budget for the whole ICO (and, ideally, an audited financial statement)
  2. Detailed budget for this project

Include both the projected costs and income.

Show all anticipated expenses, including direct project costs such as salary (and benefits), equipment, travel, printing, etc. as well as indirect costs, including a fair share of the organization’s operating costs, administration, and fundraising. Include contingencies such as rising costs.

Show all anticipated revenue, including donations and grants from various sources (usually divided into columns for received; confirmed but not received; applied but not confirmed). Funders may expect to see a contribution to the project from the ICO, which may be a combination of funds from other sources and free use of office space and equipment. Also include any concepts for earned income (such as students paying tuition, or people selling more fish).

Don’t forget any contributions of goods-in-kind, such as free food or medicine, or discounts on printing. This should show as both expense and revenue so it balances out, in case next time you have to pay for it in cash.

The best budgets include a monetary value for the time provided by volunteers. Some funders even allow this to count for matching grants!  Again, this should show as both an expense and revenue, in case you have to hire people in future.


Finally, you can attach additional information that helps make your case. These may or may not be read, though, so make sure any important information is included in the sections above.

  1. Essential Appendices

Always include the following, (unless the funder’s guidelines tell you not to do so):

  • Resumes or mini-bios of key staff, volunteers, and board
  • Financial statements for the last year – preferably audited by an accountant.
  • Lists of past grants and other funding sources (this adds to your credibility).
  1. Optional Appendices

The following may help, but if you don’t have them, don’t worry:

  • Letters of recommendation: Unless they are outstandingly good, combine several endorsements on a single page
  • Statistics
  • Details on the problem or the methods that complete the main part of the proposal
  • News clippings
  • Annual report, brochure, fact sheets
  • Strategic plan
  • Mission statement
  • Photos
  1. Dangerous Appendices
  • DVDs or other materials that cost a lot to produce and/or require equipment to watch.
  • USB memory keys or other devices that the funder might worry could carry viruses
  • Dead fish, medical waste, or other dangerous or foul materials to dramatize your proposal (Yes, it really happens!)
  • Expensive gifts that might appear to be bribes

Those are the elements that make up a good grant proposal. If you do not include them all, your chances of getting a grant are smaller. Not zero, though; a few grantors report that they funded proposals that were terribly written but for amazing projects. However, this is not a good strategy. On the other hand, many ICOs know what goes into a good proposal. Yours will stand out based on the clear writing, solid information, and outstanding projects.

Sadly, no matter how good your proposal, you might not be funded. There are far more good proposals for great projects than there is money. Only 1 to 10 percent of grant proposals are funded. Mind you 66 per cent should not even have been sent, so if yours is well researched and properly written, your odds are much better.