Top ten tips for a winning application

Periodically when reviewing proposals and concept notes, I make a mental note to write a short post on some dos and don’ts of proposal writing. I’ve done it before, but is strikes me that it’s about time for an updated list. As a caveat, I don’t pretend it’s objective or exhaustive, but it might be something that potential applicants would find of use when applying to us (or others). So…


  • Follow the guidance: Many organisations provide guidance on how and when to apply and what to include. It’s been put there to help potential applicants decide whether to apply and how to go about it. Disregarding that advice may result in a wasted application or extra work further down the line. So, if the guidance asks for a two-page application and you send a 20-pager, chances are you’ve given yourself an extra 18 pages’ worth of work and may have slowed down the process for you and others.
  • Think about your audience: Different funders have different ways of working and what works for one might be completely inappropriate for another. A volunteer-run organisation, for example, may have less time to dedicate to reviewing proposals than one that is well staffed. Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself what you would want to know in their situation and how you would want to be approached by a potential applicant.
  • Consider formats: A personal bugbear, but I don’t like PDFs. Many of us use this format, though, because it looks more professional – more like an official, published document. True, but PDFs often don’t lend themselves well to copying and pasting. If I’m summarising ten proposals ahead of a meeting, I sometimes like to copy and paste parts of a proposal, e.g. lists of expected outputs or metrics. PDFs slow down the process. And PDF versions of budgets are a nightmare to copy and paste. Of course, if a funder’s guidance says ‘please apply in PDF format’, then you should disregard this point.
  • Check before you send: Whether you do this yourself or get a friend or colleague, re-reading your application before submitting could make a big difference. Make sure that what you’ve written is clear and readily understandable to someone who may not know your organisation or the minutiae of the problem you are trying to solve.
  • Accept rejection well: Nobody likes to be turned down, but it is unfortunately a common aspect of everyday life. The reality – certainly at Indigo – is that the majority of proposals will be turned down for a whole range of reasons. Certainly, if you think your proposal has been misunderstood please feel free to say so. But don’t – as someone recently did to me – send an email response entitled ‘F*ck you’. No one likes a sore loser!


  • Send us everything: When I see a proposal in my inbox with more than two or three attachments my heart sinks. Unless we specifically ask for supporting documents, e.g. registration certificates or annual reports, don’t feel obliged to send it. Chances are we will never get around to reading it and it might delay your application.
  • Copy verbatim: When preparing a proposal, many people want to show that they ‘speak the same language’ as a funder, but don’t take this too literally. I have seen instances where whole chunks of text have simply been copied from web pages or blog posts that we have written in an attempt to convince us that we think along similar lines. Rather, what it shows to me is either a rushed application or a not-so-subtle attempt to get us onside. Either way, it doesn’t inspire confidence.
  • Muddle your figures: As a funder of projects across Africa we recognise that applicants may want to apply to us in their local currency or perhaps a larger currency like US dollars. We’re not particularly bothered which currency you want to apply in, but please be consistent. It’s surprisingly common for applicants to muddle their currencies and end up applying for vastly more (or greatly less) than they had originally intended.
  • Include us in round robin emails: Occasionally, we’ll receive applications sent as part of a round robin. We won’t fund them. There’s nothing wrong in approaching multiple funders with the same proposal, but do it the right way. A little bit of effort to tailor and personalise an application at this stage could pay dividends later on. A proposal that starts ‘dear all’, however, is unlikely to be seriously considered.
  • Give up: Just because you’ve been unsuccessful with one or two funders does not mean that your organisation or project is poor. It may be that it’s not the right fit for a particular funder or that it’s not what they’re looking for right now. But if you have a strong organisation and a good proposal, persevere and carry on.

The image used to accompany this post is courtesy of GotCredit (CC BY 2.0).