Definition: Concept Note
A concept note is a BRIEF summary of a project. A concept note (or a concept paper, as some people call it) is a short version of a project proposal. A concept note for submission to a donor is ideally between 3 to 7 pages long.
A project is a combination of inputs managed in a certain way to achieve one or more desired outputs, and ultimately one or more desired impact. Here is a nice metaphor to illustrate the definition of a project and its components as described in a concept note:
Cooks are constantly designing and implementing projects. Ingredients (inputs) are cooked (managed) according to a recipe (work plan) to achieve a warm, balanced meal (output), and a happy feeling or fullness and wellbeing (impact).
How to Prepare a Concept Note
A concept note has a specific format. The final version of the concept note has the following headings:
- Activities and duration
- Beneficiaries and impacts
- Project management (includes monitoring and evaluation)
However, the concept note should be prepared in the final format order. Instead prepare the concept note in the following order:
- Activities and duration
- Beneficiaries and impacts
- Project management
- Draft budget
- The problem and why it is urgent (for the background section)
- What has already been done (for the background section)
Step 1. Objectives (what do you want to do?)
The objectives are the single most important part of your project design. They tell the reader what it is you want to do. They are one of the first parts of the concept note that your reader will look at. You need to think very carefully about your objectives before you start to write.
An ideal way to start is to get a small group of colleagues together to brainstorm with you. Try to get colleagues from different disciplines to enrich your discussions. Say what it is you have in mind, and then take an hour or more to throw out ideas and write them all on a flipchart. From these ideas you should be able to select those that really express what it is you want to do in your project.
Project objectives should a) correspond to a core problem, b) define the strategy to overcome the problem, and c) contribute to the achievement of higher-level development goals.
Before brainstorming the project objectives, reflect on the underlying problems and areas of work which the project is trying to resolve. The problems should be clear. To explain the objective, the core problem is re-formulated from a negative statement into a positive statement, e.g., if the problem is "low maize yield," the objective will be positively re-formulated as "increased maize yields."
Then the objective will be detailed further. Often a problem may be overcome by using various strategies to find a solution. For example, the objective "Increased maize yields in drought-prone areas" may be achieved by a) adopting drought-tolerant maize varieties, or by b) improving agronomic or farming practices. The choice of strategy has to be made according to the constraints underlying the core problem, which have been assessed in the field. Considering criteria like: resource availability, time needed, likelihood of success to carry out the work. The project objectives should clearly show which strategy the project will pursue.
A donor may not fund the project unless the project contributes to a development goal. Therefore the statement of the objective has to indicate in what way the project will contribute to development (e.g. food security in the area; improved health).
The full hierarchy of objectives, including the contribution to a development goal for the example we used above, may read like this:
- National Development Goal: Increase nutritional health of the population
- Program Objective: Increase average maize yields per hectare
- Project Objective: Drought-tolerant maize varieties adopted
When formulating objectives, keep in mind that objectives should be SMART!!
Each objective should specify the QUANTITY of achievements (e.g., numbers of beneficiaries, area covered by project), and the QUALITY (e.g., poor farmers, marginal lands, drought-tolerant varieties). Objectives should also include an indication of TIME when the objective will be achieved (e.g., in January 2008, three years after the start of the project). Remember objectives are more achievable if quality, quantity and time are clarified.
Step 2. Inputs (What do you need to achieve the objectives?)
The inputs you will need to implement your project (i.e. achieve your objectives) may include:
- people (researchers, broadcasters, and other partners’ staff-time)
- travel costs (bus tickets, meals allowance)
- vehicles (rental, petrol, driver’s time)
- equipment (tools, office)
- supplies (paper, seed, fertilizer, etc.)
- services (phone, fax, e-mail, etc.)
- facilities (radio station, offices, demonstration sites)
Some inputs may come from many different partners, e.g. farmer groups, individual farm families, other NGOs, international organizations, donor groups, government agencies, etc. Remember that all partners will also have travel, supplies, services and other input requirements.
You will only need a list of inputs to prepare your budget. It does not appear in a section of the concept note UNLESS you have substantial inputs from another donor or the community. But you will need to brainstorm all costs and inputs to arrive at a realistic set of activities and budget.
Step 3. Activities and Duration (What will you do? How long will it take?)
Describe (in summary only for a concept note) what you and your partners plan to do to achieve the project objectives. Remember that donors are mostly geared up to supporting projects of three years.
- Be brief and clear
- Be positive – use the future tense and the active voice
- Do not use "we" (use "the project")
Important note: in the full proposal each activities section sentence should explain who will do what, when, and how.
Step 4. Outputs (What will have been achieved 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
- information, perhaps in the form of publications or videos
It is worth spending time with colleagues, partners, and friends brainstorming all the possible outputs, as well as those directly related to the objectives.
Key outputs that are achieved during the life of the project may be useful milestones that you can refer to when writing the full proposal.
Step 5. Beneficiaries and Impacts (Who will benefit from the project and how?)
Brainstorm this section with the design team or other colleagues. Think of all the possible groups who may benefit from project activities and as many different benefits as may occur.
Impact is what the donor is "buying." In making promises about the impact of a project, you need to:
- describe the benefits you expect, how many of them can be expected, and when and where they will occur.
- present your reasoning for why you expect the benefits to accrue to a given group – if necessary, state the assumptions you are making.
- consider whether to suggest that the project will have either an impact assessment component or will be assessed by a separate impact measurement project.
Possible beneficiary groups
- Poor individuals (age? sex? location?)
- Farm families (including dependents)
- Poor urban consumers
- Other population groups
Benefits also accrue to radio stations, NGOs, and other organizations, but you should play down these (although not omit them altogether) and play up the benefits to partners such as farmers and their organizations who are the poorest and the target of the donor’s development aims.
Show impact in terms of the Development Goals, such as:
- poverty alleviation
- food security
- preserving the environment
- improved nutrition and health
Develop your own impact checklist
Will your project result in:
- more education for the poor?
- higher family incomes?
- better health for poor families?
- gender-specific or age-specific impact?
- enhanced community participation?
- new use of indigenous knowledge?
- more public sector accountability?
- inputs for improved decision-making?
- new food source for the urban poor?
- new jobs created?
- import substitution?
- other economic benefits? Which sectors?
- improved child nutrition?
- other human benefits?
Important note: Explain how you will measure the above. Impacts that can be quantified are the most impressive, and are more likely to sell your project to the donor.
Step 6. Project Management (How will you achieve the objectives? How will the project be managed and evaluated?)
The best objectives in the world can only achieve the desired outputs and impacts if the project can be effectively managed. Your design needs to include a plan covering the roles and responsibilities of the various people who will manage the project. In a concept note you need only to briefly describe who will lead the project and who will be responsible (and when) for the main project tasks including financial management, monitoring and evaluation.
Step 7. Budget
Unwillingness to prepare project budgets is one of the two most common failings of inexperienced project designers. Even top-quality projects will not get funded if their cost estimates are unrealistic, overly greedy, or full of gaps that will cause future delays and frustrations.
Budget preparation skills are an essential tool for all who seek funds to implement good science projects.
Go back to your list of inputs. Remember to make an allowance (as generous as you have been to yourself) for the budget of possible partners, and to include indirect costs for both you and your partners. If your project will receive funds from other sources (in kind from beneficiaries and partners, contributions from the radio station’s core program, etc.), be sure to highlight these contributions in the concept note and perhaps mention them in the covering letter.
Depending on its size, your project may be approved by a donor in the field or at its headquarters. Field approval is usually much quicker and easier to obtain. As a rough guide, you may consider:
small: <$100k for 3 years – usually approved at the donor’s country field office medium: $100k - $300k for 3 years – may be approved at donor’s headquarters large: >$300k for 3 years – approved at donor’s headquarters
Be sure to include and label all projects costs, even if you are not asking for money for them in your concept note. It is very important for all parties to understand the true and full project costs, and to avoid hidden expenses.
Important note: Remember that nothing is so frustrating as an under-funded project due to a poorly designed budget. For this reason you should develop a budget which is as accurate as possible to include in your concept note.
Step 8. Background Material
In the concept note, organize background material in two sections.
- Under "The Problem and Why It is Urgent", discuss the project in terms of Development Goals of poverty alleviation, food security, preservation of the environment, and nutrition and health. In this section provide background statistics if available, citing sources, writing in a general sort of style.
- Under "What Has Already Been Done", be sure not to focus only on only one organization’s activities. Donors will want you to acknowledge the contributions others have made and are still making – some may be organizations that they are supporting; some may be your proposed partners. (If this is a follow-on project or second phase, describe the outcomes of the earlier work in detail.)
Step 9. Selecting a Good Title
Titles need to be catchy, informative, and distinctive. Try using a two-part title. The first part should be short, snappy, catchy; the second part can be more serious and informative. Test your title out with a few colleagues.
- Fishers for the Future: radio listening groups for fishermen and fishermongers in Ghana
- Mothers of Invention: sharing ideas for business women in Malawi
- Why do the Chickens Die? – Communicating low-cost and simple techniques for improved poultry raising
- Did We Make a Difference? – Assessment of past and expected impact of FM Radio 91.1’s work (1999-2005)