This is part two of the Aidpreneur.com training on proposal development for RFA’s, RFPs and RFQs. In this section we’re going to talk about the critical elements that should be a part of every proposal to ensure your potential client or donor has all the information they need to make decision.I’ll be discussing eight elements: the background or statement of need, your personal or company profile, your technical solution, staffing and partners, your work plan, your budget or financial proposal, other client- or donor-specific requirements, and your executive summary or cover letter.
Let’s begin with the background or statement of need. If you’re like me, the background or statement of need section is always a little bit strange; if your potential client or donor has not already determined there is a need for your services, then why would they have created the call for proposals you are responding to, right? While I’m saying this a bit tongue-in-cheek, I think it’s a great way to approach developing the background or need statement. This section of your proposal is your opportunity not only to show that you understand the context in which you will be performing the work – things like geographic considerations, specific beneficiary needs, constraints or advantages, etc. – but also what your interpretation of the current context means. When you discuss the need your proposal will be addressing, you have the opportunity to provide your own insight about the situation and, most importantly, connect it to your specific proposed solution.
As an example, a tender seeking to increase enrollment and retention rates for girls in schools is a common thrust of many donor programs. Your understanding of why girls may or may not be attending school, or staying in school, should have significant bearing upon your proposed solution for making a change. Do you believe that curricula are inadequate? Is there a need for teacher training? Or is there a proxy situation in which there’s a need for adequate sanitation facilities? All of these could be potential answers or proposed solutions to the same identified client problem. Because this perspective needs to be owned by the team of people who will be implementing your solution, I recommend that this portion of your proposal be written by your technical staff.
A second critical section of any proposal is your personal or company profile. Whether you are an independent professional or a company, this is the section in which you tell your story. And, as we talk about in the market leadership section of our Aidpreneur training, your story is an incredibly powerful tool because it provides an opportunity for your audience to connect with you in a very tangible way. In this profile section, at a minimum you should discuss your history – which is essentially the story of your evolution about how you got where you are today. If you are a company, this is also a good time to underscore why you exist, which is often times an essential cornerstone for NGOs or advocate groups. You should also discuss your capacity for performing the work. This includes things like where your staff are located, what is your ability to mobilize and perform the work you’ll be proposing, and how can you set your potential clients mind at ease about your ability to take on the size of project you’re proposing. This is also a section in which you can include past performance references, although I recommend you include only references that are relative to the work you are proposing – it doesn’t make sense to try and bolster your proposal on youth capacity building by talking about a project you performed earlier on land rights registration (unless there is some common thread between the two). Finally, while it may seem obvious to you, this is also the section for you to explain why you actually are in expert in the technical solution you’re proposing, and provide reasons or credentials that make a credible case to your potential donor client.
Unless you’re working for a well-established, large NGO organization, you should be focusing on one or a very small set of niches. If this is the case, your profile information can and should be somewhat boilerplate. This is an area in which you can gain efficiency in proposal writing by not having to reinvent or re-create the wheel every time. This section should be tweaked by junior staff to make sure it fits or answers specific requirements in the tender if necessary.
A third section necessary to every proposal is the technical solution. This is one of the highest value parts of the proposal and is unique to every different tender and every different proposal. Because of this uniqueness, I’m not able to offer specifics about how to craft your technical solution – that should be something closely tied with the reason why your organization exists, some technology you have developed, some process or protocol that is unique, or some other value you can add as an individual or company that no one else can.
That said, every technical solution must include the following four pieces: first, you should have clearly stated and achievable objectives. This is your commitment to your client about what it is that you will achieve with the money they give you. Second, you should provide a detailed description of the methods you will use to achieve your objectives. Unless you’re limited by length requirements, I’m a big believer that the more detail you can offer, the better. This is your opportunity to show that you have truly thought through the entire project and understand which levers you will pull to facilitate change. Third, you should describe how you will monitor your progress. Your client or donor is providing you with money to implement a solution, and responsibly manage that money through the implementation. You need to give them confidence that you’ll be on top of the game every step of the way. Finally, your technical solution must be specific about how you will demonstrate success, or how you will demonstrate your objective has been achieved. Because many of us are in the business of creating social change, while this is one of the most important pieces of your technical solution, it can also be one of the trickiest to get right. However, with funding scarcity becoming more and more of a problem, it’s essential to show your potential client that your solution is realistic, achievable and measurable.
Because of the specific nature of the technical solution section, as you might guess, it should be written by your technical staff and vetted by your project managers. This ensures that you have both the detailed understanding of how you will deliver on your promise, with a heavy dose of reality about being able to manage and perform the work within your budget and time constraints.
A fourth section required for every proposal is the staffing and partner section. While your technical solution provides the detail about the work you will perform and the value you’ll ultimately add, it’s difficult to underestimate the importance of the staffing and partner section. Ultimately, this is where you provide details about the people, and potentially other companies, on whom the client will rely to deliver the solution and achieve the proposed objectives. In my experience, your choice for staff and partners is often a make or break proposition for winning the proposed work.
Staffing can essentially be broken into two sections: a management section that provides detail about who will be overseeing the project and ultimately ensuring its delivery and professional management, and a technical staff section that provides detail about who will be the “boots on the ground” and actually providing the value added service. Beyond providing bios, CVs and other details about the individuals and partners, it’s also important to include a description or chart that clearly lays out who is responsible for what with the program. Again, this not only demonstrates you clearly thought through the staffing you will need to properly implement your proposed solution, but that you also have clear lines of communication, oversight and responsibility.
I recommend that this section be written by your management or project leadership because, ultimately, they will have the responsibility of leading this team and you want to make sure they have a structure in place they feel comfortable with.
A fifth section required in every proposal is your work plan. This is another opportunity for you to demonstrate to your potential client or donor that you have clearly thought through all of the details about how your program or project will unfold over the allotted time. This is usually presented through some version of the Gantt chart, but you should remember that, generally, donors love detail and this is your opportunity to provide that detail about why you’ve chosen this plan. Obviously, your work plan should also be in lockstep with your technical solution section. As with your technical solution, I recommend that this section be written by your technical staff but vetted by your management.
The sixth section every proposal requires is the budget or financial proposal. In many cases, the financial proposal is a completely separate document to satisfy the needs of a truly blind tendering process. This is done so that your potential client or donor can consider your technical solution on its merits alone in comparison with other technical solutions, without any consideration for financial requirements. In theory, this ensures that the best technical solution will be chosen. However, technical solutions eventually bump up against financial considerations, so sometimes the second or even third place technical solution may end up receiving the work.
As with the technical solution, the specifics of your budget or financial proposal will be unique to your response and the work being proposed. The intricacies of developing a highly competitive financial proposal are covered in great detail here at Aidpreneur and I encourage you to review those trainings as well. For the purposes of this training I offer three pieces of advice: first, make sure you follow your potential donor client requirement about how much detail or information you should provide. Sometimes this can be one lump sum, and sometimes they require line item detail down to the penny. In almost all cases it’s in your interest to provide explanations behind the numbers, either in-line in the proposal or as an annex. Second, build out your budget based on your technical solution and work plan. Put them on a whiteboard, or have them side-by-side on the screen as you’re developing your budget so that every component of your program is reflected in your financial proposal (or vice versa) and you’re not leaving money on the table or, even more importantly, you’re not proposing work that you ultimately won’t get paid for. Finally, you should not be shy about including costs for running your practice or business. Your clients and donors understand that you need to keep the lights on, have an office to work in and pay support staff.
I recommend, if possible, that your finished proposal be prepared by a budget specialist from either your technical or management team and then vetted by the technical staff, management staff and by your financial officer. You really want to make sure that you get this section correct.
A seventh section that every proposal may have, contains “other” tender-specific requirements. For example, in the case of submissions for USAID, you’ll need to include certifications and representations. If you’re working with some large NGOs you’ll need to include certifications on adhering to children’s rights or human rights. Other organizations or donors may have other specific requirements that are unique to them, and as a part of prioritizing your opportunities, you should ensure that you know all of these unique requirements so you’re not shut out on a technicality. The good news is, this section can be handled by your junior staff as is normally an exercise of gathering financial information or signatures.
The final, or eighth, section that every proposal requires is the executive summary or cover letter. You’ve probably heard this 20 times before, but I’ll say it again: this should always be written last. Last, last, last, last. Practically speaking, you want to write this last because you want to have everything else in place before you attempt to summarize. If you don’t, you’ll just end up rewriting or having to adjust your executive summary, causing inefficiencies and general heartache. Competitively speaking, you want to make sure you reserve adequate time to craft an executive summary or cover letter that will really speak to the donor and put your best foot forward. These are the first words they will read, and sometimes (if we’re being completely honest) the only words they will read. This is your first impression. Take the time to make sure you knock their socks off in that 1 to 3 pages. I recommend handing this section to your very best writer, whether they are on the technical or management team, and don’t be afraid to polish, polish, polish.
While the content of these eight sections should ensure you have provided adequate information to your potential donor a client, there are a number of pitfalls I’ve seen over the last decade that can immediately exclude your proposal from serious consideration. This is the topic of the next training section. Thank you for watching this section of proposal development for RFAs, RFPs and RFQs at Aidpreneur. Please remember, if you have any questions at all, contact us at training@Aidpreneur.com.