Ten Tips for Writing a Winning Proposal
Updated: Jul 1, 2022
Your first step into the business development process may be more like a giant leap. Stepping into a new world, it's important to remember that even if you're a great writer, writing a winning proposal is a different beast entirely.
Writing a winning proposal means more than just a good idea! You'll need a strategic, focused, and compelling argument that explains your good ideas to a panel of reviewers in a way that speaks to what they want to find and why you are the organization to deliver results. As you prepare to write your proposal, keep the following points in mind.
1. Don't write! (yet)
It can be tempting to start in on a proposal as soon as possible. A short timeline and a little guidance from the donor, and you may think you're all set. But wait. You'll want to do a lot of thinking, organizing, and planning before you actually begin writing a proposal.
2. Outline everything
Start by developing a detailed outline, showing each of the sections, how much space is allocated to each section. You'll want to break it down using any templates and evaluation criteria the donor has shared. If you have a sub-heading aligned to every piece of the evaluation criteria, it will ensure you don't miss anything and that your reviewers can find what they're looking for.
3. Think about visuals early
There is nothing worse in proposal writing then deciding at the last minute that a certain page needs a chart or graphic to explain a key concept and having to cut content to meet a page limit. Start this process early on, by building on your outline and setting aside space for appropriate visuals. This also helps your team think strategically about what visuals might be helpful to develop a winning proposal.
4. Write with your reviewers in mind
Speaking of those reviewers, you want every piece of the proposal to be written with them in mind. Who are they? Are they technical experts or lay people? What do they care about the most? Develop a profile of who your reviewer is, so you can refer back when questions arise.
5. Keep your argument clear
The best way to create a compelling proposal is to be very explicit about the problems your proposal seeks to address, and why you've chosen the specific strategy you lay out. Give evidence to support the specifics of the problem, demonstrating the specific issues that your project will address are a real problem affecting your target population. Be explicit about the linkage between the specific activities your proposal outlines and what problem they address.
6. Use donor language
It doesn't matter if your organization has a specific term to explain something you do if your donor doesn't understand it. The easiest way around this is to use the precise language that your donor uses. Look to any donor guidance, the donor's website, or correspondence with the donor to ensure that you're using terms in ways that they will recognize. Anything that doesn't appear in their language? Either it's not important to them, and you shouldn't include it, or you're really going to have to explain the concept.
7. Throw some shade
If you know what other organizations are going to be competing with your group on this proposal, throwing them a little bit of shade is not out of the question. Just don't be too obvious about it. If you know, for example, that their last project had some management issues, spend time in your proposal talking about the importance of sound management and your organization's internal control mechanisms.
8. Be explicit about your strengths
A proposal is no place to be shy about what makes your organization great. Spell it out in the clearest terms, highlighting exactly what makes you the best. There's no need to be hyperbolic, but be clear about why your organization is best placed to do this work.
9. Check your spelling
There is no excuse in professional writing for a spelling or grammar mistake. Writers should not be expected to edit their own writing, so ask someone else within your organization (or hire an outside editor) to be sure that you don't have any embarrassment.
10. Don't make a fatal error
Presenting a beautiful proposal that misses a core piece of the evaluation criteria will mean all your efforts were in vain. No proposal should ever be submitted without allowing an outsider who did not write it review the full proposal against the requirements. Look for silly sticky points, like formatting requirements, page limits, and deadlines. You never want to miss out because of a silly mistake.
How are you going to apply these ten techniques when you write your next proposal?