Selling your idea to funders

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A colleague and I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to complete a proposal a few months ago. We had to deliver it the next day by 10:00am in a city three hours away. Having missed the last courier, she arrived at my house at 5:00am the next day with a thermos of coffee, a muffin, and a full tank of gas. We started our trip to hand deliver the proposal.

I have written a number of proposals, and have worked with many clients to develop proposals for their own project funders. I do not ever recall giving the advice to stay up until the wee hours, and then risk life and limb barrelling to another city to hand deliver a proposal. But it does make me wonder what advice I would give.

This article will give you a potential template to follow and some tips on proposal writing.

Template for the Proposal

The proposal is your one chance to sell an idea to your funder. They will occasionally request a meeting to discuss further, but you have to assume that the proposal is the only opportunity you have. The proposal should include enough information to communicate the idea, but not so much that the reader gets bored halfway through.

The funder may have a proposal template that you are required to use. If not, a template that I often use for proposal writing looks like this:

1. Executive Summary.

I only use this if it is a lengthy proposal. Keep it to a page or a page and a half, and use it to summarize the rest of the sections.

2. Introduction

2.1 Background. This section allows you to discuss why you are doing the project. What is the need that you are trying to meet? This is most effective if supported by research or by lessons that your agency has learned. This section should also indicate how you intend to solve this problem (i.e. the goal) and a brief statement of the project scope. For example, an immigration agency might find that newcomers have not received language training specific to their profession and have a difficult time finding employment in their field. The agency's objective is to help newcomers find jobs in their field. Its goal is to provide language training by matching foreign-trained professionals with Canadian-born professionals. The scope of the project will be to develop and deliver this program.

2.2 About Us. This section will describe your agency. The person who reads the proposal may not be familiar with your agency. You need to describe who you are, why you are the best agency to deliver this project, and describe any similar experience that you have had. Don't be modest!

3. Project Overview

3.1 Project Objective. Restate the project objective. Try to keep this to two or three lines.

3.3 Project Approach. The project approach is basically how you are going to move through the project. What will you create? What are the activities involved? Break this section down into a logical grouping of activity areas. Under each activity area, describe it in one sentence, list the major activities in bullet points, and list the key deliverables in bullet points. This will allow the funder to better understand how you are going to deliver the project and what exactly you intend to deliver (i.e. the project scope). For example, in this project there are at least four areas of activity. They are: recruiting and matching foreign and Canadian-trained professionals; developing a curriculum for the participants to follow; developing the supporting materials for the curriculum; pilot and evaluate the program. How would you describe each of these areas in one sentence? What would the key activities be? What would the key deliverables for each area be?

4. High-Level Work Plan

The work plan should reflect the areas that you identified above. Provide a start and stop date for each one. It does not have to be exact, but you should be able to give a good estimate.

Activity Related Deliverables Start Stop
1. Recruit and match Roster of participants November 1 January 31
2. Develop curriculum Curriculum November 1 December 31
3. Develop supporting materials Word lists
Learning activities
December 1 February 28
4. Pilot and evaluate program Trained professionals
Evaluation report
March 1 September 30

5. Estimated Budget

Most funders have specific budget items that they will and will not fund. They will fund staffing and materials related directly to the project, but will not fund operating costs of the agency (e.g., rent, heating). Find out what the funder will support before you submit your budget! Your budget may look similar to this:

Item Total Cost Agency Contribution Request
Staffing $75,000 $20,000 $55,000
External Consultants $25,000 - $25,000
Rent $5,000 $5,000 -
Photocopying $1,000 - $1,000
Total: $106,000 $25,000 $81,000

6. References

Including references for the agency is always a good idea, especially for a funder with whom you have not been previously involved. The references should relate to projects or work that you have done for other funders.

Some Proposal Writing Tips

I have provided you with a template for writing your proposal. The next step is making your proposal one that the funder will love! You can never be sure what the winning proposal will be, but there are a few rules of thumb that you may want to follow:

Make it interesting. The committee reviewing the proposal will probably have to read many of them. Try to make your proposal interesting to read. It will stand out above the others and keep the reviewer from falling asleep halfway through!

Use funder language (but avoid jargon). Try to use the language that the funder uses. Make your terms reflect theirs. Don't use jargon though. The person reading it may not know what you mean.

Be specific. Funders like a clear sense of what they are going to get for their money. They do not fund projects that are unclear or vague in what they are going to provide. It is like buying a car. You probably will not buy from the salesperson who says "well, we sort of give you a five-year warranty."

Make a list of the proposal requirements. If you are responding to a Request for Proposal, the funder probably has a list of the information that they want to see in the proposal. Create a list before you write the proposal to ensure that all the required information is included. I once submitted a proposal that was rejected without being read because I forgot to sign it. Believe me. I was not very popular in the office that day.


This article has given you a potential template for writing proposals and some tips to use when writing it. Proposal writing is much more of an art than it is a science, and there is no right or wrong way to write one. Don't be discouraged if your first proposal is not a masterpiece. Just keep trying. And in case you are wondering about the proposal that my colleague and I delivered by hand, we got the project!

Blair Witzel ( is a member of the Project Management Institute and a consultant with McDonnell Doane + Associates, an information management and technology firm focusing on the not-for-profit and public sectors. His work centres on managing multi-project portfolios and working with organizations to develop project management methodologies to more effectively deliver projects.

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