Young Girl with LaptopWhen you write a proposal, you want to show off your knowledge, your creativity, and your cool technology. Clients want something much simpler. They want what they asked for, in the order they asked for it, using the language and terminology they used in their Request for Proposals (RFP). While this seems like a no brainer, reviewers have told me over and over that at least 70% of proposals do not follow instructions and do not address the criteria outlined in the RFP. Sadly, all of these end up in the reject pile. The good news for you is that you can cut your competition to 30% in a single blow by giving the clients what they want.

Behind the scenes a committee will be reviewing your proposal with a checklist and a rating scale so make it easy for them. Your challenge is to work within the structure provided and still demonstrate your competitive edge. Whether you are writing a brief letter proposal or responding to a full-fledged formal RFP, the type of information you provide is basically the same; only the amount of detail varies. Make sure you cover the following ten topics:

1. A cover letter or paragraph thanking the client for the opportunity to respond. Provide relevant points about your track record, an overview of what the proposal contains, and why you are interested in this study. This functions like an executive summary so write it last.

2. Your experience or corporate background, special skills, relevant studies that highlight the requirements of this RFP, and your approach to working with clients. Sometimes details about former projects are required such as skills used, total project value, duration, and completion dates. Provide references and don't forget to ask their permission. Contacting former clients is a good marketing opportunity anyway because you can remind them about how much they liked your work.

3. A short description of the study purpose and objectives. Some tweaking may be possible here but make sure the objectives are still recognizable. Demonstrate your understanding of the clients' needs and issues but don't drown them in technical jargon.

4. A detailed description of study methodology. This is where you can get fairly technical but you should match your language to the clients' interest and knowledge level. This is not an academic treatise. Build a logical pathway from their problem to your solution explaining how you will implement each method. Identify any potential limitations or risks that you see at this point and indicate how you will address them. Mention the particular strengths of your approach as well as any ethical considerations, data security needs, confidentiality requirements, and other research considerations.

5. Team members in decreasing order of responsibility. Refer to brief, targeted CVs that are appended to the proposal. If you are working alone, highlight some of your most relevant skills in the context of recently completed work. Take the time to tailor your CV for this project and keep it short.

6. A brief task analysis and a schedule of activities. Indicate specific project tasks, the individual responsible for them, the number of days for each task, and timelines. Use a table and a Gant chart here.

7. The budget, presented last but done first. Don't be distracted by the project's interesting literature, the fascinating client, or the new methodology you are dying to try. By grappling with the cold, hard reality demanded by a spreadsheet, and by enumerating project tasks, staffing, number of days, and associated costs, project feasibility will become startlingly clear. Why spend time on a proposal for a project that you can't afford to take on? Do the budget first.

8. A schedule of payments specifying your financial expectations. Indicate that you will submit regular invoices supported by status reports. If appropriate, consider asking for larger payments for key deliverables and more modest ones for monthly milestones. Remember your cashflow needs. You have to stay in business.

9. A list of deliverables as stated in the RFP. Describe each briefly. You may want to provide "value added" deliverables such as a detailed work plan or an evaluability assessment. Offer a PowerPoint presentation in conjunction with your final report. Present a draft version of the report's Table of Contents.

10. Technical requirements will vary by client. They are particularly onerous for formal RFPs and can take a lot of time to compile so prepare them early. Make sure you have read all the fine print. You don't want to run around at the last minute trying to find some elusive, misfiled document. Requirements may include certifications, proof of insurance, and declarations related to conflict of interest, rate confirmation, use of sub-contractors, or assignment of copyright. Your tax identifier or business number will be required as well. Be very clear about the bid closing date, time, and destination and follow any special conditions. For example, is an electronic version acceptable or are physical copies required? If so, how many? If you need to use a courier, have a couple of different delivery options in mind. Try as you may, you could still be working against the clock as the courier pick-up time approaches so give yourself a little leeway. Worse, you never know when a major weather event or a computer glitch could intervene. Your proposal's destination may be a huge mail room so ensure that your package gets the attention it deserves. Address it according to instructions to ensure it has a quick trip to the appropriate client's desk.

Winning proposals persuade the client that this consultant will give them exactly what they need. From your perspective, having proven yourself by surviving this arduous proposal preparation process, you are now pumped to take on this new challenge.

Next up: Double Loop Learning for Consultants

See: Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.

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