How to write a successful proposal

Donors are like you and me: they are busy people, and often don’t have enough time to thoroughly review all the applications they receive. If you make their work easier, you will greatly increase your chances of catching their eye, by following these simple steps:

  • Select the right donor

Sending the same proposal to any donor you hear about won’t work. The first step is to thoroughly research available donors and to build up a simple document (it can be an excel sheet!) containing a list of donors most relevant for your organisation (ex. those that share the same overall vision and objectives) with basic information, such as type of donor, website, thematic priorities, whether a call is open, until what date, maximum amount that can be requested, specific requirements, contact person, etc.

  • Follow the rules

Each donor has their own rules for applications: some request a letter of interest without a specific format; others ask that you download specific documents on their website and fill them in; and others use an online form. It is important to take the time to understand and follow their instructions, because if you don’t, your proposal won’t even be read!

  • Read the guidelines!

We know that reading the guidelines in detail for each donor that seems relevant to your organisation can be time-consuming, but it is an essential step. Each donor has thematic priorities, budget limitations and other specificities … Adapt your project for each one! This is not about developing a new project for each donor, but about adapting it. Focus on the elements of your organisation’s work that correspond to the donor’s priorities, and don’t request funding for elements they don’t support.

  • Be clear

Your reader most likely doesn’t know the context and the challenges that your organisation is trying to address. Explain the problem clearly, why it is happening, what solution(s) you are suggesting and why these will be successful. Avoid jargon and acronyms, or at the very least spell them out the first time you reference them in your document!

  • Be specific

Avoid vague formulations such as “increasing capacities,” or “empowering communities.” What is it exactly that you want to change? Which situation do you want to influence, and how will you do so? What activities are you going to carry out, and why is your organisation best suited to do this work? This is what your reader needs to understand, and if the information isn’t easily and clearly available, they will not take a second look at your proposal.

  • Answer the questions

More often than not, donors have a form they expect you to fill in. It may have limitations, regarding the number of words or characters for each section, for example. Read the questions carefully and answer them directly, without including extra information! And if the application process requires an annex, send it, but don’t include all the documentation you have about your organisation in an attempt to impress – if you do, quite the opposite is likely to happen.

  • Build a solid budget

Proposals almost always include a budget, and it is often a major aspect that donors review when assessing a proposal. Make sure the budget is coherent with the narrative proposal, doesn’t contain any calculation errors, clearly reflects all proposed activities, and includes all the necessary support costs. Again, check the guidelines of each donor carefully, as some costs may not be eligible and including them could lead to the immediate dismissal of your proposal. And most importantly, absolutely avoid trying to “hide” non eligible costs in other sections!

  • Sustainability

Are you asking for a one-off donation or continuous funding? How will the project continue, if applicable, when the funding you are requesting stops? Do you have some other sources of funding? Donors like to know that their money will be a strategic investment, with results that will go beyond the funding period. Although this is not always easy to prove, try to include some elements of sustainability in any proposal you write.

  • Synergies

Donors love seeing organisations collaborate to reach their goals. Explain how your organisation coordinates with other actors; the steps your organisation takes to ensure other initiatives are taken into account, so that duplications are avoided; and highlight any elements that show that you are actively part of networks and other forms of collective action.

  • Impact

As can be expected, donors like to get the best possible “return on investment;” in social terms, this means having the biggest possible impact at the most reduced cost. For this reason, it is essential to clearly define the impact you are aiming for through your project. You can take a look at our previous post about this topic, and remember, “145 people have attended a training session” does not imply an impact!

  • Work as a team

Above all, don’t write a proposal alone! Involve operational staff, finance people, your colleagues who have been working on similar projects or who might have bright innovative ideas… And once the proposal is written, try to get it read by someone who doesn’t know the context at all. If they can understand what you are talking about, chances are the donor will too!

  • Meet the deadline

Don’t send your proposal in late! And allow ample time for review and corrections, but also for last-minute disasters such as an internet connection crash or computer problems. Most donors won’t even read your application if you send it late. And if a specific time is mentioned, make sure you check what time zone they are in!

  • Try getting feedback

Was your proposal not shortlisted? Don’t be discouraged, this happens often, even when proposals are strong. Donors are often inundated with hundreds of proposals and only have limited funding to allocate. Try to see this as a learning opportunity. You’d be surprised at how many donors are ready to give feedback on why your application wasn’t selected. Some have scoring systems and will give you your marks if you ask for them. See where you came up short, and put more effort into improving these aspects the next time!

For more inspiration, you can also see the points developed in this document.

And remember, even if you follow all these tips, you might not win a grant the first time you apply; this is normal as there are hundreds of non-profits out there trying to access the same funds! Be patient and determined, your time will come!


Rev simon kago – 28 January, 2019

i’m happy for your help.

Celia – 11 February, 2019

Thank you for your commment, we are happy to hear you find this piece useful!

Namutunzi Rose – 25 November, 2020

I am glad to be part of your work!

Wycliffe Omondi – 4 September, 2020


Celia – 17 September, 2020

Dear Wycliffe, thank you for your message. You can find information on available grants on specialized websites, such as, or similar ones according to the field you work in. Good luck!

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About the author


Camaleo is a non-profit organisation that offers high quality consultancy services to social entities, regardless of their size and resources.

Social entities, especially the smaller organisations, work very closely with their beneficiaries. Camaleo’s aim is to support them so that they can obtain donors’ trust, progress towards financial sustainability and manage their programmes in the most efficient way possible.

Camaleo was founded by third sector professionals, each with over ten years experience in development, humanitarian aid and social action. After several years of collaborating in the field, and of sharing their experiences, challenges and concerns about the future of the sector, they decided to create Camaleo, a non-profit organisation, to support social entities and projects. Camaleo is a cooperative and social project, open to all professionals whose objective is to increase social organisations’ impact.