Writing a proposal

The key to securing funding from donor institutions is a strong, well-defined proposal. Particularly in situations where causation or context are poorly understood, the strength of a proposal lies in part in its ability to show how learning and adaptation will be used to solve a problem, deliver value for money and ensure sustainability. Designing proposals to incorporate responsive feedback and facilitate adaptation will make the process significantly easier to implement once the program gets underway. 

What to do:

Prioritize projects in which uncertainty is high

  • Apply a healthy skepticism to a planned project. Ask: How confident are we that the intervention will work in just the way we expect? What assumptions are we making? What might the unknown unknowns be?
  • Take the time to work out a Theory of Change. Are we confident in all the causal links in our theory? Are there places that we need to test our assumptions?
  • Pay particular attention to parts of the program that require dealing with people as these can be especially unpredictable. Do we know that people will react in the way we want? Do they really have the incentives, beliefs, and desires that we think?
  • Consider whether projects like ours have ever failed. Do we know the reasons for that? Have these issues been satisfactorily addressed in our project?
  • Make sure you build in time to test & learn about any areas of uncertainty. And remember that areas of uncertainty are not inherently a bad thing. They can be great opportunities to learn, and spotting them early helps ensure project success.

Define goals but leave room to flex activities

  • Prescribe final outcomes but leave activities and intermediate outcomes as flexible as possible.
  • Instead of a single final outcome, consider a range of acceptable outcomes.

Build flexible budgets that demand accountability, not predictability

  • Include an inception or design phase to test approaches after which budgets will be set
  • Create budgets that give grantees room to adjust. For example:
    • Instead of rigid budgets have budget envelopes
    • Have broad budget headings with flexibility to adjust line items
    • Leave some funds unallocated.
  • Pre-define how the budget might change. Build in triggers, gates, or contingencies that specify when and how budgets can change or funds can be re allocated.
  • Create processes for budget re negotiation. Consider whether these should be planned check ins or permitted whenever necessary. Naturally the grantee must provide justification for changes. Think ahead about what sources of insight or evidence might indicate program and budget changes.
  • Build closer working relationships between program teams and finance teams so they can work together to dynamically adapt financial plans. Regular budget reviews and continuous forecasting are essential.

Make learning an explicit program component

  • Ringfence time and budget for learning as an explicit part of a program.
  • Put particular emphasis on learning in the early ‘design’ phases of a project.
  • Build in ‘Pause & Reflect’ sessions so staff can take stock of learnings and translate into action plans.
  • Ensure insight flows to all staff, not just the research team.

Use a Theory of Change as a tool for iteration

  • Take the time to write out a Theory of Change. Use it as a tool to identify areas of uncertainty where testing and iteration could be particularly fruitful.
  • Plan in time to revisit and refine the Theory of Change with the donor while the grant is still live. Have any parts of the ToC been called into question by feedback from the field? Does the ToC need to be refined?

Build in ongoing insight, not just endline M&E

  • Build closer working relationships between research and implementation teams so feedback can more readily be acted on.
  • Write into the grant feedback loops that will provide continuous insight to inform critical decisions and enable step-changes in understanding.
  • Focus on collecting data that can inform ‘decision points,’ or that can illuminate key steps/assumptions in the Theory of Change.
  • Start with the decisions staff need to make, then work backward to find data sources that can inform those decisions.

Create results frameworks to better recognize success in complex settings

  • Focus on ‘ultimate Key Performance Indicators’ (KPI) more than intermediate KPIs. Ask what the true non negotiable definition is of success. (A Theory of Change can help. What ultimate outcome are all of our activities driving to?) Then leave flexibility for the grantee in how they get there.
  • Expand the ‘success envelope’ so that an outcome viewed as successful can occur in a range of ways. Have menus of indicators, any of which may mark success.
  • Instead of pre set indicators, have ongoing monitoring of the key outcomes in play. Understand that these may change over time. This can be especially relevant to humanitarian situations when the on the ground reality is changing rapidly.
  • Recognise justified adaptation as a positive result in its own right.
  • Include inception periods after which more exact results may be specified.

Use evaluation methods that support rapid learning

  • Use evaluation methods that provide useful feedback without a full randomized controlled trial. In many cases, continuous improvement requires ‘pointers’ rather than definitive proof.
  • When evaluating results, consider whether you require a randomized controlled trial to isolate the sole effect of the intervention, or whether it is sufficient to conclude that the intervention made a positive contribution.
  • This means being open to feedback that may not take the form of traditional M&E. Consider all types of feedback such as suggestion boxes, beneficiary views, staff input, data from the field, windshield surveys, quasi-experimental methods.