The Concept Note: The Good, The Bad and the Utterly Ugly 

In explaining Charles “Chuck” Pope’s thoughts on the first hurdle to winning USAID awards, one could quote Leonardo Da Vinci: “Details make perfection, and perfection is not detail.” 

The initial requirement—under the Agency’s New Partnerships Initiative—is for applicants to submit a three- to five-page “concept note” detailing the scope of the proposed concept and responding to questions posed.

Pope is a senior contracting/agreement officer and development professional with a quarter-century of experience with the Agency. His latest assignment is as the global leader of acquisition and assistance on the COVID-19 task force. 

In other words, he’s seen literally thousands of concept notes come through his office—the good, the bad, and the utterly ugly—and as such has formed expert opinions as to what goes into a superior document.

“I tell people with ideas that when in doubt, submit a concept note,” said Pope. “We can do absolutely nothing without the concept note. Once you submit it, it could definitely be what is needed at the time.” 

One of Pope’s first words of advice is not to get discouraged if your organization’s concept note comes up short. “It’s a little like taking an entrance exam for university. The more you take it, the chances are you will get a better score.” 

Obviously, the most important part of any concept note rests with its stated purpose, and the organization’s proposed plan to respond to an issue or problem. This is where attention to detail can result in a better concept note. 

Unsolicited applications need to meet three objectives, Pope said. First, they should clearly demonstrate a unique, innovative, or proprietary program. Second, they should represent an appropriate use of USAID funds to advance a public purpose. Last, they should fit within an existing Agency development objective. 

Under the New Partnerships Initiative, the process has been streamlined in order to encourage first-time applicants to USAID and grant seekers who have only had limited experience with the Agency. For example, the concept note has been reduced to a few pages, between three and five.

“We understand that it is difficult for a small firm or NGO, with its limited infrastructure, to come up with a 50-page full application,” said Pope. 

However, some potential partners answer several important questions but skip others.

“It breaks my heart when someone’s No.1 and No. 2 proposed ideas are brilliant, but they didn’t even answer the third question,” said Pope. “We can’t even consider them because they didn’t fundamentally do what we asked.”

One iron-clad rule is that within USAID, there can be no individual consultation on a potential partner’s concept note by the agency’s technical staff in advance of submitting a concept note. “It’s a competitive process, and it would be unfair to other applicants,” he said.

However, there are guidelines published on the website, and Pope encourages applicants to familiarize themselves with the contents so their concepts don’t include miscues that could be easily prevented.

One piece of sound advice from Pope is that the short concept is not a format for extraneous verbiage. “You’ve got three to five pages to wow us. You don’t need an essay about your wonderful history unless it is pertinent to your approach to the problem you propose to address,” he said.

While the concept note’s ideas can grab attention, the devil—as the old German saying goes—does reside in the details of form, structure, grammar, and overall presentation.

In other words, it’s unlikely a sloppy concept note will open doors at USAID.

“This is an important point,” said USAID veteran Pope. “If we ask for five specific things, don’t skip numbers three and four but add on information not requested as a number six or seven.

“The presentation of the concept note tells us a lot about what kind of partner you would be,” he added. “If the application is filled with typos, misspellings, or the numbers don’t add up, this can lead to a negative interpretation from the beginning.

 “If not professionally presented,” said Pope, “Your chances could be greatly diminished.”

In other words, the concept note is about great ideas—and attention to detail.