What is a concept note? And how long should a concept note be?
Essentially, a concept note is a summarized version of a project proposal and must include a brief description of the project goal/s, objectives and overall approach or strategies to be followed to achieve the stated goal and objectives. It must display an outline or framework of the development program that you are seeking funds for.
It must be kept in mind that your concept note is the first opportunity to make the first impression on a donor. The preparation and submission of a concept note give your NGO a chance to distinguish your project idea and organization from the rest and capture the attention of the donor while giving you the flexibility for detailing your project at later stages of proposal submission.
The purpose of a concept note from the donor’s perspective is to assess which ones align with their priorities and are likely to be selected for the funding and eliminate the rest.
The length of a concept note depends on several factors, the first one being the donor’s requirement. Certain donors, funding organizations, foundations and even CSR arms of corporations have a format for concept notes that they adhere to.
In these cases, your concept note would get rejected in the first stage itself if it does not adhere to the template, timeline, word limits, and other criteria. But in other cases, many donors and funding bodies do not have any templates for the concept note stage and you can submit yours in any format you prefer.
If there is no set template, ideally your concept note must be between 3 to 5 pages long. A 3-5 page length allows you to clearly and briefly describe your project and its objectives, while also leaving enough scope to detail it in the proposal submission stage.
What are the key elements of a concept note?
A concept note must cover the following key elements:
It must convince the donor that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Second, it must describe the solution for the problem that you are proposing. Lastly, your concept note needs to demonstrate your ability and credibility as an organization to solve this particular problem by implementing your solution. The structure and templates for a concept note must ensure these three basic elements are covered in it.
To this end, in your concept note, you need to articulate a program goal that will be addressing the defined problem. The objectives derive from this larger goal and must be more specific, clear, measurable, and time-bound. Next, you need to give the donor a quick overview of the program strategies your program will use to implement the activities and to attain the objectives and goals you have specified.
This can ideally be a summary (in tabular format or a list) in short, clear and concise language. And lastly, the expected outputs (measurable, quantifiable, derived from the objectives), outcomes and impact (long-term, derived from goal) of the program, when implemented under the described conditions.
What are the various types of concept note submission opportunities for NGOs?
The various types of concept note submission opportunities for NGOs are:
- ‘Calls for Concept Notes’ opportunities: Many donor agencies solicit concept notes on a periodic basis which can be semi-annual, annual, etc. Most of them publish the ‘Call for Concept Notes’ on their websites, other web-portals, their regular publications, and sometimes in the print media. These are open to NGOs based on the qualifying criteria. Some examples of such organizations are USAID, European Commission, which publish calls for proposals in their various thematic areas on a periodic basis.
- Solicited concept note opportunities: These may result from your preliminary interactions or discussions with a donor organization or a corporate foundation. Many times while attending development conferences, or other networking events, we meet people from donor agencies or corporates and form connections with them with the hope to take the introductory conversations to a fruitful impact for your NGO. You may find these opportunities to share your work, challenges, and also to ask about any upcoming or ongoing funding opportunities or even partnership opportunities. If they show interest and share their contact details, you must be prepared to send them a concept note with a brief idea of your program/s or scope for collaboration.
- Unsolicited concept note submissions: These have the least success rates but it is okay to give them a shot. Once you have done your research about the donor agencies, your concept note is ready to be submitted to multiple organizations, and you want to spread the word about your work to larger audiences. If the submission cycles of the donor agencies work for you, great. If no live opportunities are available at the moment, many organizations still accept applications and might keep you in their databases for future opportunities. You have to conduct in-depth research about the organization where you are applying to make sure you articulate the synergy between your work and theirs. Try to find someone who can introduce you to someone in the organization or try to establish personal contact and try to submit the proposal once you have established contact and have convinced someone in the target organization.
What are the contents of a concept note?
Here is a brief template with section and subsection headings that one can use for preparing a concept note if a template is not already provided by the donor. The outline can vary depending on the type of opportunity, type of format or template, type of the project to be described, and so on, and this is a general outline that may be used as it is or by picking the most relevant points:
- Title of the project;
- Project or Program Summary;
- Organization Profile;
- Background or Problem Statement;
- Beneficiary and geographical information and insights;
- Program Goals and Objectives;
- Program Strategies and Activities;
- Expected outputs, outcomes and impact;
- Monitoring and Evaluation Plan;
- Budget and financial information (only if asked by the donor organization);
- Other relevant information to make your concept note stand out.
What additional elements will make my concept note stand out?
Aside from paying attention to a solid project design, crisp and well-articulated sections and meeting the eligibility and application criteria, some ‘nice to have’ additional detailing and fine-tuning of your concept note ideas can be the cherry on the top.
To enrich your concept, you can include the ‘soft’ and long-term aspects of the impact your program can have. Some examples are: gender inclusion, capacity building, inclusion and customizing as per the local context, ensuring a long-term vision and sustainability in the project design and technology-driven solutions- these can certainly draw the attention of the donor as innovative approaches and considerations.
What should be the writing style of a concept note? Any tips around formatting?
Your concept note must be simple, clear and concise. It must not be overwhelming for the donor with loads of details, but at the same time, it must display clarity and coherence in the idea and all the sections. Use technical language when needed, but avoid using complicated language and jargon. The language must be easily understood by the person reading your concept note.
Pay attention to detail as this concept note is going to create your first impression in the donor’s mind. Make sure you follow the same format throughout the concept note document. The font type and size must be clear and easy to read. Margins must be consistent. Number the pages to make it look clearer and easy to reference and navigate.
Check the formatting and proofread it at least twice. Have the first page a ‘Title Page’. Create a table of content on the page after the title page and the lists of tables/ figures if applicable. You should also get it proofread by 1-2 members of your team.
Should I include a project budget in my concept note?
Include a budget in your concept note only if required by the donor at this stage. You will need to conduct detailed background research and in-depth analysis of the inputs and resources required to implement the program activities to gauge the costs.
If including a budget as per the donor template or your own, always add the word ‘tentative’ or ‘preliminary’ to the budget at this stage, as many additional costs may come into the picture or many might be modified at the later stages of detailing this out into a proposal.
Make sure you account for all the costs throughout the project life cycle and also take inflation and aspects like salary hikes, etc. into account.
How to research ideas before preparing a concept note?
Before developing your program idea into a concept note, it is worthwhile to invest time and energy into conducting proper research. Research plays an important role in enriching your concept note and brings depth to your writing too. Typically, you might need to put in some research on the following aspects:
- Needs assessment: It would mean using primary and secondary research to build the context, to define the problem and to establish the need for the solution that your program is proposing. You may already have this data with you based on your previous work or pilot projects, but it is good to put your organizational data into a larger perspective too. So make sure you spend some time doing this background research to enrich your concept note.
- Donor research: Detailed research about your prospects is crucial. It enables you to understand the priorities of the donors and sets you up for the concept note application process. Conduct this research in a strategic manner- to assess their funding cycles, funding and shortlisting criteria, past and current projects and funding history, their organizational structures and board structures, and other relevant information that you can get. This can help you in assessing whether you tick all the boxes or not, what you can do to align your project concept with their priorities, and also in the application process.
- Best practices and domain knowledge: You can take your concept note a notch higher if you learn from the best practices in similar contexts and domains from across the world.
When should I submit a concept note to a funder?
Many funders and foundations prefer taking the first look at a concept note before asking the NGOs to submit full-fledged proposals to ensure an alignment of objectives, compliances and eligibility of the NGO submitting the concept note, before the proposal stage. This also helps them in eliminating the ones which do not fulfill their selection criteria or are not appealing enough based on the donor priorities.
To find out about such opportunities where ‘Calls for Concepts’ or ‘Calls for Concept Notes’ are advertised, you need to keep an eye on the relevant websites that might be aggregating such opportunities, aside from regularly checking the websites of the funding institutions or foundations in your domain and geography.
However, concept notes can also be submitted to the donors without a formal call for concepts. For example, this can be a good approach in cases where you have developed relationships with a donor or a funding organization over the years or you have worked with them in the past. You may approach such donors with appealing concept notes that describe your project briefly and capture their attention.
If you are able to tick all the right boxes with well-written concept notes, you could be one step closer to submitting a detailed proposal and securing the funding for your project.
Which teams must be included in a concept note preparation process?
In order to prepare a successful concept note, adequate and careful planning needs to be done by several teams in an NGO. Ideally, you must involve different team members, including the program team, technical resources, monitoring and evaluation team (M&E), finance team and also others as needed. You may also need to take into account inputs from your key stakeholders and experts working in the field, also the beneficiaries, local communities or the target groups.
To manage the concept note development process in an efficient manner, you can create a RACI matrix (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) to be clear around the responsibilities. In addition, one appointed person as ‘Point of Contact’ must be given the coordination responsibility to make sure every team member is apprised of their role and sticks to the agreed timelines and deliverables. This person must also manage the communication with the donor as and when needed.