Writing project proposals: bridging funder-grantee expectations

22 January 2024

We know that it is good to fund southern organisations directly, as those living in the context that needs change are best placed to work out the solutions. Even though this might sound obvious, it is shocking to see that most funding goes to the global north (see Enrique Mendizabal’s recent article: Local research for local problems – who gets the money?)

There are many challenges that help explain why funders don’t fund the South directly. Namely, funders don’t know how to identify actors that haven’t gotten enough attention. There is sometimes concern about the financial absorption and management capacity. And funders are, most of the time, risk averse. 

On top of this, some organisations from the Global South face related challenges. For example, their proposals don’t get selected because they don’t write as northern organisations, or they don’t have the resources for the copy editing functions that big northern consultancies have. Then there is international development jargon that leaves many out of the game. 

Many times, there is a misunderstanding about what is needed, or a difficulty to meet the demands of a call for proposals, including how a specific topic is understood, what is meant by certain concepts, what is expected under a theory of change, and so on.

If you’ve never faced these challenges, chances are you are working in a well resources (likely northern) organisation that shares the same, or similar, unwritten rules, expectations, education, and language as the funder putting out the call.

But when you live in a context that is far from that reality, both geographically but also culturally, idiosyncratic and just by a different daily reality (such as continuous unstable governments, ever-fluctuating currencies, social unrest, inflation, or uncertainty) you are far from understanding (or having the time to understand) what the donors is asking for. 

Often organisations feel that it’s incredibly laborious to work for international funders. Not only because of all the multiple financial and reporting requirements, but also the need to “perform”. The idea of think tank performance was raised  at the OTT Conference 2023 by Laura Boeira, Executive Director of Instituto Veredas in Brazil. Organisations and individuals find themselves behaving in the ways that people expect them to. 

This “performance” is not only tiring, but it risks us falling into group thinking, funding the usual suspects and the same ideas. The process of trying to give the funder what they want, can end up removing the novel and unique ideas, values and experiences that the funder was originally interested in.

Bridging the gap

This raises an important question: how then can we bring all of those who have good ideas and are well placed to respond to the problems their context needs into the sphere of funders’ attention? 

Some donors, like the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada, are happy to explore how to increase direct funding to the Global South. IDRC invited OTT to help pilot a new way of supporting potential grantees. 

IDRC launched a new call in August 2023: Scaling Care Innovations in Africa. OTT steered shortlisted candidates through the concept note development process, helping them to develop robust proposals. 

While keeping a neutral role, OTT, together with IDRC provided two trainings: one on what “Scaling Care Innovations” is and two, how to think about research uptake and impact in this context. Through these trainings candidates could adapt their own understanding of the concepts, clarify what was being asked of them and expand their knowledge of the topics. 

Having read each of the concept notes, OTT offered candidates the chance to book one-to-one sessions with an expert on scaling and on research uptake. This was a safe space for candidates to ask questions, and for us to give tailored feedback to the candidate. 

This support was complemented by a workshop on writing for proposals and the offer to provide light copy-editing support to the final proposals. 

Finally, two open sessions were made available for people to come with questions.

Candidates were free to choose to use any of these services, none were compulsory. The response rate varied but in general, 100% of the candidates participated in the trainings and 50% used the one-to-one and editorial services. 

Moreover, IDRC provided financial resources to cover the time this process would take shortlisted organisations. So, all in all, it was, as put by one of the candidates, “a great learning opportunity” and a “very intentional and unique process for supporting applications”. 

And in terms of results, IDRC reported that the quality of the final proposals was much higher than previously experienced and they ended up selecting a larger pool of candidates than they originally had planned for. 

Worth considering this approach to make international development funding become more inclusive?