Tips for accessing adaptation funding

By Zoë Visser and Leigh Cobban

Zoë Visser and Leigh Cobban work on project development and research at the African Climate and Development Initiative(ACDI). They are responsible for coordinating development of a range of research projects, on a continuum from blue skies research, through applied research, to ‘research-led consulting’. They share some of what they have learned about developing winning project proposals. 

Image below: The Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) project, to which ACDI is a key contributor, works to understand how to make people’s livelihoods more resilient. 


A hot topic of discussion at the Adaptation Colloquium this year was fundraising for adaptation implementation and research. As some of the presenters demonstrated, there is a mismatch between the significant amount of money available for adaptation on the continent, and the funding actually being accessed by organisations and local communities. This leads to the question: how do we develop projects that meet the requirements of funders, while being innovative and transformative?

Some simple steps can be taken to develop strong proposals that are attractive to both public and private sector funders.

Before developing the proposal

Create a system for identifying funding opportunities

It can be hard to keep up with the fast moving climate change funding environment.  We have found that it helps to systematise the fundraising process, particularly identification of new opportunities. We subscribe to a range of newsletters, and direct notifications and newsletters into a folder in our inboxes and scan them once a week for opportunities. Our interns scan the web regularly for opportunities, and add any new opportunities to a shared online document. Then we collate calls for funding into a central spreadsheet – including deadlines and submission requirements – and track the success of each application we make.

Platforms that advertise adaptation funding calls include: Terra Viva Grants Directory; Research Professional (paid subscription); Climate-l mailing list; Biodiversity-l mailing list; and ACDI newsletter.

Deciding which opportunities to follow up on

It can be challenging to weigh up the time it will take to put together a solid proposal, against the likelihood of a positive outcome for all your efforts. As a general rule of thumb, if you are going to invest any time at all in a proposal, you may as well go the extra mile. It can also be difficult to decide whether you should try to ‘force-fit’ what you want to do to match the funder’s requirements, or whether you cannot compromise on the integrity of your methodology or concept.  In the latter case, it could be worth it to hold out for a more open or flexible opportunity. While you wait, you can gather evidence to support the need for your work.

If you are struggling to find an opportunity to trial something innovative that has little supporting evidence, consider starting small to test the approach, or integrating it within a more trusted approach in the first instance.

When developing the proposal

Decide how ambitious you want to be

Think carefully and realistically about what you can achieve with the resources available, and what impact your activities will have. Funders increasingly want you to be visionary and innovative – but they also need to see that you are realistic and pragmatic. Describing a grounded ‘Theory of Change’ or ‘Pathway to Impact’ builds confidence in your proposal.

In the adaptation space, the work is futures-oriented, utilises applied research methodologies and/or aims to build adaptive capacity space.  This means it is especially pertinent to be realistic about your impact and the sustainability of your work after the funding period.

Co-produce your proposal as far as possible

Proposals are often written in a huge rush (sometimes even in the middle of the night or on the train). Sometimes it is hard to enrol the right people onto the team, let alone spend time working with local stakeholders to understand their concerns and priorities and integrate their inputs into the design. If there is no time to do this at proposal stage, consider building co-production into the design of your project. This could mean setting broad parameters for the kind of research or implementation activities that you intend to undertake, as well as a clear geographical area. Then identify local stakeholders that you will be engaging with to develop the project activities further, according to local needs and priorities, and drawing on local knowledge. Bear in mind that communities’ priorities might be quite different from what you initially had in mind.

If you do have the time to co-produce your proposal, there are some excellent resources to guide you in the co-production process from Indigo Development and Change, the Red Cross Climate Centre, and the Adaptation Handbook.

Image below: ASSAR engages with multiple groups of diverse stakeholders 


Look for opportunities to develop young practitioners and researchers through your project

We try to integrate postgraduate bursaries and interns into all of our proposals. Additionally, we consider the development of our staff in the design of new projects – for example, one ACDI research assistant has a Masters degree in Monitoring and Evaluation, and we try to include her in projects that will give her the opportunity to learn more about her field or apply her existing skillset. We then ‘tell the story’ of how and why we are developing this capacity through the project, linked to national scarce skills in the climate change and the environmental sector more broadly.

Include a clear, time-based activities framework

It is not sufficient to describe your ideas and methodologies in narrative form.  You also need to clearly define your activities, and illustrate how they build on each other in a multi-phased process. If you haven’t thought this through and spelt it out, there is a good chance that your proposal will be disqualified. For us, making the ideas of all the different team members fit together to form a coherent activities framework is the most exciting part of the process.

We usually include two diagrams in each proposal: one showing the various phases of work or project objectives, with associated activities and outputs. These would have been extracted from the terms of reference, using some creating interpretation. At the proposal stage we include outputs or deliverables that relate to how we will communicate with the funder, rather than the number of people trained or hectares of land restored, for example. But this will depend on the kind of project that you are designing and what you want to highlight.

Fictional example of one line of an activities framework (which would usually have three or four phases or objectives)

Project Objective Activity Associated Deliverable
Objective 1: Identify: i) available knowledge that deepens the understanding of vulnerabilities and adaptation responses in the South African agriculture sector; and ii) the processes and pathways of agents, practices and institutions in the production, use and transfer thereof.


Undertake desktop review

Identify and collate existing adaptation resources/ guidelines/ case studies relevant to the agricultural sector in South Africa.

Detailed technical work plan


Select agricultural value chains for in-depth study

Work with X and Y stakeholders to select climate-sensitive agricultural value chains for in-depth study.

Undertake policy analysis

Identify national policies (and related stakeholders) that influence the agricultural sector; environmental management; and climate change adaptation.

It is useful to show when these activities will take place over the course of the project and include the team members involved. If your proposal is successful, these two diagrams can be combined to form a project work plan, allowing your team to hit the ground running (as many funders expect).

Section of project work plan related to the objective outlined above

Activity Consultant days Field visits N D J F M A M
Undertake desktop review. Lead consultant / PI x 5

Disaster Risk Management specialist x 5

Technical project manager x 15

Research assistant x 7

1 x 1 week field visit to meet with X or Y stakeholder
Select agricultural value chains for in-depth study.
Undertake policy analysis.

Don’t be afraid to push back on the Terms of Reference

After reviewing a call from a large multilateral funder, our team felt that the prescribed number of person days and the requirements of the job were misaligned. We took the time to formulate comments and suggestions, and the funder subsequently revised the call. After a lot of brainstorming, we submitted a proposal and got the job. The back and forth with them at proposal stage showed that we were invested in the process, and that we took the quality of our work seriously.

Be impeccable

Always get someone to copy edit your work. Spend time creating a visually appealing proposal template. Use short, simple sentences. Attach every single one of the required documents in the format requested. If your proposal shines with care and effort, it will help it stand out from sloppier submissions.