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A strategic approach to proposal writing

Updated: Feb 20

There is nothing more disheartening than putting the time and energy into a proposal and then being rejected. Or even worse, not hearing back from a funder at all.

Many researchers I’ve spoken to over the years have told me how low success rates of applications have led to increasingly low morale for their team and a negative mindset about fundraising. Below, I share  some tips that I’ve gathered over years of experience in the field. They can be implemented today to help increase the impact of your proposal and your chances of success.

Show strategic alignment 

Ensure that your proposal aligns with your organization’s vision and mission, and that your pathway to impact is clearly stated on your website and other digital platforms. If there is misalignment, it might be worthwhile to revisit your vision and mission (see our template here), as well as your theory of change (see our template here). This not only ensures coherence in your communications but also solidifies the foundation for your website's messaging and brand direction. Remember, fundraising is about the exchange of funding for impact, so being explicit about your pathway to impact is crucial.         

Critically, you need to show how the proposed work aligns to the donor’s strategy. If you are unsure about the alignment, and this isn’t clearly stated on the funder website, reach out to them via email to clarify or to set up a call to ask questions.      

Consider your project design            

Before diving into proposal writing, start with an activities framework [link]. This process helps break down the project into clear objectives, activities, outputs, and outcomes. This framework speaks the language of fundraising and provides the necessary logic for your proposal. Ensure that your core partners agree on the basic design logic before the writing begins, especially if multiple contributors are involved. This prevents the proposal from becoming disjointed and unfocused and streamlines the proposal development process.          

Develop a thoughtful budget   

Developing a budget is tedious but essential. Always prepare your budget as if it will be approved. Having this positive mindset ensures that you develop a cohesive budget that takes into account all of your project costs. Underestimating costs can lead to significant challenges in executing your project and can affect the sustainability of your research. A well-justified budget builds confidence in the reviewers that you have taken the process seriously.       

Select the right partners

Develop strategic partnerships well ahead of proposal writing. This reduces stress and minimizes the risk of collaborating with incompatible partners. For instance, if you're targeting European funding, start by reaching out to potential partners in the region who have aligned interests. This approach enables you to identify compatible co-applicants for future proposals, well ahead of the proposal writing crunch.       

Be impeccable    

Pay close attention to the administrative details of the proposal. Begin by listing all requirements, including word count, font specifications, CVs, letters of support, and other supporting documents. Draft the letters of support and circulate them for edits and signatures as early as possible. Once the technical aspects are finalized, have another team member or a professional editor review the proposal to eliminate any errors and resolve layout issues before submission. Where possible, have a dedicated project manager for the duration of the application period that manages these administrative requirements and keeps you on track.  

Adopting a strategic approach to your future proposals can transform your fundraising efforts, leading to higher success rates in securing valuable research funding.       

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