Thursday, April 15, 2010

HRI fundraising secrets: writing a succesful proposal

It is still award season and many of our affiliates remain busy working well into the night to finalize proposals to ensure our activities will continue uninterrupted for the next funding cycle.

Spare a thought for those who bet on the fallacy that a proposal will succeed or fail based on the soundness of the activities proposed, for their survival in the cutthroat realm of reality will be short and sweet and their minor careers devoid of much satisfaction.

For those who know better here is some useful advice from HRIs vast experience:

First you need some local partners. You will find some good advice in HRIs guide to successful partnerships, and in a nutshell, the secret is to ensure that all local organizations that do something useful and have visible results are committed to exclusive collaboration with HRI. Donors like to be seen as funding local networks - “ownership” and “sustainability” are the appropriate wank-words here, and we all have to adapt to a world increasingly inclined to ridicule the more obvious clich├ęs of the beltway bandit. You want them in your “partnership” also that you can report their results as your own during the next “reporting season”.

You don’t need to worry, the donor will never fund such local organizations directly as there is general agreement that they “lack capacity to absorb funds” – HRI will gladly do that for them.

Then, you need a slick team of lobbyist types in the capital of the donor who can reliably sleaze their way into the process walking that thin line between “seeking further guidelines” and “compromising procurement process”. Do not underestimate the relevance of this phase.

It helps a lot if, in country (“the field”), you have at least one or two staff who succeed in to combining a solid professional relationship based on respect with the “head of mission” – having children in the same school helps here as does frequenting the same cocktail circles. These situations provide useful opportunities for shared smugness about the lifesaving work we are doing together as well as bonding conversations about the heat, the craving for superior coffee and baby spinach salads and the unreliability of the local staff.

If in your country there is a local organization lead by someone with a dramatic story – an ex sex worker say, a former refugee or an HIV+ person - you are in luck. Throwing in a “bio” of this person in the proposal, written in a way that HRI does not necessarily deny any contribution to their “finding the way” will hit some important spots with the bureaucrats processing your application. Besides, after the award has been granted, you can burn significant amounts of money on having this person attend international meetings where they can “tell their story” in front of note-taking voyeurs before returning to the front of the room where they are expected to remain silent but smiling with dignity while HRI experts talk about her past suffering and what that means to her.

You will have to acknowledge that there are other organizations out there with whom HRI & affiliates compete for this funding. “Competition” is not a very popular word in our circles so the trick is to find a way to “partner” with them that keeps everyone happy. The best way to do that is to have a “coordination” meeting where, in front of a map, all the head of these organizations would decide who works where, dividing so to say spheres of influence. A good sign is when some participants will attend by phone and you know the meeting is productive if you hear phrases like “these are my MARPS (acronym for “most at risk population”)” or “so and so province is ours”. Expect a bit of horsetrading here, covered in the fair sounding argument of “avoiding double counting” and do become suspicious if many local organizations are invited to attend this particular coordination meeting (one or two are ok though, to cover "ownership", as long as they dont talk too much).

Making the budget is a pretty straight forward affair – you start with the bottom line (which you set as a few dollars under the maximum amount for that particular call for proposals, making sure that the overhead formulas are locked on the spreadsheet) and work your way up by adding random numbers until the totals come together nicely. Experience and access to the right information make or break the success of this process, as knowing the right favourable percentages for each section is crucial. With most donors it is safe to assume that staff costs have to be minimal (10% is a safe percentage) and the way you achieve that is by ensuring that these lines are covered by the right mixture of expatriate staff and drivers (“support staff”), while the rest of the people involved will be budgeted under “consultants”, in the operations section. The Consultants line benefits from much more “flexibility”, going up to 80% of the total with many donors.

For obvious reasons, it is a good idea to ensure that the person who finalizes the budget is not the same person as the one who fills in the “sustainability” section in the narrative – in HRI that is usually Nathan the interns’ section as he is pretty good at copying and pasting it from past successful proposals (why re-invent the wheel?).

Writing the actual “narrative” usually involves filling in complex forms that make no sense to anyone, developed by wannabe academics making a living as born-again bureaucrats in teh donor's headquarters. The secret here is to err on the side of optimism and promise loads of “downstream targets” and much "involvement of local partners" with significant "capacity building" components. Not to worry, after the award has been granted the whole thing will be diluted through endless “realignments” and “restrategizing processes", which are spun in such a way as to shed on HRI the favourable light of “flexibility” and “adjustment to local changes” while ensuring that all measurable commitments are conveniently replaced with vague concepts like "enabling environment" and "system strenthening". Indicators are helpfully chosen along the lines of “t-shirts distributed” and “people trained” which also helps with finalizing the “workplan”, in addition to further assuring you that all those t-shirts & baseball caps will benefit at least one local small or medium enterprise, fairly procured of course through a competitive bidding process.

Well, good luck y'all with proposals and do reach out to HRI affiliates for further guidelines – your chances of receiving some funding will significantly increase if you partner up nicely. Also, may I remind you that HRIs call for abstracts remains open and we are looking forward to more flattering, feel-good human interest stories from our hard working affiliates out there.


  1. "where they can “tell their story” in front of note-taking voyeurs before returning to the front of the room where they are expected to remain silent but smiling with dignity while HRI experts talk about her past suffering and what that means to her."


  2. I agree with Anonymous, it is all genius.

    Also, it is strange that we have the same name!

  3. I find that West Bankers make ideal employees of Hand Relief.

  4. So refreshing to get a little truth and accuracy in reporting! People hear only 1% of funds raised have gotten to the ground in Haiti and they think it's an anomaly not realizing its symptomatic of a broken global system of "relief" aid.