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Fundraising Fundamentals, Section 11.4


Proposal Writing

Fundraisers must regularly write convincing proposals to trusts, foundations, corporations and high-net-worth individuals.

Many of these audiences will have a standard format that you must follow. If they do not, this section provides detail on what you might include.

Regardless of the audience or format, the principles of proposal writing are the same:

  • Know your donor. Be thorough in your research and clear in your presentation to demonstrate that you know what the donor’s priorities are and how these align with your institution.
  • Make a strong case for support. Your opening statement should be a short summary of your project, its importance and what support you need to make it happen— i.e., problem, solution and donor’s opportunity to make an investment in your institution because your institution is best suited to solve the problem because of x, y, z. Elaborate in the proposal.
  • Grab their attention. Most proposals are sent to very busy people and risk not being read. To attract attention, consider the physical characteristics of the proposal, the title and your leading statements. They need to stand out. Even small details, such as placing your logo and the audience’s logo or name on the cover, will psychologically link the two for the reader. Also think about how you will present the final proposal – how the pages will be bound and fall open, the quality of paper, if you will use a folder, what electronic format you will use to ensure the reader can open it, etc.
  • Use images and graphics effectively. Images must add something to the narrative or to the overall atmosphere of the piece. A picture, image, diagram or quotation can have several purposes: to illustrate a complex point, to catch the eye, to stave off boredom of reading blocks of text, to serve as a symbol or to serve as punctuation if you have a long document and want to provide stopping-off points for the reader. Write all your text first, and then see where images might be useful to explain the text or increase aesthetic appeal. Remember to be culturally sensitive about images. Focus on people rather than on static buildings.
  • Use appendices. Appendices are a great way to keep proposals concise (e.g., so you are not listing all staff members in a proposal). However, only add appendices if they contain material that you think people will actually read and that is of direct relevance to the main proposal.
  • Include a covering letter. Do not treat your covering letter as an afterthought, but put as much effort into it as you have into the proposal. This letter is the first thing the prospect will read. This is also a place to recognize and appreciate any previous support or interaction with the audience (e.g., thank you, Foundation X, for your past support of y and the programme officer’s invaluable guidance).
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. Be ruthless in your editing and get your main points across quickly and clearly. Perfect spelling and excellent grammar are important. Do not rely on your computer's spelling and grammar checker. It will not pick up on other country spellings, homonyms, mis-spelt proper names, or misused/mis-keyed words like at when you meant to write it. Make sure you check, not only the body text, but also the titles, captions, graph contents, etc.
  • Engage another perspective to see if you are making sense. When you are writing a proposal it can be difficult to distance yourself from the contents and take an objective view of the document's clarity or persuasiveness. You need to ‘sense check’ your proposal. Are there any inexplicable jargon words, confusing acronyms, unreferenced quotations or claims or sweeping assumptions about the reader’s pre-existing knowledge? Is the proposal interesting? Is it laid out well with appropriate illustrations, diagrams and quotations? It can help here to ask someone with no technical knowledge in the field to read it. If that person can’t understand it, chances are the reviewer won’t either. It is also useful to do an ethics check. Have you represented your evidence and claims accurately or are you guilty of any over-exaggeration or using information without appropriate recognition of a third party?
Getting Organised

When you are getting started, pull together and organise what you already know about your fundraising project and the proposal recipient and work out where you have gaps in your information. Things to consider are:

  • Project description. What is it? Why is it important? What does it look like? How will it happen? What are its unique characteristics?
  • Why your institution? What makes you unique? Why are you qualified to do this?
  • Beneficiaries. Who are the project stakeholders? How will they benefit?
  • Project costs. Have any funds already been secured? If so, from whom?
  • Giving history of recipient. You should acknowledge the funder's previous generosity when asking for more.
  • Timeframe. Is this a quick results project or one that will take years to prove its worth?
  • Sustainability. Is this a long-term initiative? If so, how will it be funded in the future?
  • External endorsements/independent evidence. It is worth looking for an independent endorsement of what you are trying to achieve. These endorsements lend weight to your arguments.
Planning and Writing the Proposal

Planning your proposal helps you to organise information in a logical sequence, include everything in the right place, avoid duplication and keep a tight grip on your argument. If your audience has not provided you with a standard format, use the headings or sections, which are common in most proposals:

    • Title page. Title, logo, image, recipient’s name/logo, date.
    • Executive summary. Needs to be short, sharp and to the point to hook the reader’s attention. Avoid jargon, long sentences, acronyms and unsubstantiated claims such as ‘We are the best in the world’.
    • The goal. Outline the project’s background. Define the goals and objectives, the beneficiaries, the problems the project will solve and the wider societal context of the project.
    • The project. What are the main issues it will tackle? How will it do this? What are the key activities?
    • Expected results. What are the expected short- and long-term results? Make sure you include realistic results, since you will be reporting on these if you receive funding.
    • Location and time scales. Where will it take place? Where are the beneficiaries located? How long will it take and how soon can you start? What is your schedule? What are the key milestones? (Graphical project plans can be useful here.)

Resources and sustainability.

    What has already been invested? What is still needed (e.g., finances, human resources, equipment, marketing materials, infrastructure)? Have you had any in-kind support or do you need any? What are your volunteer resources? How will you sustain this project in the future?
  • Financials. What is the overall budget? Does it include taxes? How have you worked out the costs? What funds do you already have? What will happen if you don’t get the funds? Collaborate with the finance office to get the proper information. This section should be more than a spreadsheet: include some explanatory text.
  • The institution. Describe your organisation and why it is capable of delivering this project. Talk about track record, skills, capacity, existing partners, access to beneficiaries.
  • Project team and leadership. Who will be implementing this project? Who is the institution's leadership?
  • Risk management. What are the risks and how will you minimise them?
  • Monitoring and evaluation. How will you know if you have been successful? How will you keep track of expenditure and progress against milestones? How will your evaluations be reported? What happens if something goes wrong?
  • The ask. Throughout your proposal you will have talked about the need for support for your project. Now you need to make the direct ask (e.g., a financial contribution of x will achieve the a, b, c of this project). If you have done your research, you should have a good idea of the prospect’s capacity to give and will be able to pitch your request at the right level. If unsure, you might want to consider providing funding options at different levels. These should be genuine options. Don't just sandwich your desired option between two options that have been made up, or you run the risk of being underfunded or funded for an option you didn’t really want to pursue.
  • Contact details. These should be personal, not just the generic office contact details. It is often useful to list more than one contact. Include a web address. Make sure the website is up-to-date, or a donor will be put off.
  • Appendices. If you have information that supports the proposal but does not neatly fit into the body of the text, you can place that material in appendices. However, few people actually read them unless they are cross-referenced in the main proposal.
  • Inside covers/Back cover. This often neglected space could be used for another image, fact file, letter from the vice-chancellor, or other data.

Other useful things to include:

  • Footnotes. For referencing publications, quotes, sources for additional information, page numbers.
  • Sidebars. For adding facts, case studies, external endorsements. Also useful for breaking up large areas of text.
  • Headers and footers. Consider a running header or footer that reinforces a key message.
Tidying up Loose Ends

Your proposal is now with your prospect. Make sure that you put an electronic copy on the prospect's database record, that any relevant colleagues have seen a copy and that you have created a reminder to follow up the proposal with further contact.

Action Items
  • Before writing the proposal, thoroughly research and organize information so that you are best tailoring the proposal to the format and priorities of that audience.
  • After writing the proposal, don’t underestimate the value of the presentation, proofreading, engaging another person to review and following up after the proposal is submitted.

You Might Also Want to Read:

Cultivation of trusts and foundations
Cultivation of corporations
Leave behinds and printed materials
The case for support
What to measure and what to report


    CASE provides products about proposal writing (such as Writing Grant Proposals That Win and The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants, available through the CASE online store), as well as writing and editing tips, to help you further.