Writing a Concept Note

Compiled by:
Leonellha Barreto Dillon (seecon international gmbh)

Executive Summary

A concept note is a summary of a proposal containing a brief description of the idea of the project and the objectives to be pursued. In some financing programs, funding agencies require a concept note before the submission of a full proposal, in order to decide whether the proposed project is in line with the priorities of the program and to eliminate proposals that are not likely to be funded. Concept notes are also submitted to donors without a formal call for proposals, who prefer to understand a project through a brief summary rather than a full-fledged proposal document. This factsheet contains a set of guidelines on how to write a concept note, offering also a template to help you drafting an eye catching document to ensure the success of your project.

A concept note is a brief outline of your proposed project. “The purpose of a concept paper, from the funding agency’s point of view, is to help applicants develop more competitive proposals and to save time by eliminating proposals that are not likely to be funded. The applicant’s purpose in developing a concept paper is to capture the interest of the funding agency and demonstrate that the idea they are proposing is worthy of further consideration. Therefore, the first sentences of a concept paper are very important. You want the funding agency representatives or board members to continue reading!” (AUB 2010).
“Any proposal needs the involvement of different team members, such as from the technical, financial and administrative side. Input from stakeholders or other specialists with different backgrounds helps bring in the necessary expertise, but also a larger variety of ideas on how to solve a particular issue and achieve the previously agreed objectives. To manage the proposal development in an efficient way it is advisable to assign the lead role to one specific person. This person is then responsible for the coordination of the overall proposal development, for communication with potential funders and for making sure that all different pieces of input are brought together in a consistent and coherent text” (PHILIP et al. 2008).
In order to prepare a successful concept note, you will have to spend time carefully thinking and planning the action. How well you plan the action will largely influence how good the actual results are. The planning is perhaps the most critical stage of a project and this should reduce the risk of you preparing a concept note that is rejected by the donor agencies (REPOA 2007). To ensure that the project will contribute to the implementation of the overall action plan for a sustainable sanitation and water management in your locality, the activities of the concept note to be drafted should aim at meeting at least one of the objectives of the overall strategy and/or community action plan.
The length and the format for writing a concept note actually depend upon the donor agency. Usually donors do not have a format for a concept note as they have for a full proposal. But there are some agencies that issue solicitation for concept notes based upon a basic format given in their guidelines for funding request (FUNDS FOR NGOs 2010). In general, it is important to keep in mind that it should be the shortest possible text for the project idea. So, the shorter the better! Most donor agencies request a minimum of three pages to a maximum of five pages.

Template for Concept Note

(Adapted from PHILIP et al. 2008)

  1. Title: it should be snappy, informative, and distinctive. It may be divided into two parts with the first one being short and catching the readers’ attention and the second one more ‘serious’ and informative.
  2. Background: it may be composed following two guiding questions: 1. Why it is crucial to address the problem identified?; 2. What has already been done to solve the problem?
  3. Objectives: they should relate to the more general objectives as previously agreed and entered into the local action plan.
  4. Outputs: they should be directly related to the project objectives. Typically they are tangible items, such as a newly constructed technical facility, the publication of information materials, or events, such as workshops or stakeholder meetings. Depending on the project in question, intangible items might also be mentioned, such as a rise in awareness.
  5. Activities and duration: a summary of the planned activities to achieve the project objectives should be included here.
  6. Beneficiaries and impacts: this section will be important for getting “buy-in” from the donor. It should contain: The expected benefits, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, and when and where they will occur; The underlying assumptions and the reasons why these benefits can be expected; for a specific group of beneficiaries; Considerations concerning how and by whom the impacts will be assessed.
  7. Project management (includes monitoring and evaluation): this section should explain how the objectives will be achieved and how the project will be managed and evaluated. It should become clear who will lead the project and what roles and responsibilities the various people in charge of tasks such as financial management, monitoring and evaluation will have.
  8. Budget (only if requested by the donor agency): before drawing up the budget, it is necessary to get an overview of the inputs needed to achieve the objectives. These may be, for example: people, travel costs, vehicles, equipment, supplies, services, works, facilities and overheads.

More Tips for The Development of your Concept Note:

  • Do not overwhelm the reader with details, but avoid sounding vague or unsure about what you want to accomplish. Be positive and definite (AUB 2010).
  • Consider your audience. In most cases, you will have to write different concept notes for different donors for the same issue. Only when your concept note fits into the framework of the donor, your request will have a chance. Get as much information as possible on objectives, “hot topics” and interests of the organisation you are sending the concept note to.
  • Consider your language. If your concept paper is going to be reviewed by scientists in your field, scientific terms and technical jargon may be acceptable. However, if your proposal is being reviewed by generalists or lay persons, this type of language will not communicate your ideas effectively.
  • Only include budgetary information if it is specifically requested.
  • Appearance is important. This concept paper represents you! The type size should be large enough to read easily, and margins should be standard size. Check for spelling errors before submission. Attention to details is important. Number all pages. Place your name and date in the header. Include your contact information with the concept paper (AUB 2010).
  • Identify a door opener if you are not writing your concept note for an announced call from the organisation. Sending random concept notes to the general address of an organisation are rarely successful. If you do not know anybody who could introduce you to somebody of the targeted organisation, try to establish personal contact by phone or with in a meeting. Only once you have convinced somebody who supports your concept idea within the donor organisation, you will have a realistic chance with a “wild” concept note submission.

Applicability

Many private donor agencies ask for a concept paper to be submitted for review prior to the submission of a full proposal. In recent years international and state’s agencies have begun to encourage the use of concept papers as a way for applicants to obtain informal feedback on their ideas and projects prior to preparing a proposal as well (AUB 2010). Concept notes are especially common in larger projects – such as the construction of an infrastructure – which often cannot be financed solely through the financial resources of a local government’s budget. In such cases, additional funding from external sources will be necessary (PHILIP et al. 2008).

Advantages

  • Concept notes have many advantages for seeking funds, as it practically gives a framework for ideas when they are organised on paper (FUNDS FOR NGOs 2010)
  • It is also the first expression of the project and gives the flexibility for the organisation to work and re-work on idea before presenting it to the donor (FUNDS FOR NGOs 2010)
  • Concept papers help donor assess whether or not the proposed project is aligned with its funding priorities and enables them to offer suggestions to the applicant before the submission of a full proposal
  • As a concept note is much shorter than a full project proposal, less time and resources are needed to prepare a full project proposal

Disadvantages

  • The preparation of concept notes costs time and money, and only in specific cases the project idea will fit a call of proposals
  • Financing programs requesting concept notes for the first step of the selection process usually demand documents with a number of pages and words, which are not enough to communicate the project idea, making the preparation of a concept note a challenge for the participants
  • Concept notes are generally binding documents submitted to donor agencies. After a participant has been invited to submit a full proposal, usually the aim of the project should be kept for the second step. However, the most you will research and prepare the document, you will find that the idea could be changed and even improved, but it might not be accepted by the selection committee

References Library

AUB – AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF BEIRUT (Editor); OFFICE FOR GRANT (Editor); CONTRACTS (Editor) (2010): Proposal and Budget Preparation. URL [Accessed: 28.04.2010].

FUNDS FOR NGOs (Editor) (2010): How to write a concept note. URL [Accessed: 28.04.2010].

PHILIP, R.; ANTON, B.; BONJEAN, M.; BROMLEY, J.; COX, D.; SMITS, S.; SULLIVAN, C. A.; NIEKERK, K. van; CHONGUICA, E.; MONGGAE, F.; NYAGWAMBO, L.; PULE, R.; BERRAONDO LOEPEZ, M. (2008): Local Government and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) Part III: Engaging in IWRM – Practical Steps and Tools for Local Governments. Freiburg: ICLEI European Secretariat GmbH. URL [Accessed: 17.04.2012]. PDF

REPOA (Editor) (2007): Guidelines for Preparing Concept Notes and Proposals for Research on Pro-Poor Growth and Poverty in Tanzania. Special Paper 07.23. Dar Es Salaam: REPOA – RESEARCH ON POVERTY ALLEVIATION. PDF

Further Readings Library

Reference icon

PHILIP, R.; ANTON, B.; BONJEAN, M.; BROMLEY, J.; COX, D.; SMITS, S.; SULLIVAN, C. A.; NIEKERK, K. van; CHONGUICA, E.; MONGGAE, F.; NYAGWAMBO, L.; PULE, R.; BERRAONDO LOEPEZ, M. (2008): Local Government and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) Part III: Engaging in IWRM – Practical Steps and Tools for Local Governments. Freiburg: ICLEI European Secretariat GmbH. URL [Accessed: 17.04.2012]. PDF

The set of materials entitled “Local Government and Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM)” aims to assist Local Governments with active participation in IWRM. The materials are primarily targeted at local government officials, but are considered equally useful for individuals and organisations that work with local governments in the management of water resources.


Reference icon

REPOA (Editor) (2007): Guidelines for Preparing Concept Notes and Proposals for Research on Pro-Poor Growth and Poverty in Tanzania. Special Paper 07.23. Dar Es Salaam: REPOA – RESEARCH ON POVERTY ALLEVIATION. PDF

This is the third in a series of guidelines prepared by REPOA in order to help researchers prepare improved proposals for research.


Important Weblinks

http://www.un.org/ [Accessed: 19.05.2010]

This site contains a list of links related to the strategic planning and writing of project proposals and concept notes.

http://www.fundsforngos.org [Accessed: 19.05.2010]

Funds forNGOs.org is an online initiative, working for the sustainability of NGOs by increasing their access to donors, resources and skills.

http://foundationcenter.org/ [Accessed: 16.02.2011]

The subject of this short course is proposal writing. It is available in French, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.