How to write a Proposal – Proposal Structure
- Proposal Writing
Setting up the proposal’s structure
I believe you have the right skills for the job, I believe in your good intentions and in the fact that you want to make a good impression, otherwise you would not be reading this… But to the evaluator, your proposal is just another document to read!
If you want to get funds, you need to gain the attention of the evaluator and make him curious about the rest of the document right from the start. This will give you two outcomes:
- The evaluators will be curious about you (a win in itself);
- They will be willing to pay more attention to what you write.
The four beats of a proposal
Regardless of the type of proposal (private, public, call for tender, spontaneous submission…) this structure, or mental framework, applies.
Imagine there are four “beats” to your proposal:
- Organisation and Staffing
Each one of them serves a purpose, and the value of each one is based on the value of the previous one.
Those four beats need a rhythm, they should provide the reader with a coherent “story”. Don’t fill them up with details, let them show the bigger picture. Kick all the details in the annexes and reference the annexes in your text wherever you need to. This way you don’t lose details and your project description flows better.
Structure of a proposal
This post follows the basic layout structure of a proposal: the framework to present your project and to ultimately access funds.
Remember: this structure is not static. If you need to modify it, do so, but try to limit the changes to the layout within the chapters and keep the four “beats” as they are.
Once again, if you are following along as you write a proposal: remember to follow the 6 rules.
How to read this post
To follow this postyou need two things:
- This post (you should be settled with that);
- The proposal template.
The basis of everything is the document: that is an actual proposal structure that you can use, work on and submit however you please. The post follows exactly the same paragraphs of the proposal template and provides instructions and examples for each section.
Namely, I’m now using two types of paragraphs for you:
|Boxed paragraphs are direct examples of what you could write in a proposal. It’s an example of how a part of the text could look like in that section. Note that they are NOT connected: each box refers to a different theoretical project.|
Non-boxed paragraphs, on the other hand, are guidelines and tips on how to write that chapter or paragraph.
Clear? If not completely, don’t worry, it will get a lot clearer once we start. For now, get ready with the download and welcome to your proposal.
1 – Introduction
(Beat 1) This is THE most important part of your proposal, and this is why you should think about it twice: in the beginning, to figure out and jot down what your main points should be, and at the end, to write it coherently with the rest of your proposal.
The point is, reviewers must go through hundreds of proposals: most of them are poorly written, not detailed enough, and simply boring.
Do you want to grab an evaluator’s attention? Describe, in HALF TO ONE PAGE:
- Who you are;
- Why you are a good choice for this project;
- Why you can do it better than others.
Bear in mind, this page is your business card. Make it interesting and concise, use bullet points, and tell the evaluators what makes you unique for this project.
Specifically, once you’ve written your whole proposal, think about this section, and based on what you wrote to convince the evaluator you are the best, think about what your Unique Selling Points (USP) are. A USP is whatever you have to offer that is relevant to the project that nobody else possesses.
|Our team: Yellow Ltd, Blu GmbH and Red E.V., is proud to submit this proposal titled….We are convinced that our current mix of skills and experience, together with our suggested methodology, represents the best option for successfully carrying out this project. Namely, we can count on:
Feel free to elaborate a bit more on each point, but make sure you stick to the essential, you’ll have plenty of space later. Keep it to max one page, and keep each bullet point to 3 to 5 lines.
2 – Current context and proposal structure
(Beat 2) Your job now is to convince the evaluators that you know what the current situation is, and that you are not absolutely clueless!
Consider three sections:
- Context and background: what is the situation as of now? Why is the current status not good and needs intervention?
- Existing sources of information: how do we know this is the situation as of now, what can we check to find out more?
- Outline of this proposal: tell the evaluators what they will find in the coming pages and chapters.
Context and background
The assumption behind a proposal is that there is a problem to solve. The reason you write a proposal is because you can solve it. This is the point of this paragraph.
Keeping it short and precise, write your paragraphs answering to ALL the questions below:
- What is the current situation?
- What are the reasons behind this situation?
- Are we sure, these are the real reasons? How do we know that these are the real ones and not other ones?
- Has anything been done about this before?
- If yes: has it worked? How much? What didn’t work?
- If no: why not? Who should have done something?
- What do we have to do now?
- Why is this the best strategy and not another one?
- If we do this correctly, what will the outcome be?
Depending on your project and on the scoring criteria, you are looking at a text anywhere between 1 and 3 pages.
While writing this section, try to balance accuracy and conciseness. You want to be able to showcase your knowledge, but without cluttering the page. A good rule, even more for this section, is to write in all you can and then start taking out and regrouping. Rapid writing and cooperative writing come in handy here.
Existing sources of information
This part aims to show that what you wrote in the context and background paragraph is based on solid information. To do this, you will list all the relevant sources you have used for having a good understanding on the context.
Please note that this section is not always necessary (it works better for research projects), but even if you choose to skip it, you should still apply this idea in other parts of the proposal (e.g. in the methodology section of a market analysis based on competitors’ products).
Depending on the project and amount of sources at your disposal, you can either write extensive paragraphs on each one, or provide a table with the titles, that is entirely up to you. If you go for paragraphs, keep it around 10 lines max.
Listing your own sources shows the reader that you are able to develop solid information on your own and that you are already in the topic. Make sure you reference any external appraisal you received for anything you list.
Literature and websites
You can either group literature and websites together or separate them in two paragraphs, up to you. Depending on the project, you can decide to use bullet points, a table or paragraphs to describe your sources.
Outline of this proposal
This section serves two purposes:
- It reminds the evaluator where everything is (an in-document table of contents if you wish);
- It allows you to guide the evaluator to your eligibility requirements. For example if the call states that you need to have at least 15 full-time members, you can indicate where they can find this in the proposal. It saves them time, and evaluators like that!
|This proposal is organized as follows:
3 – Methodology
(Beat 3) This is the core of the proposal. This is where, once you have built up the interest of the evaluators and you have proven you know the context, you need to convince them that you are able to deliver what they want.
Remember, the evaluator has already read the context and you already told him that your proposed solution is the right one. Your task, now, is to prove it.
Goals of the project
This can be two-three lines, but they have to be clear and to the point. State the goal of the project, its expected output and expected outcome.
|The goal of this project is to develop software for analysing start-up engagement in the region of Salta, Argentina, to implement it and to use its results to enter the market with a responding product. The software is to be programmed with scalability and replicability in other potential markets in mind for possible future market expansions (e.g. Brasil, Uruguay).|
It doesn’t leave much room for interpretation, does it? Well, that’s how it should be. You can’t afford to be vague in a proposal, ever.
Tools and techniques to be used
You can keep or exclude this paragraph, depending on the situation. It makes sense to provide an overview of your tools and techniques in a separate paragraph if you’ll be using a lot of them (e.g. Cost-Benefit analysis, multivariate regression, desk research and your own models). If it’s just desk research and implementation maybe a separate paragraph isn’t necessary, but again, that depends on the project.
Either way, keep it short – you’ll have plenty of space to describe your tools in detail in the annexes.
Yellow has developed the Aqua-WERN model in the course of 3 years. It uses live data from sensors in all dykes and river mouths in Norway to precisely calculate the risk of flooding in any major city. The software uses the received hourly data as input for a Multi-GARCH model. For each calculation, the software automatically compares about 3.000 possible models to choose the one with the best predictive capability. Further details on the Aqua-WERN model are provided in Annex 3.
Detailed methodological approach
We are slowly approaching the most difficult phase: writing the methodology. Before we go on, I’d like to stop for a second and give you a taste of what you can expect in the coming pages. By now, you should have already invested a few hours on this project, and you have a good general understanding of the situation. If you don’t, stop writing and study the context better, otherwise your methodology won’t be as focused.
A methodology is divided in different parts called work packages (WPs). Each work package is divided in tasks, which might in turn be divided in subtasks. All this architecture forms the methodological framework: a series of steps you have to follow in order to achieve your stated project goal (the one you stated above, to be clear).
Before diving in the framework head-first, however, you need to prepare. This is where all the writing techniques. Pick one of the techniques used to generate content and literally start playing around with it. Use it to create a general methodology and a series of steps. In a fairly short time you will have it down.
Don’t get carried away though, this is just the beginning. Before you go on, answer these questions:
|Do I know the goal of my project?|
|Do I have the resources to carry out this project?|
|Do I need consortium partners? If yes, for what?|
|Do I have a breakdown of my WPs?|
|Do I roughly know in what order I need to place the WPs?|
|How do the WPs connect to each other? Is the output of one or more WPs the input of one or more WPs?|
Having done that, you can start developing your overview. Always remember the rules of hierarchy (we’ll get into that in another post…).
This section does not need to be extremely detailed, but it should give the reader an idea of what intend to do. The work you have done until now will have given you that idea, you now have to transfer it on paper.
The best tool for this section is a simple diagram, representing all your work packages throughout the project. A simple one in MS Power Point will do (even though MS Visio will do a much better job).
See, this scheme does not provide any sort of detail; it is just a reference for the reader. You can go more in detail if you want (and actually I’d encourage you to be creative!). The clearer this scheme is, the easier it is for the evaluator to follow your methodology.
Also, consider who you are talking to and adapt the style to your audience (i.e. an academic grant requires a different language to a proposal for a public tender or for a private investor).
The inception phase is not always necessary, but it’s a nice add-on. It is actually more appropriate for public tenders or for academic grants, not so much for private investors.
Simply put, the inception phase is the moment of your project in which you “get ready”, meaning you meet up with the investor / public body, talk in detail about the plan, make sure your understanding of the project’s goals is mutual and so on. Suggesting a kick-off meeting for this phase is always a good idea. In case it’s too expensive, Skype will also do the trick.
State in the text that you will finish up with an inception report. This will be a summary of the meeting subject to the client’s approval – this way you will also have a written reference of what you agreed.
Work Package 1
|WP Leader||Company name (only necessary for a consortium)|
|Duration||Month 1 to Month 4|
This is where most people face a wall! Strangely enough, when it comes to clearly describing what you intend on doing in a work package, having a clear idea in your head is not enough. Luckily, there are two workarounds:
- Writing techniques
We have already gone through writing techniques, so that should be covered. What I am interested in now is the work package structure.
Mentally divide each WP in three sections: what, why, how – and answer to:
- What are you going to do?
- Why is this important for the project?
- How are you going to do it?
1 and 2 can be a two-liner, 3 could and should be longer and detailed, highlighting tasks, techniques, tools and anything that can explain your reasoning. I know, this might sound rigid, and as a matter of fact it is. But for a reader (and for you), this is an easy framework to follow.
|What||Identify topic or issue the WP has to solve|
|Identify the WP goal, output and outcome|
|Why||State what will happen if you do it right|
|How||State what you need to do it right|
|Outline your step-by-step (task by task) procedure for this WP|
Remember to keep it light. If a WP proves to be complicated, use a diagram, or consider splitting it in two separate WPs. As a general rule, cover one topic per WP or Task. This makes structuring the document easier.
|The key objective of this work package is to set up a comprehensive dissemination strategy via an online platform that will develop to an independent website beyond the project timeline. This will benefit the project in terms of building awareness. Furthermore, this will set an information base to serve as a reference for the whole sector, contributing to building knowledge on the topic.In this WP, regional institutions will have both an analytical and a mediating role. They will need to create data for the analysis independently and, in parallel, present them on the platform. The regional partners will furthermore integrate all received feedback in the analysis for a total of three rounds.The process is structured in three tasks. In Task 1 the WP Leader will set up the platform requirements and forward them to the IT subcontractor and the partners. In Task 2 the regional institutions will work on collecting data and analysing results. The WP leader will act as a supervisor, ensuring that all partners operate on the same page. Task 3 will focus on communicating via the platform and collecting feedback; each partner will act individually under the supervision of the WP Leader.|
I read a good quote once: “Don’t tell me what you’re going to do, tell me how many bodies you’re going to bring home!” – Got the idea? 😉
Usually, a work package is split into different tasks, which might be split into subtask if necessary. A task is nothing more than a step that you need to carry out to within a Work Package. For example, you could consider the following:
- Work Package 1 – Research
- Task 1.1 – Draft a research template
- Task 1.2 – Collect sources of information
- Task 1.3 – Desk research
- Task 1.4 – Contact experts.
So, this means that in order to carry out the research (the WP), first you should draft a template to fill in, second you should research and collect all available sources of information, third do your work on those sources and fill up the template, and fourth talk to some experts to gain additional insights.
Work Package Y: dissemination
Depending on your project, dissemination may receive more or less resources, but it is always important to have it in there. Whether you are developing a study for a Government or an association, or you are working for a private client, you want your results to be heard (unless they are confidential, of course).
Either way, the point is that you should build your dissemination strategy already in your proposal. Keep the following in mind as a reference:
- Presence on the web and social media. Possibly, set up a website and present it to all your contacts so they can follow the evolution of the project. Hire an SEO professional to make sure your message is heard.
- Interim and final workshop (launch, in case of a product)
- Contact with relevant stakeholders, better still, hire a media or PR agency specifically for this task
- Newsletter with relevant contacts, make sure you explain in the proposal text that you already have a network for these newsletters. Better still, say you already have a newsletter with x receivers in place and you would use it as a channel (that is, if you have such a newsletter, otherwise build it!).
Work package X: Internal quality control
Quality control and backstopping are appreciated in public tenders and grants – but they are assumed to be part of the routine in the private sector. Keep this difference in mind!
This paragraph does not need to be too long – but it should provide the name and role of a person (normally outside of the core project team) entrusted with overlooking the process and results and ensuring that the outputs are up to standard (quality control). In case they are not, or in case a problem arises, he or she can intervene in the process and halt it to solve the issue (backstopping).
|Mr. Johan Sevindra will be in charge of Quality Control and Backstopping in this project. Johan can count on 20+ years of experience on the topic and will personally review every deliverable and meeting minutes to ensure the Consortium’s performance is up to industry standards throughout the project.|
4 – Organisation and staffing
(Beat 4) This is the last “beat”, in which you showcase your team. Remember that if there are any skills requirements (e.g. 10 years working in developing countries) you need to highlight them.
Project management / quality control
Briefly point out names and roles of the project team. A table is a good idea.
|Jeremy Matthews||15||Yellow Ltd.||CEO|
|Marie Les Fleurs||10||Ganem GmbH||Senior Consultant|
|Luca Alberti||6||Ganem GmbH||Consultant|
|John Corner||5||Merp S.p.A||Research Head|
|Rianne Loewens||3||Yellow Ltd.||Developer|
|Ted Archer||1||Merp S.p.A||Researcher|
|Tim Lewis||1||Merp S.p.A||Researcher|
|Alfonso Rubens||20||Yellow Ltd.||Quality control|
If you need to modify the table (e.g. spoken languages, countries lived in…), go for it – adapt it to the message you want to convey and to what the client wants to know.
This is optional, depending on the weight you place on quality control and backstopping. Otherwise, list this person in the table above (as in the example). Of course, this should be the same person you mentioned in the methodology.
Project Timeline, Milestones and Deliverables
Right, you made it to this point describing the situation, the reason why they should hire you and your methodology for your project. Now it’s time to address the timing of your project.
In this section, you need to tell the reader what will take place at what time, and when he or she should expect to receive results.
Best way to do it: use my Gantt Chart template.
What the evaluator does not know is the WP placement in time. This is where this diagram comes in handy.
A couple of notes:
- Don’t come up with this out of the blue, this should be coherent with the project overall timeline, the person-days you have available (or are willing to request) and your methodology’s structure. Therefore, plan with timing in mind from the beginning.
- Develop this together with the budget. In other words: if your budget requests financing for 150 person-days for a team of 5 (therefore 5 people working 30 days each) and your project is 4 years long, there might be something wrong.
- If you include a legend with the names of the deliverables, make sure you mention each deliverable both in the table and in the methodology. If an evaluator is wondering what the “Interim Budget” deliverable is at this point, you probably need to clarify your proposal.
- This table should be easy to read, if you can’t fit everything clearly on a vertical page, flip one page of the document 90° (horizontal layout) and build a full-page table.
- It is a lot easier to build this table in excel with the budget and to copy-paste it in the word document later on.
Just to make sure that you make no mistakes and that the evaluator understands everything, it’s a good idea to provide a recap of deliverables and meetings, listing WHAT you will deliver, WHEN and IN WHAT WP. In the example below, I have divided deliverables (sometimes called milestones) from meetings so that it would be clearer. Please note this is just an example and bears no connection with the timeline on the previous page.
|The following milestones are envisioned in the different WP / Our team intends to deliver the following within this project / Below, a list of deliverables, to be agreed upon with the client, is presented:
|As a minimum, these meetings will be held / Our team intends to regularly meet with the client in the following occasion / Representatives of the consortium intend to coordinate with the client on the following occasions:
As you can see, this way the reader has a clear overview of what takes place where. You could also recall each deliverable in its work package in the methodology, this way the reader will have an even better picture of your project.
This is where you will showcase your team. It goes without saying: they should be the same people listed in the table.
Don’t fall into the trap of providing too much detail, not yet! All you need is a ten-line resume of each one of your experts. This will give the evaluator the chance of digging in a bit more into the skills of your team without having to go through pages and pages of CVs. Hint: adapt the description of each team member to suit the skills need of the project.
Below, we provided short CVs of our project team.Jeremy Matthews is the CEO of Yellow Ltd. Matthew funded Yellow Ltd. following 15 years of experience as a camp director in developing countries for international organisations such as the Red Cross and Emergency. He has been seconded as Minister’s advisor for the UK’s Ministry of external affairs in 1998 and kept that position for 6 years. He holds a PhD in Economics and has worked in more than 18 countries around the world, including Ghana, the DRC and Oman. He is fluent in English, French and Arabic and has working knowledge of German and Portuguese.
Jonathan Golder is…
Annex A – CVs
Include here all the CVs of your team – use a standard format that is simple to understand and short to read. Ideally:
- 1-2 pages max
- Use the same structure for ALL members (or at least try)
- Use page breaks after each one of them
- Make separate chapters for each company / organisation and group the CVs of the team according to their company. In case of freelancers, either use a separate chapter or group them under the company they have a contract with.
- Sometimes, calls request specific formats for CVs. The European Commission’s official CV template is called Europass, however it is not a requirement to have your CV in that form (and I believe it is a fairly complex and verbose template). In some cases, a specific format may be a requirement. Below, have a look the template belonging to the World Bank as an example:
World Bank CV template
- Family name:
- First names:
- Date of birth:
- Civil status:
(Date from – Date to)
|Degree(s) or Diploma(s) obtained:|
- Language skills: Indicate competence on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 – excellent; 5 – basic)
- Membership of professional bodies:
- Other skills:
- Present position:
- Years within the firm:
- Key qualifications: (Relevant to the project)
- Specific experience in the region:
- Professional Experience Record:
|Date: from – to:|
For more information on World Bank’s formats and templates please refer to their website.
Annex B – Project references
This is essential (of course) if project references are required. If they are not, refer to your judgement and to the type of project and decide on that basis whether to include them or not.
Note that they should not just “fill up space” but should be relevant to the work you need to do – they should prove that you have sufficient experience to carry out your methodology.
You can use the example below. Sometimes (for the World Bank, for example) you need to use specific formats.
|Insert Project Name|
|Client||Insert Client name|
|Dates||Insert Start date – end date|
|Insert project description|
World Bank reference template (provided as an example)
|Location within Country:|
|Name of Client and Phone Number||Number of Staff:|
|Address:||Number of Staff-Months; Duration of Assignment:|
|Start Date (Month/Year):||Completion Date (Month/Year):||Approx. Value of Services (€):|
|Name of Senior Staff (Project Director/Coordinator, Team Leader) Involved and Functions Performed:|
|Narrative Description of Project:|
|Description of Actual Services Provided by Your Staff:|
For more information on World Bank’s formats and templates please refer to the World Bank’s website.
Right, we are done for this part – I hope you enjoyed this post! We still need to get into the budget (money talks…) – but hey, I’ve got a post for that!
If you’d like another perspective on the matter, this page also offers a very good overview of how to write a proposal.
Also, if you are looking for specific Horizon 2020 information, I suggest you contact me and talk bilaterally to me.
Any question or comment, hit me up via mail or comment below – oh and share my brothers, do not forget to share! 😉
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I learned yesterday from Jan Knaack that you are on board of BSW now – congrats and i hope your work-life balance will even improve there ;-). We’ve crossed each other briefly at eclareon and so i was somewhat curious about your path which made me land on your blog.
Although i have written some proposals many years ago and may be led to write some more in the future for projects in Africa, i went through your 3 articles and find them quite helpful so that i may return here again. Are you still planning to publish your 4th post on ‘Proposal-specific writing tips’ ?
Sunny regards, Olivier
Hi Olivier, yes I’ve joined the BSW team now 😉 Thanks for your comments – I’ve put quite a lot of effort in the articles and I’m always happy to receive feedback! I haven’t had time to finalise the fourth one yet. It’s in draft form but I still need to edit it well… It will come in the next 3-4 weeks I think!