EPISODE 3: How to create a compelling concept note
Updated: Jan 11
Package your story into a concise, comprehensive, and eye-catching document
Welcome back to ‘Step change: a road map for new fundraisers’, a 10-article series all about communication tools for social impact organisations. In this series, we will provide guidance and resources for fundraisers to effectively share their story and inspire action.
Let’s imagine you have been working all your connections, networking from night to day with potential partners or donors, and reaching out to dozens of foundations and trusts. Most of your messages go without a response, but finally, someone replies. They are interested in what your organisation is doing and are eager to hear more. You officially have your foot in the door! What now?
Instinctively, you might draft an email detailing how you appreciate their interest and some of your ideas for collaboration. That is a fantastic start, but you will also need to summarise what your organisation does, how you do it, and what kind of support you need. If you send all this information in the body of the email, the recipient might feel bombarded and have trouble responding. Instead, consider drafting a short, tailored message to the recipient in the body of the email and then utter the magic words, “For more information about our organisation, please see the concept note attached.”
Before arriving at this point, you should have a concept note drafted, designed, and saved as a PDF that you can attach to the email.
What is a concept note?
A concept note is a summary of a proposal containing a brief description of the project’s core idea and objectives. A concept note shouldn’t be longer than two pages. That said, if your concept note contains multiple images, you can add another page or two, but do try to keep it short.
What should a concept note contain?
The basic structure of the concept note should cover the essentials of why your organisation exists. It should tell a straight-forward and coherent story. Basically, tell the reader what the problem is, how you plan to solve it, and the help you need from donors to do it.
A summary of your organisation. Need help? See Episode 1 about writing a 200-word description of your organisation.
Contextual information about the problem you are trying to solve, why it is a problem, and if possible, statistics to illustrate the impact of the problem.
An overview of your model and how your solution addresses the problem you’ve identified.
Your organisation’s needs and what kind of support you are looking for (consider both monetary and non-monetary needs). Present what you are asking from the potential partner and/or donor in concrete terms.
These are the basic elements that your concept note will require and most of this information will be in your 'Case for Support'. Don’t have an up-to-date ‘Case for Support’? Learn how to draft one in Episode 2 of this series.
Some organisations might like to add a text box explaining the organisation’s history, the founder’s story, staff, accomplishments like awards, or other information that makes the organisation unique. However, try to stick to the core elements as much as possible.
Don’t assume the reader is familiar with the problem you’re trying to solve or the organisation. Besides, they may have heard different things, and it’s best to control the narrative if you can.
Keep your concept note short. People are busy these days, so you risk losing people’s interest if your concept note is too long and wordy.
Use images and infographics where possible. An image can tell a thousand words, and that goes for concept notes. Stay tuned for Episode 4 which will cover images and infographics.
Tell a story. Give people a reason to care about your issue and your organisation; don’t just copy/paste facts, names, and dates.
Format it. A well-formatted concept note is like a good meal. If it looks good, people will want to read it. It doesn't need to be designed (sometimes it's good to look a little home made) but it does need to look readable.
Is your concept note too long? Try this:
Focus your concept note. Be brutal about what information you add to the concept note. Even if something will be important down the line, does it need to be explained right away? Sometimes, when we’re too close to the situation, it can be challenging to judge what is necessary. If you’re not sure, ask someone outside the organisation for help.
Create multiple versions. If your organisation runs or plans to run several activities, you may want to have several versions of your concept note. For example, suppose your organisation trains women entrepreneurs and also supports small businesses through loans. In that case, it might make sense to have one concept note that discusses the training programme. In this concept note, you can focus on the women, the content of your sessions, and the impact on the participants - all of which would be of interest to donors who support women’s education. The second concept note can focus on the loans, which would be of interest to donors who support microfinance or impact investing. That way, you can go into greater detail on each subject and ensure donors are getting the information they need.
Use text boxes. If you’ve cut the text as much as possible and the text is still too dense, you may have to draw out information and put it in text boxes. This will make it easier for readers to pick out critical information. (Be careful, though, too many text boxes and your concept note will feel cluttered.)
Ready to get started?
There is nothing worse than staring at a blank page. Start with your ‘Case for Support’ and start filling in the concept note outline. Find more resources for social impact organisations in the ‘Step change: a road map for new fundraisers’ series.
Need more help? Download the concept note template below.