Whether you're an employee or a contractor, you may find you need to write a proposal. Proposal writing is increasingly a part of many people's work roles.
Sometimes clients or buyers create requests for proposals and post them on online sites such as Alberta Purchasing Connection or Buy and Sell Canada. But you can also submit proposals without being invited.
The proposal format and criteria for submission will vary slightly for each client (for example, the number of copies to be made, the submission process or additional correspondence required).
The following proposal format is a guide. Find out what your potential client wants and modify this format accordingly.
Conduct prerequisite research
Do not skip this step. Find out all you can about the client:
- Identify the client’s primary contact for questions about the project. Ask who will read your proposal and how and when a decision will be made on whether your proposal is accepted.
- Identify the problem the client is trying to solve or what services are needed, what has been done in the past, what the client wants done in the future and what the approximate budget is.
- Determine what support and resources (space, reception services, office supplies) the client can provide and what support and resources you must provide. Potential clients are usually willing to tell you what they require.
- Find out the day and time the proposal is due. In most cases, proposals will not be accepted after the client’s deadline.
Your title page should include:
- the project name or title
- the client's name and address
- your organization's name and address
- the name, title, phone and fax numbers and email address of the person in your organization responsible for the proposal.
Do not number the title page.
Table of contents
Unless your proposal is very short, provide a table of contents. Do not number the table of contents page.
Decision-makers are often busy people who may have little time to read an entire proposal. To ensure that they understand key ideas in your proposal, highlight the need for the project and the outcomes of the project in the executive summary. Your goal is to get the decision-maker interested and prepared to read your entire proposal. Your executive summary should be 1 page or less.
Sometimes called the “Introduction,” the background section introduces your proposal and sets the stage for the remainder of the content. You should:
- identify the client’s problem
- briefly discuss your solution to the problem
- inform the reader about your organization
- state the expertise of your organization to solve the problem.
Assumptions or guiding principles
This section can be a subheading under the background section or a section itself. Tell the client about any underlying assumptions in your proposal. For example, a proposal to develop a new website may include the following assumption: all content for the new website will have to come from the client. This section can also address what the project will not include, such as the cost of new technology.
Goals or objectives
This section highlights the outcomes (what will be accomplished) or products to be delivered. Goals or objectives can take the form of services (for example, a workshop series to enhance staff productivity), knowledge or information (as in the case of research) or tangible products (such as resource materials). These forms of goals or objectives are sometimes referred to as "deliverables."
The method section should describe how your organization will reach the project goals and objectives. Outline the steps and order of the proposed actions. You may want to identify these actions as numbered stages, steps or phases. These actions often include a needs analysis, an outcome analysis, program design, program delivery and program evaluation.
Briefly explain each phase or step. Save detailed descriptions of specific methods for the appendices.
When a project requires a considerable amount of expertise to complete, you should identify the team for the project. Briefly list:
- the role each person will play in the project (for example, project manager, writer or graphic artist)
- the name and title of the person
- 3 to 5 key points that highlight the individual's qualifications.
The schedule section serves 2 purposes in your proposal. First, it shows the client when your organization will complete various tasks. Second, it enables the client to budget resources appropriately if the proposal is accepted. Find out the fiscal year of the prospective client. Many projects need to be completed by the end of the fiscal year. For the federal and provincial governments, this date is March 31.
The budget section should clearly show how your organization will expend the budgeted funds. The level of detail required in this section will vary greatly depending on the client, so do some background research here. Generally, budgets follow the sequence of steps in the method section and provide a cost for each deliverable.
After you have calculated your actual costs, add 35% for overhead costs such as project management, travel and printing costs. Do not provide an overhead line in the budget. Rather allocate overhead costs to the specific items (project management, fax/phone, support staff, travel and so on).
Appendices are optional. They include detailed information on items referred to in the body of the proposal. Examples of information that you might include in the appendices are detailed descriptions of procedures (explaining the nature and purpose of a survey or questionnaire), resumés of team members or an organization's promotional material.
Cover letter development
All proposals should be accompanied by a cover letter addressed to the primary client. In your cover letter:
- indicate how many copies of the proposal are enclosed
- identify the client request your proposal is responding to (for example, Invitation to Tender)
- describe your organization's interest in the project
- emphasize key features of the proposal
- show your willingness to answer further questions.
Proposal copies and delivery
After you complete the proposal and cover letter, you should carefully proofread them.
If your client requires that you submit the proposal in a printed format, use a high-quality printer and paper for the final proposal and cover letter. Bind the proposal (unless otherwise specified) in a cover that allows the title to be seen. Make the required number of copies for the client and keep an original unbound copy for yourself.
Whenever possible, hand deliver your printed proposal to the primary client. Personally delivering your proposal shows your organization’s enthusiasm for the project.
If it’s impractical for you to deliver the proposal yourself, have someone you know and trust deliver the proposal for you. If you courier the proposal, phone the client to confirm its arrival.
If you submit a digital copy of your proposal:
- compose a brief email
- identify the client request your proposal is responding to in the subject line
- attach the cover letter and proposal
- request a delivery receipt when you send the email (if you don’t receive a reply, phone or email to confirm your proposal’s receipt).
When delivering the proposal, ask when a decision will be made. If the date passes and you haven't received a response, feel free to call the primary client to obtain another decision date. If the client says your proposal has been rejected, be sure to ask why. Most clients are willing to provide feedback and suggestions. Client feedback is the best way to learn and to improve your future proposals.