‘If you want to be terrific, be specific’

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In one of my first bid drafts, I wrote extensively about the political context, details of the importance of the programme for the community, and the critical need for these services.

Despite what I thought was a solid proposal, full of detailed analysis and important insights from my experience, my development manager wrote me back with a critical review. Pointing to a lack of well-targeted data in my work plan and budget, she wrote: ‘If you want to be terrific, be specific.’

This is, perhaps, the best advice I’ve received in bid writing and is also, perhaps, the hardest to learn in practice.

Proposal writing and a change of perspective

In my experience, for many programme staff, writing bids requires not only learning new skills, but also changing the way in which we look at our work.

We often look at programmes from an on-the-ground perspective: we see people, not numbers, and important changes, rather than indicators and outputs. We are concerned with implementing policies and programmes that affect real-life change and work tirelessly to serve communities. We do this not because of some accounting notion of ‘effectiveness,’ but rather because we know the real-life impact that our programmes have and how they will improve lives and reduce suffering.

The experience and passion evident in this viewpoint is incredibly important to the work, of course, but it also can make it difficult to see a programme in terms that are appealing to donors in the context of a proposal format. As programmes face the realities of a challenging and competitive funding context, it is critical for those working on the ground – who know the needs, context, and opportunities best – to help to craft winning proposals so that the critical work can be continued and funded in a sustainable way.


Seeing the benefits of bid writing

In working with programme staff on proposals, I often see the same problem that I had with my own draft: it is hard to focus on details like measureable outputs and tedious budget requirements when the larger context and important problems to be solved are seemingly more important. Given the severity of the problems that programme staff are facing and the real-life struggles they are trying to solve, the proposal writing process seems like a bureaucratic hurdle, taking away time that could be spent on the real and critical on-the-ground work.

Moving from a programme-oriented role to the role of a consultant and manager with non-profit organisations, however, has helped me to understand the utility of proposal writing as well.

As I have found, thinking in this detailed way can also help to shed light on details that can help improve the programmes and how sometimes limited resources are allocated. Writing a solid budget and work plan also provides a critical overview of what, specifically, programmes are doing to effect change and how particular funding can help them to deliver their mission with enhanced power and scope.

This overview can help programme staff to better understand both the strengths of their programmes and what can be improved. As we often discuss in our trainings, it is important to start with the dreaded budget and work plan rather than later try to shape one based on a narrative section. Pinning down these details – while sometimes tedious – really does help to make the narrative specific, actionable, and relevant, thereby enhancing the strength of the programme.

So, therefore, with a bit of a change in perspective – and some training in how to write proposals – it is possible to use the proposal writing process as a way to build on the expertise developed on the ground, rather than take away time that could be spent engaging in programme work.

Dr. Alexandra Yannias Walker

Project Manager at MzN International