Writing a Concept Note

Article Index
Writing a Concept Note
Elements of Project Design
Development Donors and How They Operate
Concept Note-When, Why and How
Writing a Good Concept Note
Selecting a Good Title
Question Bank
References and Acknowdgements
All Pages


This module is designed to inform and discuss the skill of writing a a short (3 – 7 page) concept note.


A Concept Note(CN)is generally written to attract donor’s attention to your project.

There are 6 different sections or activities with the first five chapters discussing the concepts behind a concept note and the final chapter is a set of questions based on the chapters.


We hope that this short module will help you in a long way to write a good concept note and help you implement the project that you have had in your mind for quite sometime.

What is a Project?

The basis of a convincing concept note is a well designed project. So, let’s start by defining a project. A project is a structure developed to produce a specifically defined deliverable or set of deliverables. It is time bound with specific objectives and specific resources assigned to it. For example, a chef producing the meal, he selects the ingredients and manages them in a certain way to achieve the desired delicacy within a desired time frame.


Designing a good project

Designing a project is a creative activity as well. You are making something that did not exist before. You are like the chef producing the meal. The key ingredients of a project design are: Goals, objectives, outputs, and impacts. We will discuss each in the following paragraphs.

  • Goals - A goal is an over-arching target or reason for doing something. Goals could be very broad like poverty alleviation or very specific say for instance World Water Council set as it goal the target of achieving safe drinking water for 90 per cent of world’s population by 2025. Let us compare the two goals. Poverty alleviation is a very vague goal whereas achieving safe drinking water for ninety percent of the world’s population is quantifiable and specific. Specific goals can have specific objectives set.
  • Objectives - An objective is more specific than a goal. If an obese individual has losing weight as his goal then the activities like diet control and regular exercise are his objectives. So, objective is one of the contributors towards a goal.An achieved objective means output or result.

      Just as project is part of a program, objectives are part of the project.

  • Output - In research projects an output may be tangible, for example a new crop variety or intangible like a new policy or a new study. Notice that an output is something new. However, an output alone cannot achieve the goal. It is again a contributor towards the ultimate impact of the project.
  • Impact -Impact is the effect that the output has had on the ultimate goal of the project.

1 Project Design - Art or Science ?

Project design is an art because you use your imagination to help others live better lives, Science is the logic used to realize those imaginations.


2 Good Project Design is a result of team work.

A project design becomes a much easier and enjoyable experience if done in a team environment. A team of 3-5 becomes a pretty robust team for project design. It becomes all the more enjoyable and creative if the team is a set of heterogeneous individuals. In the field of agricultural research it has been found that a team or a consortium with a heterogeneous mix of various disciplines, ages and backgrounds working towards a common goal yields the most successful (most likely to be funded as well) projects of all.


3 Project Design takes time.

Accept it. A project design takes time. Designing a simple and small project itself will take at least 50 – 150 hours of quality time spread over several months. Complex projects involving multiple partners will take a lot more time. Some of the common time consumers apart from thinking and writing are waiting for approvals, comments from partners and donors.


4 Be prepared for failures

You should not expect all proposals to be funded.


5 Partners are important

Almost all research projects involve collaboration among different stakeholders and colleague groups. Below are some points that will emphasis why partners are important,

  • Donors like investors prefer to share and spread risks.

  • Donors are more inclined towards projects that include domestic institutions.

  • Donors like to fund as many grantees as possible, so more partners the merrier.

6 Recognize the trends towards holistic.

While reviewing proposals donors look for projects that adopt an integrated approach that involves all the key participants and is thus likely to contribute to significant impacts in the shortest possible time.


7 Demonstrating impact is essential.

There are lots of difficulties in assessing the impact of a project. Questions like how long will the benefits last, or who will take the credit prop up quite often. You and your organization need to think about impact assessment. You need to measure impact and demonstrate impacts in your projects in order to attract donors.


8 Packaging is what it is all about.

And last but not the least, you need to know the art of selling your project, so project proposal should have it in them that will answer the donor’s question “What is in it for me?”

This chapter will discuss funding agencies and the way they operate.


Types of Donors

Donor agencies differ according to the source of their funding. In most cases donor agencies are publicly funded. As you are aware public funding comes from tax payer’s money, as is the case with Department for International Development is funded by the British Treasury. Publicly funded agencies are quite often called the bilateral donors.


Then there are donor agencies that are made up of many members, mostly countries, for example The World Bank (W The African Development Bank (AFD, The Asian Development Bank (AD or International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). And then the United Nations agencies like Food and Agricultural Organisations (FAO), The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) etc.


Organisations like The Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation are privately funded agencies that are funded by the profits of a commercial organization or wealthy individuals.

You can find out about the goals and objectives of all these donors by looking them up on the internet, or by visiting their offices in your capital city. “Developing Winning Research Proposals in Agricultural Research,” a book brought out by National Academy of Agricultural Research Management explains in detail the funding procedure of many prominent funding agencies.

Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Consult donor documents before you write.

  • Note the phrases and approaches that your target donor uses, and

  • Use those when writing your concept notes and proposals.

Approval Levels:

Depending on the amount to be sanctioned, the level of approval levels will vary. Grants up to a certain amount can be granted by small field offices and grants above certain dollar limit are sanctioned at the head quarter level of the funding agency.

Quite often the funding agencies solicit proposals for certain issues that they would like to tackle. However, the scope of this module is limited to research proposals that researchers send to funding agencies.


Review Process

  1. A single scientist reviews the application and makes a decision based on the merit of the application. Then,

  2. Based on the decision more scientist review the application and comment on the proposals. Then,

  3. These proposals along with the comments are placed before a special delegation formed for the proposal for a final round of review and decision making.

The five principles of decision making

  • Significance: What is the importance of the research?

  • Approach : is the research methodology sound

  • Innovation: is there anything new?

  • Investigator : is the researcher trained enough to carry off such a study

  • Environment: Is the laboratory or field area appropriate for the research?

Development funding agencies do not prefer
  • Projects that do not quote past projects.

  • Projects that reinvent the wheel

  • Over-ambitious projects, and/or projects with greedy budgets

  • Poorly presented, poorly spelled submissions

This chapter will discuss the importance of concept notes and answer when a concept note should be written, why a concept note should be written and how it should be written.

A concept is generally written when you are requesting for funds to fund your research projects. A concept note is generally prepared when:

  • You are submitting a sole source proposal.

  • You want to know the interest of the donor in the project.

  • Your ideas are at a preliminary stage.

  Do not send a concept note if:

  • You are responding to a request for proposal

  • Applying for grant under a competitive grants program

  • A donor has said that a full proposal will be welcome.

Chapter 4 will discuss the things to be kept in mind while writing concept note.

Let’s start by defining a concept note first. A concept note is a summary version of a proposal.

Length of a Concept Paper

A concept note for an internal approval may be as short as one or two pages. A concept note for discussion with partners will be a bit longer. However, the concept note given to an external donor will be bigger, it may be anywhere between 3 to 7 pages.

Given below are the major components of a concept note:

We will discuss each component of the concept note separately.

1 Objectives:

Objectives are the answer to the question “what do you want to do?” These are the first part of your concept note that your reader will look at, hence the most important.This makes it pertinent to put that extra effort. One of the ideal ways to define an objective of a project will be to have a brainstorming session. Try to involve people from different disciplines so that the session has a multi thronged approach and hence different aspects would be possible.

Ensure that project objectives:

  • Correspond to a core problem
  • Define the strategy to overcome the problem AND

  • Contribute to the achievement of higher level development goals.

The choice of strategy should be made according to the constraints underlying the core problem, which have been assessed in the field and considering criteria like:

  • Resource availability for doing research
  • Likelihood of finding a solution

  • Time needed and

  • Likelihood of adoption of the solution by the target group.

Also, ensure a clear explanation of the developmental goal of the project.While formulating the objective ensure to adhere to the SMART principle:


S: Specific

M Measurable

A: Achievable

R: Realistic

T: Time bound


And also each objective should specify the quantity of achievement (no. of beneficiaries, no. of new varieties developed, weights of yields, surface area surveyed) and the quality (for example: poor farmers, marginal lands, high yielding varieties) and time (when the objective would be achieved). In short, a Quality, Quantity, Time (QQT )analysis.


2 Inputs:

The inputs you will need include:

  • People ( the staff that will be associated with project)
  • Travel costs and other incidentals

  • Vehicles

  • Equipment

  • Supplies

  • Services

  • Facilities

You will need just a brief about inputs to be included in the concept note. However, you will need to cost all inputs to arrive at an estimated cost.


3 Activities and duration

Describe very briefly the role of each partner to achieve the objectives of the projects. Do bear in mind that donors are mostly geared up to supporting projects for three years.


  • Be brief and clear
  • Be positive

  • Do not use “we”

4 Outputs: the expected achievements at the end of the project.

The outputs of the project should be directly related to the project objectives. Outputs may include:

  • Events such as workshops or harvests
  • Intangible things, like decisions

  • Tangible things, like new buildings and new facilities

  • Information, perhaps in the form of publications and videos.

Key outputs that you achieve during the life of the project may be useful milestones that you can refer to when writing the full proposal.


5 Beneficiaries and Impacts

Brainstorm this section with the design team and other colleagues. This is another very important element of the concept note as it is the impact that the donor buys. So for this ensure:

  • You describe clearly the benefits that you expect.
  • Present a clear reasoning as to why you expect the benefits will be accrued to a target group. If needed, state the assumptions that you are making.

  • Consider whether to suggest that the project will have either an impact assessment component or will it be assessed by a separate impact measurement project.

6 Project Management

The best objectives can achieve the desired output only if the project is effectively managed. Your design needs to include a plan covering the roles and responsibilities of the various people involved in the project.


7 Draft Budget

 The best plans have been shelved due to lack of care in preparing the budget. A budget that seems overly greedy, unrealistic, or full of gaps, has every chance of being rejected. Budget preparation skills are required to implement good science proposals.

However, for a concept note you only need to give an estimate of what the project is likely to cost. You can make your estimates by a rough costing of the main project inputs generously rounded up.


8 Background

In the concept note organise the background materials under two sections.

  • The problem and its urgency - Under the section discuss the project in terms of the goals of your organization. In this section provide background statistics and citing sources.
  • What has already been done - Be sure not to focus only on your own organization’s activities in the field. The donor will want to know about the contributions that others are making and are making. Of these some may be organizations that are still supporting or could be your prospective partners.

The last but not the least is selecting an appropriate title for the concept note. The title should be catchy. You may use a two part title. One a terse yet catchy one and the second can be more serious and informative.

Below are some are some examples of titles:


  • Fishes for the future: identification and characterization of endangered aquatic species in selected tropical sites.

  • More beans for Africa: Sustainable bean productivity through germplasms enhancement and input use efficiency. OR

  • Why do Chickens Die: Developing low-cost and effective vaccine for bird flu in India.

Avoid using words like “Studies on ….” , “Investigations on …. “, “Survey of …”, “Effect of …..”, or “Standardization of ….” Etc in the titles.


In order to test your understanding of the module, please answer the questions that follow:

  1. What are the five general principles of fund approval?

  2. What kinds of projects could be rejected by funding agencies?

  3. What is the general Review Process?

  4. What is difference between a bilateral donor, Multilateral Donor, and private donor?

  5. What is a concept note?

  6. What are the major components of a concept note?

  7. What question should the objective of your concept note answer and what are the other things to consider for a concept note, explain them?

  8. How important is the title of a concept note?

References and Acknowdgements
This module has been prepared with reference material from publications on Developing Winning Research Proposals in Agricultural Research published by the National Academy of Agricultural Research Management - NAARM and A self Learning Module on How to Write Winning Proposals developed by International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR).

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