I've worked on 5 million dollar proposals with multiple donors (try doing the budget for that!). I was once asked to help edit a proposal that was already approved but needed to be shorter (the author nearly cried when we deleted the first 50 pages!). I've worked with people who knew exactly what the project would achieve, but had no clue how to describe it or convince others. And I've worked with people who astonished me with their language and style but had very little in the way of convincing ideas.
Over this time I've identified a lot of reasons why proposals don't succeed. Of course, number one is that the project hasn't been agreed and planned together with the donor, but not all of us are so lucky as to have a strong and supportive donor working with us as a partner to identify and design great interventions: many of us have to look around and see what funding is there, what trends are being supported, and whose mandate / funding priorities align with ours.
Let's look first at what a proposal needs to DO. If you want, take a minute and think about what the purpose of a proposal is. 'To get funds', I hear you say. Sure, that's the outcome we want, but if we go ahead with that intention only, it's a bit like deciding to rob a bank with no plan and no getaway vehicle. We need a strategy.
Know this - the proposal has to do three things and three things only - and in this order.
Firstly, you have to convince the reader / donor that there is a problem that needs to be solved. Not just that it is something that needs solving, but it is in line with their mandate and with national / regional development strategies / SDGs. That solving this problem will bring some kind of value.
Next, you have to convince them there is a solution. You have to present a plan of action that will, through your implementation, bring about the positive state.
Thirdly - and so many NGOs get this backwards - you convince the donor that you have the ability / capacity to address this - that you have the skills to do it. You will have already done this through a thorough analysis of the problem and laying out your strategy to address it - but this is the final part of the proposal where you describe your experience and capacity.
Too often, however, NGOs, as I said, get it backwards - often to the extent that they will try to persuade their donors by describing themselves first - their organisation, history, and so on. (That really belongs at the end of the proposal). And they will talk about what they 'do' - whether it's rescuing trafficking victims, training farmers or providing education for the poorest.
But when an NGO is focused on itself and its activities, it sends the wrong message. Why? Because our focus throughout has to be on the stakeholders (and not us) and on the results (not the activities) - and when we do describe our organisation it's not about 'what we do' but 'why we exist' - what is the purpose and relevance of your NGO? (And if you don't know that, you'd better take some time out to find out what that it.)
Next let's talk about how to identify a project that ticks all the boxes and will be something your donors are actually interested in.